Post-Brexit Procurement: new European Commission (short) guidance, and some broader thoughts

The European Commission has published its 18 January 2018 Notice to stakeholders on 'Withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of public procurement' (the 'Brexit and procurement notice). This notice is without prejudice to the previously disclosed European Commission position paper on the effects on procurement procedures that are on-going on Brexit day, and of current negotiating efforts to agree on a EU-UK withdrawal agreement. The notice simply sets out the legal implications that would result from a 'cliff-edge' scenario, which the Commission considers necessary in 'view of the considerable uncertainties, in particular concerning the content of a possible withdrawal agreement'.

The Brexit and procurement notice is thus what I would call a 'no deal information sheet'. It sets out the effects that would arise from a UK EU exit without a ratified withdrawal agreement and without an extension of the 2-year period following the Article 50 notification of 29 March 2017. Thus, the Brexit and procurement notice is necessarily limited in its scope and simply lays out the immediate consequences of the UK becoming a third country with no access to the single market. Those effects would result in a significant loss of economic advantages and procedural guarantees in all procurement procedures subject to EU law that started on 30 March 2019 or thereafter.

It is important to stress that those effects would not be mitigated by WTO rules (the general default position in other trade areas) because general WTO rules do not cover public procurement--which is rather covered by a separate multilateral agreement within the context of WTO membership, the  Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA). As detailed in a recent article, the UK is not a party to the WTO GPA and it would need to seek fresh accession after Brexit [see P Telles & A Sanchez-Graells, 'Examining Brexit Through the GPA’s Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?' (2017) 47(1) Public Contract Law Journal 1-33]. 

Consequently, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement or transition period, as of 30 March 2019, there would be no legal framework ensuring privileged access to the single public procurement market for UK economic operators. This is clearly spelled out in the Commission's Brexit and procurement notice, which highlights the following consequences:

  • UK economic operators will have the status of operators from a third country with which the EU does not have any agreement providing for the opening of the EU procurement market. The consequences of this may not be immediately obvious, but one that I would raise is their potential loss of the right to challenge procurement decisions against their interests in the EU jurisdictions that operate strict reciprocal mechanisms (for a survey and additional analysis, see here). Other consequences would follow from the unwinding of important administrative collaboration mechanisms, which I discuss below.
  • In utilities procurement, covering the areas of water, energy, transport and postal services, tenders offering more than 50% of products originating from the UK may be rejected--given that the Utilities Directive affords this possibility where the third country does not afford comparable and effective access for EU undertakings to its markets, which would be the situation in a 'no-deal' UK EU exit. Even if not subject to outright rejection, tenders including more than 50% UK content would be disadvantaged because the contracting entities shall not award them the contract if there are equivalent offers with less than 50% of the products originating in third countries.
  • In defence procurement, there would also be significant impacts for UK tenderers, as the Defence and Security Procurement Directive allows EU Member States to decide whether or not to allow economic operators from third countries to participate in their defence and security procurement procedures. Equally, even if UK tenderers were allowed to participate, EU Member States would no longer have to accept their UK security clearances on grounds of mutual recognition. As the Commission stresses, this may lead to the exclusion of operators relying on a UK security clearance in EU defence and security public procurement procedures, unless and until they obtained additional ones from the relevant EU Member State.

These may seem minor issues, but I would certainly argue they are not. In particular because those effects would be mirrored in domestic UK procurement, where EU economic operators would face equivalent consequences. In written evidence submitted to a House of Lords enquiry last year, I made some observations that are as relevant now as they were then:

  1. Bilateral UK-EU procurement-related trade can be estimated at around 15% of the total value of procurement, or close to 2.5% of GDP. This includes both direct and indirect cross-border procurement-related trade. The magnitude is larger if access to WTO GPA markets is considered.
  2. The UK’s exposure to public procurement-related trade in services in the EU is particularly relevant; the UK alone accounts for 84 % of the total value procured at EU level in awards of more than 100 million euros (approx. £85 mn).
  3. Losing the possibility of this cross-border trade would clearly be detrimental to the UK public sector, which would be at risk of not obtaining top quality services and/or facing increased prices from reduced competition amongst domestic suppliers. UK businesses would also be negatively affected if they lost the option of direct and indirect trade in services to the EU.
    .......
  4. ‘Hard Brexit’, ie no trade agreement of any kind combined with loss of WTO GPA membership, would imply loss of access to EU and worldwide procurement markets, for services but also for goods and works. This would likely have a major impact both on the UK public sector and in its business community, particularly that reliant on cross-border direct and indirect procurement-related trade.

These are serious and very worrying potential implications of the type of scenario covered by the Brexit and procurement notice, which should prompt renewed and continued efforts on both the UK and EU side to at least reach an agreement on withdrawal terms that facilitates continued frictionless procurement-based trade. I say at least because my personal view is that Brexit should be stopped (for a persuasive case, see Prof Syrpis' post). But in the absence of that better solution and in the alternative, there is clearly value to be preserved in finding a better solution to the alternative 'do-deal' scenario.

In that regard, I am honoured to have been invited to speak at the conference 'Trade Relations after Brexit: Impetus for the Negotiation Process'  and have the chance to offer my views on what regulatory challenges arise from the current situation, and to propose some potential solutions. These are my draft slides for the talk, and I probably will post a more detailed account after the conference. As indicated in the slides, some of the areas of immediate worry should concern administrative cooperation and remedies mechanisms. However, as also indicated there, all my analysis (and everyone's) is purely speculative in the absence of an agreed position on the basic elements of the future EU-UK relationship. Thus, everything there needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

 

 

Funding of in-house entities, CPBs and risks of state aid, some thoughts re Aanbestedingskalender (T-138/15)

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In its Judgment of 28 September 2017, Aanbestedingskalender & Others v Commission, T-138/15, EU:T:2017:675, the General Court (GC) rejected a complaint against a previous Commission decision (SA.34646) that the Netherlands had not breached EU State aid rules by funding TenderNed--an in-house e-procurement platform run by PIANOo, the tendering expertise centre for the Dutch government. The complaint derived from the fact that, prior to the creation of TenderNed, private providers of e-procurement services had been offering their services to Dutch contracting authorities. The creation of TenderNed and the offering of services free of charge to contracting authorities by this in-house entity logically killed the e-procurement services industry (or a part of it), which triggered the complaint. The circumstances of the case raise some issues that would be common to any intervention by a Member State that in-sourced (or nationalised) previously outsourced services, but the legal challenge was limited to State aid considerations.

In a nutshell, the GC decided that the Netherlands was not in breach of EU State aid law because TenderNed is not an undertaking, in the sense that it is not engaged in an economic activity because its services are closely linked to the exercise of public powers by the Dutch State and the Dutch contracting authorities that use this service. The State aid aspects of the Judgment are insightfully discussed in more detail by Prof Nicolaides.

Reading the case, one of the statements by the GC that caught my attention was that "e-procurement was a service of general interest, and not an inherent economic activity, which could be commercially exploited so long as the State did not offer that service itself" (para 108). In this post, I offer some thoughts on the potential implications of this finding for the funding of in-house entities and of central purchasing bodies (CPBs), in particular if the EU Courts were to take further steps down the road of considering the exercise of the procurement function non-economic and/or a service of general economic interest (SGEI)--and, in so doing, I pick up on some of the issues discussed in more detail in A Sanchez-Graells & I Herrera Anchustegui, 'Impact of Public Procurement Aggregation on Competition: Risks, Rationale and Justification for the Rules in Directive 2014/24', in R Fernández Acevedo y P Valcárcel Fernández (eds), Centralización de compras públicas (Madrid, Civitas, 2016) 129-163.

The consideration of e-procurement as an SGEI

In its Judgment, the GC arrived to the position that e-procurement is an SGEI on the basis of the following:

... the claim that, because commercial platforms offer services similar to those of TenderNed, the Commission should have concluded that TenderNed’s activities are economic in nature, does not take into consideration the developments that have taken place in the e-procurement market.

In that respect, it must be noted that that market had developed before Directives 2014/24 and 2014/25 were adopted and imposed an obligation on the Member States to implement e-procurement in those States. The fact that that obligation was decided upon at EU level implies that it was considered important to put in place mechanisms which would ensure greater effectiveness and transparency in public procurement. As the Slovak Republic indicated in its statement in intervention, the trend in the development of public procurement systems in Europe is towards e-procurement. The fact that Directives 2014/24 and 2014/25 were adopted is indicative of the intention to harmonise public procurement within the European Union, through actions by the Member States, so that it is carried out electronically throughout the European Union.

In addition, the Netherlands authorities stated ... that the existing commercial platforms did not offer the conditions relating to price, objective quality characteristics, continuity and access to the services provided that would be necessary to fulfil the general interest objectives established by those authorities.

Thus, in the light of those developments in public procurement rules, driven by public interest considerations, the Commission was entitled to state ... that e-procurement was a service of general interest, and not an inherent economic activity, which could be commercially exploited so long as the State did not offer that service itself (T-138/15, paras 105-108, emphases added).

In my view, this part of the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment is particularly weak because the arguments of EU harmonisation and unsatisfactory private supply can hardly be considered determinative of the nature of SGEI of a given service. The 2014 Public Procurement Package imposes an obligation to carry out e-procurement, but that does not make this an SGEI, as the competence to establish what an SGEI lies with the Member States (see Art 14 and Protocol No 26 TFEU). Moreover, if private provision is unsatisfactory, the Member State could opt to regulate minimum standards mandatory for all private (or public) providers. The Member State could also have established a framework agreement or other mechanism for the provision of the services by a non-in-house entity, or created public service obligations linked to the provision of e-procurement services. Thus, the conclusion that the evolution of the regulation of e-procurement at EU level implies its treatment as an SGEI is far from justified.

The original reasoning of the European Commission is equally unconvincing

Such services might have previously been needed because of the complexity of legislation, the lack of user-friendliness of analogue or digital tools offered by the government services, or because companies find it more convenient to outsource such activities. However, the State does not forego the right to carry out an activity that it deems necessary to ensure its public bodies comply with their statutory obligations by acting at a point in time when private operators – perhaps due to lack of prior action by the State – have already taken the initiative to offer services to the same end. Ensuring public authorities comply with their statutory obligations by channelling public procurement may be an economic activity for the complainants. It is not, however, an inherent economic activity, but rather a service of general interest, which can be commercially exploited only so long as the State fails to offer that service itself (SA.34646, para 68, reference omitted and emphasis added).

This fails to properly characterise the nature of the activities, which I think are better understood as the provision of the IT services and infrastructure necessary to carry out e-procurement, rather than as a public power of channelling procurement to an electronic platform (which is what the 2014 Public Procurement Package has done, or tried to do).

Moreover, this is functionally contrary to the position taken in the 2016 Notice on the notion of State aid, which explicitly establishes that '[t]he decision of a public authority not to allow third parties to provide a certain service (for example, because it wishes to provide the service in-house) does not rule out the existence of an economic activity. In spite of such market closure, an economic activity can exist where other operators would be willing and able to provide the service in the market concerned. More generally, the fact that a particular service is provided in-house has no relevance for the economic nature of the activity' (para 14). In this case, it seems clear that the creation and funding of TenderNed is functionally equivalent to the reservation of activity (which contracting authority would pay a private provider for the services it can get for free from TenderNed?) and it is obvious that there are third parties willing to provide those services (the complainants). Consequently, the position reached in the case at hand does not make much sense.

The functional incompatibility is even larger when contrasted with a different passage of the same Notice on notion of State aid, which foresees that

The fact that the authorities assign a public service to an in-house provider (even if they were free to entrust that service to third parties) does not as such exclude a possible distortion of competition. However, a possible distortion of competition is excluded if the following cumulative conditions are met: (a) a service is subject to a legal monopoly (established in compliance with EU law); (b) the legal monopoly not only excludes competition on the market, but also for the market, in that it excludes any possible competition to become the exclusive provider of the service in question; (c) the service is not in competition with other services; and (d) if the service provider is active in another (geographical or product) market that is open to competition, cross-subsidisation has to be excluded. This requires that separate accounts are used, costs and revenues are allocated in an appropriate way and public funding provided for the service subject to the legal monopoly cannot benefit other activities (para 188, references omitted).

In the TenderNed case, it was clear that 'while contracting authorities and special sector entities may ultimately be obliged to publish their offers via TenderNed, they are not prohibited from using other platforms like those of the complainants in parallel. Likewise, the Dutch authorities have emphasised that private e-procurement platforms can export TenderNed notifications on their own portal as well as import their notices to TenderNed. Commercial operators are, in other words, free to develop a differentiated offer of public procurement-related services in terms of quality or added value' (SA.34646, para 69, reference omitted and emphasis added). Therefore, the existence of a situation with potential anticompetitive effects derived from the public funding of TenderNed would hve required careful analysis, but for the finding that its activities are covered by the public power exemption (ie are non-economic, and thus TenderNed is not an undertaking; and not so much for their potential classification as an SGEI).

In my view, these functional inconsistencies are problematic. The simple reasoning that because EU procurement law mandates (or encourages) a specific form or modality of procurement, this means that it is an SGEI or a non-economic activity (which is also unclear in the reasoning highlighted above) is tricky and potentially problematic. In a case such as TenderNed, and even if TenderNed does not offer services to private buyers and does not receive any payments from contracting authorities and is centrally funded by the Dutch government, this is problematic because it has the impact of wiping out an entire industry (or category of services within an industry). And, in other cases where the entity considered to be carrying out an SGEI offers other types of non-SGEI services to the public or private sector, because of the potential additional distortions of competition in those neighbouring markets. The latter case would concern in-house and CPB if they were to be classed as SGEIs.

The consideration of in-house provision and/or CPB activities as SGEIs

Together with e-procurement, two other main areas of reform in the 2014 Public Procurement Package concerned the expansion of the in-house exemption (Art 12) and the more detailed and expansive regulation of the activities of central purchasing bodies (CPBs, Art 37). In both cases, the fact that contracting authorities assign contracts directly to these entities raises important risks of distortions of competition where there is private provision for the relevant works, goods or services. Thus, the award of public contracts under the exemptions foreseen in Arts 12 and 37 of Directive 2014/24/EU generates risks of State aid (see G S Ølykke, 'Commission Notice on the notion of state aid as referred to in article 107(1) TFEU - is the conduct of a public procurement procedure sufficient to eliminate the risk of granting state aid?' (2016) 25(5) Public Procurement Law Review 197-212), and the continued stream of revenue derived from reserved or directly awarded public business can put the undertaking in a favourable position when competing with other entities for private or non-in-house public business.

One potential defence against claims of violation of EU competition law and/or State aid law by in-house entities or CPBs would thus concern the possibility of classifying their activities as SGEIs (regarding CPBs, this is a claim Ignacio Herrera and I dispelled in the article referred to above, and similar arguments apply for in-house entities). And, if the thrust of the approach in the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment was to be followed, the European Commission and national competition authorities could be tempted to consider that in-house provision or CPB activities are SGEIs, solely on the basis that these are activities promoted or facilitated in the 2014 Public Procurement Package and, concerning CPBs, in subsequent Commission policy. However, in my view, this would be a wrong justification for the classification of those activities as SGEIs.

What would be the implications?

The main implication of classing an activity as an SGEI is that it both (i) allows the Member State to shield the entity providing the SGEI from compliance with competition rules "in so far as the application of such rules does not obstruct the performance, in law or in fact, of the particular tasks assigned to them" (Art 106(2) TFEU, and (ii) Member States have increased freedom for the funding of SGEIs than for the granting of other types of State aid [see generally, A Sanchez-Graells, 'The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI', in E Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds) Financing Services of General Economic Interest: Reform and Modernization, Legal Issues of Services of General Interest Series (The Hague, TMC Asser Press / Springer, 2012) 161-181]. A fundamental element in this extended discretion for the funding of SGEIs is that an EU-compliant procurement exercise excludes the existence of State aid under the so-called Altmark fourt condition. This has been developed in some more detail in the 2016 Notice on the concept of State aid (paras 89 and ff), but it still assumes that an EU-compliant procurement is, for these purposes, one where there is a public tender and an element of competition--a position that the 2013 Guide to the application of the European Union rules on state aid, public procurement and the internal market to services of general economic interest, and in particular to social services of general interest does not completely clarify.

Therefore, the conundrum that a broad classification of in-house or CPB activities as SGEIs would create is that, in a setting where the direct award of contracts (however lucrative or benefitial) to in-house entities or CPBs is compliant with the rules in Directive 2014/24/EU (Art 12, Art 37(1), Art 37(4)) despite not having involved any element of competition, and where the conditions of those contracts cannot be tested against EU State aid rules because a very broad understanding of the public power exclusion of the classification of an activity as economic, and therefore of the in-house entity or CPB as an undertaking for the purposes of Art 107(1) TFEU, there may be no rule capable of controlling the channelling of public funds to these entities, regardless of the distortions in the market that their activities would create--which would also be excluded from assessment under the core competition rules of Arts 101 and 102 TFEU precisely for the same reason of the entities not being classed as undertakings due to the non-economic nature of their activities.

On the whole, then, I think that the greatest threat that results from the thrust of the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment is that too broad an understanding of what procurement activities imply the exercise of public powers, and an overlapping consideration of procurement activities as SGEI would lead to a complete exclusion of the applicability of all EU competition law mechanisms in this large sector of the economy. This would be an expansion of the problems derived from the FENIN-Selex doctrine, and one which I think requires urgent reconsideration by competition enforcers and, in particular, the European Commission [for in-depth discussion of the shortcomings of the FENIN-Selex doctrine, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) ch 4].

Some thoughts on Carillion's liquidation and systemic risk management in public procurement

REUTERS/Simon Dawson

REUTERS/Simon Dawson

The story that was developing over the weekend finally broke as Carillion plc has gone into compulsory liquidation. Carillion is one of the largest contractors of the UK public sector and holds a very large number of contracts for a range of infrastructure and services projects. The immediate concern of the UK government will now be how to ensure continuous provision of those services (which include catering and cleaning services for schools and hospitals), and finding ways to ensure completion of the ongoing infrastructure projects, possibly through 'bringing them in-house' or re-nationalising the contracts--although it seems a reasonable to question whether there is capacity in the civil service and in local government to manage such a volume of complex outsourced contracts.

However, that is not the focus of this post. In my view, one of the aspects that should not go unnoticed in this crisis is that the public sector had had information pointing towards Carillion's increasingly dire financial situation for a while. Indeed, as The Guardian reports, "Carillion ran into financial difficulties last year after issuing three profit warnings in five months and writing down more than £1bn from the value of contracts. It has debts of about £1bn and a £600m pension deficit, and is being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority over announcements made between December 2016 and July 2017." Very clear information about Carillion's severe financial difficulties was in the public domain in November 2017, and the first of the three consecutive profit warnings had been issued as early as July 2017.

Here, I offer some thoughts on the share of responsibility that could arise for UK contracting authorities due to poor management of the systemic risk created by the accumulation of contracts on Carillion's hands, including some awards completed after Carillion published information of its financial difficulties (for example, a 4-year £84mn contract for energy maintenance and repair services for public housing in the Belfast region in November 2017). The UK Government should not be able to decline all responsibility, as it was informed and monitoring the situation. Indeed, The Guardian reported three months ago that "The government, one of [Carillion's] major customers, said it was being kept informed. 'We remain supportive of their ongoing discussions with their stakeholders and await future updates on their progress,' the Cabinet Office said". 

Domestic public procurement law (in particular, reg. 58 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015) empowers contracting authorities to monitor the economic and financial standing of tenderers before they award contracts. It is explicitly stated that "Ratios, for example that between assets and liabilities, may be taken into consideration where the contracting authority specifies the methods and criteria for such consideration in the procurement documents, but such methods and criteria shall be transparent, objective and non-discriminatory" (reg.58(10) PCR2015). It has been long standing UK Government policy to assess the financial risk implicit in the award of a contract due to the economic and financial standing of the would-be contractor. Currently, the relevant guidance to that effect is in the Procurement Policy Note on 'Supplier Financial Risk Issues' of 2013, which requires contracting authorities, as part of a regular procurement exercise, to "Assess the risk to public sector business and/or public money which would result if a potential provider bidding for a contract were to go out of business during the life of the contract, or have inadequate financial resources to perform the contract".

There is no question, then, that contracts recently awarded to Carillion should be under suspicion of potential shortcomings in the assessment of its economic and financial standing. Of course, this may be complicated due to the certainly complex corporate structure in which the industrial conglomerate is organised, but the fact that self-certification has been operative in the UK since 2016 (at least in theory), raises important questions as to the ability of contracting authorities to carry out effective monitoring of tenderers' capabilities and the financial risk implicit in contracting.

On that note, it should also be recognised that the monitoring of the contractor's economic and financial standing is largely limited to procurement phases prior to conclusion of the relevant contract. This raises a more important point concerning the difficulties in managing systemic risks that derive from the accumulation of public contracts in the hands of a single supplier (however it is divided internally), which require a more complex and decentralised policy requiring effectiveness of the policies facilitating SME participation in procurement, which certainly remains an unresolved issue in the UK and in other EU jurisdictions. Given that large public sector contractors subcontract very significant volumes (if not the majority) of the works and services to SMEs, important questions should be raised as to the effective value for the public sector of allowing for the intermediation of such 'public contract brokers'.

In my view, this is reflective of the continued erosion of public sector capability to manage and oversee contracts (big and small), which requires 'ready-made' bundled contractual solutions. If the situation is to be reversed, in my view, governments should make a clear commitment to invest in the required skills and resources to ensure that the provision of important public services and the development of strategic infrastructure is not affected by systemic risks that go unnoticed or are unmanageable once realised. This is not a legal problem, but mainly a political issue that requires committing the required level of funding in rebuilding the capacity that the public sector has lost. Given pressures in other areas (such as direct NHS funding), this is certainly a big ask. But, unless the public sector re-skills itself, not only the management of crises, but the regular operation of public services will continue to be dependent on the ups and downs of the private market--where undertakings, however big, are not too big to fail.

Interesting Lithuanian case on contracting authorities' liability for false statements in tender documentation [Guest post* by Dr Deividas Soloveičik]

This new guest post by Dr Deividas Soloveičik provides interesting discussion of a recent Judgment of the Lithuanian Supreme Court concerning the liability of the contracting authority for the content of tender documentation. The case may be particularly relevant in the context of tenders for public service contracts or concessions, for example, concerning third-party estimates of demand. However, in the context of concessions, any liability of the type discussed by Dr Soloveičik could be problematic if it was seen as reducing or neutralising the transfer of risk to the concessionaire. So, indeed, a very interesting case.

What about some true statements while
drafting the procurement documents?

The Supreme Court of Lithuania has recently decided on the public buyers' obligation to be accurate and precise while drafting the procurement documentation, as well as on the liability of the contracting authorities failing to act so. A couple of things to be noted before the starting point. First, indeed, the ruling of the Court deals with domestic issues and has mainly (maybe solely) only a local impact. On the other hand, and secondly, it is a good example to learn from and, I believe, easily replicable elsewhere, despite the jurisdiction or a legal system. In other words, I believe, the conclusions the Court reflect a concept which should turn into a legal trend and a good example, applicable in a procurement practice worldwide. Thirdly, albeit the case-law of the Court of Justice of the EU and the national courts of Member States regarding the principle of transparency is voluminous, namely, that this principle includes the requirement to draft the procurement documents in a clear manner, the further discussed case has a different angle. Namely, it deals with the situation when the originally clear and precise statement provided in the procurement documents later, during the contract execution phase, appears to be a false statement, leading to the financial loss of the tenderer, now the contractor.

Hence, the Energijos parkas case dealt with the facts where the public buyer organised an open tender for the procurement of landfill gas extraction and utilization services. It has to be mentioned that the procurement was not organised under the EU public procurement directives and neither the Law on Public Procurement. However, the Court explicitly stated that the ruling it gave is also applicable to the realm of the public procurement law.

The facts of the case were the following. The public buyer drafted the tender documentation regarding the purchase of the above-mentioned services. To have the technical specification more explicit, it made a reference to the report of the engineers, a third party. The latter report outlined the parameters regarding the possible minimum gas extraction quantity with the clear reference that this evaluation was rock solid. It appeared during the execution of the contract that the possible quantity of the extracted gas was far from even the minimum the report mentioned and upon which reference the winner of the tender made its calculations and the whole business case. Therefore, the winner of the tender claimed that the false statements of the procurement documents, which were not possible to verify during the procurement procedure, led the claimant to the financial loss of more than 3 mil. EUR.

The Court started its reasoning from the reference to two main legal aspects. First, it stated that the situation at hand is very similar to the one of pre-contractual arrangement. By telling so, the Court continued that in such cases the general obligation universally acknowledged by contract law to act bona fide and to disclose the essential information to the other party before entering into any agreement must be obeyed. Secondly, the Supreme Court stated that neither authority is obliged to give such exact details of the subject of the procurement as it was done in the case at issue. However, the Court went on to say, if the contracting authority decides to include the very specific details of the subject matter, it must do it in a cautious way and providing accurate and correct information, so that the suppliers could make their proper calculations and prepare a business case.

After stating so, the Court decided that there is no difference in situations when the public buyer uses the material prepared by the third party. The Supreme Court noted that in such cases the contracting authority must take the risk if it later appears that the basic information it used in the procurement documentation was inaccurate or even false. The Court created a legal precedent by stating that if the authority, arranging the open tender, decides to include the specific details related to the subject matter of the procured object, such details become an inseparable part of the procurement documentation and the public authority is responsible for the certainty of the given details. This rule is applicable to cases where the contracting authority makes references to the information provided by the third parties.

The rationale of the Court is important in many practical aspects. First, no doubt that this is the extension of the principle of transparency, which requires the tender documentation to be precise and accurate, to the situations where the contracting authority refers to information given by the third party. In other words, the one who gives the information, must guarantee that it is correct, genuine and actual, especially if it relates to the circumstances upon which the market players design their economic decisions and business plans. Third, the precedent made by the Lithuanian Supreme Court upholds the ecosystem of legitimate expectations in open tenders and procurement. It is important for the tenderers to know that they must not verify every piece of information given by the contracting authority in the procurement documentation and that they can take the essential information for granted without being misguided. And if it appears later, during the execution of the public contract, that the whole business case was built of false assumptions, they will be entitled to a fair compensation of damages. Finally, I believe that such approach is very adaptive and might have a cross-border impact elsewhere in different jurisdictions, when the similar cases are heard.

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Dr. Deividas Soloveičik, LL.M

Dr Deividas Soloveičik is a Partner and Head of Public Procurement practice at COBALT Lithuania. He represents clients before national courts at all instances and arbitral institutions in civil and administrative cases, provides legal advice to Lithuanian and foreign private clients and contracting authorities, including the European Commission , on the legal aspects of public procurement and pre-commercial procurement.

Dr Soloveičik is an Associate Professor and researcher in commercial law at Vilnius University and a contributor to legal publications. He also closely cooperates with globally recognized academic members of the legal profession. Since 2011, MCIArb. Dr Soloveičik is a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators; since 2016, he is a member of the European Assistance for Innovation Procurement – EAFIP initiative promoted by the European Commission and a recommended arbitrator at Vilnius Court of Commercial Arbitration.

Guest blogging at HTCAN: If you would like to contribute a blog post for How to Crack a Nut, please feel free to get in touch at a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. Your proposals and contributions will be most warmly welcomed!

ECJ confirms discretion to exclude tenderers for not updating self-certifications and points towards potential general obligation of sincere cooperation (C-178/16)

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In its Judgment of 20 December 2017 in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (Mantovani e Guerrato), the Court of Justice (ECJ) declared the compatibility with the 2004 EU public procurement rules of a contracting authority's decision to exclude an economic operator that, having self-certified as not being affected by exclusion grounds, subsequently failed to update the contracting authority when one of its former directors' criminal conviction for invoice fraud became final. Remarkably, the exclusion was upheld despite the fact that the 'conviction had become final following [the economic operator's] own declarations [and despite the fact ...] that, in order to fully and effectively dissociate the company from [its director]’s actions, the latter was immediately removed from his management role ..., the management bodies of the company had been reorganised, [his] shares had been bought back and an action for damages had been brought against him' (para 11). Therefore, the exclusion was upheld despite an attempt at self-cleaning. 

In declaring the compatibility with EU procurement law of this strict approach in the exercise of discretionary exclusion powers, the ECJ largely followed the Opinion of AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona (discussed here, where more background on the case is provided) and, in my view, confirmed a welcome functional approach to the exercise of discretion to exclude economic operators on the grounds of evidence that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable [Art 45(2)(d) Dir 2004/18 and now Art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24]. In my view, there are some relevant passages in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment that will be of importance in the assessment of self-cleaning claims under the 2014 rules, given the recognition of the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority befalling upon economic operators under the 2004 rules--which may well carry over to the new provisions at EU level. The relevance of such recognition of a general obligation stems from its crucial role in the original exclusion decision, which was 'in essence, [based on the fact] that although, in the absence of a final judgment, Mantovani’s statement could not be classified as a "misrepresentation", the lack of timely notification of criminal proceedings concerning one of the [relevant] persons ... may constitute an infringement of the obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority, and accordingly impede the full and effective dissociation from the person concerned' (para 12).

In my view, it is important to stress that the ECJ reaches its position after reiterating its general case law position that

... Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 does not provide for uniform application at EU level of the grounds of exclusion it mentions, since the Member States may choose not to apply those grounds of exclusion, or to incorporate them into national law with varying degrees of rigour according to legal, economic or social considerations prevailing at national level. In that context, Member States have the power to make the criteria laid down in Article 45(2) less onerous or more flexible ... Member States therefore enjoy some discretion in determining the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion laid down in Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 (paras 31-32, references omitted).

And it is also important to stress that the ECJ finds the legal basis for the obligation of sincere cooperation not on the 2004 EU procurement rules, but on the domestic law of the Member State concerned (Italy):

... the Member State is entitled to ease the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion and, thus, to waive the application of a ground for exclusion in the event of a dissociation between the tenderer and the conduct constituting an offence. In the present case, it is also entitled to determine the requirements governing that dissociation and to require, as Italian law does, that the tenderer inform the contracting authority of a conviction of its director, even if the conviction is not yet final.

The tendering company, which must meet those requirements, may submit all the evidence which, in its view, is evidence of such a dissociation.

If that dissociation cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the contracting authority, the necessary consequence is the application of the ground for exclusion.

... in a situation where the judgment relating to an offence concerning the professional conduct of the director of a tendering company is not yet final, Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18 may apply. That provision makes it possible to exclude a tendering company which has been found guilty of grave professional misconduct, established by any means which the contracting authorities can provide proof of (paras 41-44).

Even if the ECJ seems to incur in some imprecision in interpreting Italian law (which, as far as I can see, did not require the tenderer to inform the contracting authority of the non-final conviction of its former director, but rather to update or substitute the relevant self-certification once that conviction becomes final), it seems clear that it foresees the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation as part of the relevant self-cleaning requirements. Given that self-cleaning was not regulated by Dir 2004/18, this is the only legal basis that could have been used in the case. However, given the inclusion of explicit rules in Dir 2014/24, an argument can be made that the ratio of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment will carry over to the new EU self-cleaning regime.

Indeed, when the functional principle underlying the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment is put in connection with the new rules in Article 57(6) of Dir 2014/24, the legal basis of such an overarching obligation may now be seen as having potentially shifted to the EU level. Indeed, it is important to stress that, as minimum requirements for the recognition of self-cleaning capable of excluding the application of exclusion grounds (both mandatory and discretionary), the second paragraph of Art 57(6) Dir 2014/24 requires that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has paid or undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct, clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and taken concrete technical, organisational and personnel measures that are appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct' (emphasis added).

This comes to establish an 'EU obligation of sincere cooperation' that, even if it seems oriented towards the 'investigating authorities' (which does not seem to automatically cover the contracting authority itself), can easily be extended in the same functional terms required by Italian law on the basis of the logic in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment. Therefore, in my view, when assessing self-cleaning claims--and as a result of a joint interpretation of Art 57(4)(c) and Art 57(6)II Dir 2014/24 from the functional perspective of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment--contracting authorities will be on safe grounds if they decide to reject self-cleaning claims on the basis of a lack of update of on-going criminal and administrative investigations that are susceptible of nullifying the effectiveness of self-certifications submitted by the economic operators concerned.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading, Season's greetings and hiatus

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Thank you all for reading the blog during 2017. Looking back over the 90+ posts published in the last 12 months, I realise that this has been a period of intense development in EU procurement law and my impression is that 2018 will not be less fruitful. I have good memories of many a discussion through the blog, and I hope we will continue exchanging ideas in the new year.

For me personally, it is a great source of satisfaction and motivation to see that so many of you engage with the blog and that the interest in public procurement law keeps growing. I can only renew my commitment to try to keep discussing relevant issues in a timely manner in 2018, and I hope to see you back here next year.

I will take a break and resume blogging on the week of 8 January 2018. In the meantime, if you want to keep up with recent cases, you may want to note that there are two GC cases decided on 14 December 2017 (T-136/15 and T-164/15) and two forthcoming ECJ cases to be decided on 20 December 2017 (C-677/15 P and C-178/16) to keep in your procurement radar. I will comment them once blogging resumes in January.

For now, I take the chance to wish you all an enjoyable and relaxing festive season, and all the best for 2018.

AG proposes extension of Falk Pharma doctrine to framework agreements, for wrong reasons (C-9/17)

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In his Opinion of 13 December 2017 in Tirkkonen, C-9/17, EU:C:2017:962 (not available in English), Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona has proposed the application to a framework agreement for the provision to farmers of advisory services funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (FEADER) of the Falk Pharma doctrine (ie that the absence of a choice in concreto of the awardee of a contract by the contracting/funding authority excludes the applicability of the EU public procurement rules; see Judgment of 2 June 2016 in Falk Pharma, C-410/14, EU:C:2016:399, and here).

In his view, the fact that individual farmers—and not the competent authority administering the FEADER funds—could choose the specific rural advisor that would provide them the services carved the framework agreement out of the scope of application of the EU (and domestic) public procurement rules—which were therefore not applicable to the tender of the framework agreement in the first place.

In my view, the Tirkkonen Opinion engages in an unjustifiably expansive interpretation of the Falk Pharma Judgment that both ignores some of the basic elements in the functioning of framework agreements, and takes that Judgment’s functionally-erroneous interpretation of the concept of procurement one step too far. If the Tirkkonen Opinion was followed, in combination with Falk Pharma, it would create a significant risk of ineffectiveness of the EU public procurement rules for aggregate and dynamic contracting mechanisms. Therefore, in this post, I present my reasons for a plea to the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) not to follow AG Campos in this occasion, as I think his approach is problematic, both from a positive and a normative perspective.

Tirkkonen – a bad case raising the wrong issues

Why ignore explicit requirements in secondary EU law?

The way the preliminary reference in Tirkkonen reached the ECJ evidences that this is a bad set of circumstances on which to develop the case law on the scope of application of the EU public procurement rules. In the case at hand, the Finnish Agency for Rural Space (Maaseutuvirasto) tendered a framework contract for the provision of advisory services to farmers. Given the (expected) high volume of demand for advisory services, the framework was intended to include as many qualified rural advisors as possible, subject to their passing of an exam to ensure their knowledge and competence (AGO, C-9/17, para 19). Rural advisors admitted to the framework agreement could then be chosen by individual farmers (who should in principle chose the closest advisor, although some exceptions applied), and their services would be remunerated on the basis of hourly rates paid by Maaseutuvirasto, with the beneficiary farmer covering applicable VAT charges (AGO, C-9/17, para 18). It is not explicitly stated in AG Campos' Opinion, but it is worth stressing that the Maaseutuvirasto had set the hourly rate payable to rural advisors, and that the award (ie admission to the framework contract) was to be decided solely on quality (ie competency to provide the service) (see here for details (in Finnish), and thanks to K-M Halonen for help with the translation). The suppression of price competition will be relevant for the assessment below.

The advisory services organised by Maaseutuvirasto were ultimately funded by FEADER for the period 2014-2020 and, under the relevant rules (Reg 1305/2013/EU, Art 15(3), and Impl Reg 808/2014/EU, Art 7), the selection by the Finnish (and all other national) competent authority of the providers of those advisory services was explicitly subjected to European and domestic public procurement rules, which required for the selection to be made: ‘through calls for tenders. The selection procedure shall be governed by public procurement law and shall be open to both public and private bodies’ (Art 15(3) Reg 1305/2013/EU). It was reiterated that the 'calls for tenders referred to in Article 15(3) of Regulation (EU) No 1305/2013 shall follow the applicable Union and national public procurement rules' (Art 7 Impl Reg 808/2014/EU). The Finnish government had no doubt that EU and domestic procurement rules applied, and thus tendered the contract as described above.

Therefore, against this background, a preliminary reference enquiring about the potential non-applicability of the procurement rules to the tender of the framework agreement despite the explicit requirements in special (in the sense of lex specialis) secondary EU legislation is beyond bizarre (see below). However, AG Campos does not see a problem here, and considers that

… that reference to procurement law must be interpreted in the sense that the procedure for the selection of rural advisors must comply with the principles (of non-discrimination, equal treatment and transparency) that govern that sector of the legal order. It does not portray, in my view, a requirement that implies subjection to each and all of the provisions of the EU Directives on public sector procurement (AGO, C-9/17, para 34, own translation from Spanish).

I disagree with this assessment, which is not based on any specific reasons, and which violates the natural reading of Reg 1305/2013/EU and Impl Reg 808/2014/EU. Moreover, it comes to reduce the value of the explicit reference to procurement law in those provisions, and to collapse it into the general principles that are common with general internal market law and, more importantly, the eponymous general principles of EU law—which would be applicable anyway to all activities implementing the relevant instruments of secondary EU law. Therefore, AG Campos’ position not solely deviates from the natural reading of the provisions, but also runs contrary to the functional reasons for the inclusion of the explicit reference to procurement rules (ie to go beyond the general requirements of the always applicable primary EU law). Thus, already on the weakness of the reasons for a deviation from the literal and functional interpretation of those provisions of secondary EU law, I think that the ECJ should largely ignore AG Campos’ Opinion and simply answer the question by confirming the applicability of the EU (and domestic) procurement rules on the basis of the explicit requirements in Reg 1305/2013/EU and Impl Reg 808/2014/EU.

Why not simply state that Finnish procurement law was wrong?

Beyond that first clear-cut solution, which I think highly unlikely the ECJ will adopt, the Court will have to explore the general (as in lex generalis) reasons that still justify the applicability of the EU and (domestic) procurement rules to the case—also contrary to AG Campos’ Opinion. To that end, it is still necessary to understand why the preliminary question was sent to the ECJ—which is explained by a misconstruction of the EU public procurement rules and, in particular, by the harsh consequences of an exceedingly restrictive approach to documentary clarification in the domestic Finnish procurement rules that violates the Manova-Slovensko line of case law (see here, here and here).

In that regard, it is worth noting that the preliminary reference derived from the fact that, in the context of the tender for the framework agreement, Ms Tirkkonen failed to properly complete all required documentation—ie she had failed to indicate whether she accepted or rejected the tender conditions attached to the draft framework agreement (AGO, C-9/17, para 20). She was thus excluded from the framework agreement. Her complaint is fundamentally grounded on the fact that she should have been given the opportunity to clarify whether she accepted the conditions or not prior to her exclusion from the framework agreement.

It is a settled legal fact of the case that, under Finnish law, the omission of that indication of acceptance of the general conditions would only be susceptible if the clarification or correction of the tender was not controlled by public procurement law (which excluded such possibility of clarification), and was rather subjected to general administrative law governing the relationships between citizens and the public administration (AGO, C-9/17, para 3).

Therefore, the harshness of the Finnish procurement rules is behind the interest of the claimant in excluding the tender from the scope of application of domestic procurement rules—which can only be done by seeking a carve-out from the concept of procurement under the EU rules. And, more importantly, the Finnish approach is in contravention of EU law—oddly, as confirmed by AG Campos himself: ‘if Directive 2004/18 was applicable, it would result that the contracting authority would be able to accept, in the context of public procurement, the correction of formal shortcomings that do not imply the submission of a new offer, or substantially altered the terms of the initial offer. On this point, I refer to my Opinion in case MA.T.I. SUD y DUEMMESGR (C-523/16 y C-536/16, EU:C:2017:868)’ (AGO, C-9/17, para 23, fn 7, own translation from Spanish; for discussion of MA.T.I. Sud, see here).

Consequently, the second clear-cut solution for the ECJ is to (i) pick up on the incorrect interpretation of EU public procurement law that underpins the preliminary reference, (ii) reformulate the question and consider that it asked whether the exclusion from the framework agreement due to the formal shortcoming in the documentation and without the possibility to correct it was required or allowed by EU procurement law, (iii) reiterate the Manova-Slovensko case law, and (iv) leave it for the national court to decide on the legality of the exclusion (with a clear hint that exclusion in this case was not justified, due to the logical assumption that would-be rural advisors understood that accepting the general conditions of the draft contract was a requirement for entering into specific contracts, and that confirming such acceptance does not constitute a new offer or substantial modification of the initial offer).

For some reason, however, I am also not optimistic that the ECJ will adopt this second solution and pass on the opportunity to clarify its Falk Pharma case law. Should the ECJ engage with the question and the issues raised by AG Campos, and for the reasons below, I think that the ECJ should provide clarification of Falk Pharma in the opposite direction to that adopted by the Tirkkonen Opinion.

Tirkkonen Opinion ignores how framework agreements work

Once the argument concentrates on the definition of procurement under Article 1(2)(a) of Directive 2004/18/EC, AG Campos summarises the Falk Pharma doctrine as establishing that

… the choice of a tender and, thus, of a successful tenderer, is intrinsically linked to the regulation of public contracts by that directive and, consequently, to the concept of ‘public contract’ within the meaning of Article 1(2) of that directive (AGO, C-9/17, para 37, own translation from Spanish, with reference to Falk Pharma, para 38).

And that

… in the public contracts subjected to Directive 2004/18 a final awardee must exist, which is preferred to the rest of its competitors on the basis of the characteristics of its offer. And this key element is applicable ‘for every contract, framework agreement, and every establishment of a dynamic purchasing system’, for which ‘the contracting authorities are to draw up a written report which is to include the name of the successful tenderer and the reasons why his tender was selected (AGO, C-9/17, para 38, own translation from Spanish, with reference to Falk Pharma, para 39).

This leads AG Campos to argue that, in the framework tendered in Tirkkonen, ‘it is not possible to identify the existence of award criteria of the advisory services contracts, but solely of criteria for the selection of economic operators with capability to offer those services (sic)’ (AGO, C-9/17, para 39, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added). AG Campos continues with a discussion of the distinction between selection and award criteria as per Ambisig (C-601/13, EU:C:2015:204, paras 40 and ff, see here), which I consider irrelevant—for the crucial point is that, in multi-supplier framework agreements (as well as in dynamic purchasing systems, as discussed here), the inclusion in the framework does not (ever) imply the choice of the ‘winner’ of the (call-off) contracts but, conversely, exclusion from the framework does prevent the excluded economic operators from providing the service.

In my view, this is the relevant aspect, for the inclusion in the framework is not simply an identification of the capable or qualified economic operators, but the limitation to those included in the framework of the possibility of entering into specific contracts in the terms set in the framework. AG Campos’ maximalistic position would lead to the inescapable logical conclusion that framework agreements are not public contracts for the purposes of EU public procurement law, despite being explicitly regulated, quod non.

The flawed logic of the premise established by AG Campos in para 39 of his Opinion makes the rest of his reasoning crumble. In my view, this defect affects his reasoning that

… what is determinative, in relation to the contracts subject to Directive 2004/18, is not the checking of the economic operators’ capability to provide the advisory service (qualitative selection criterion), but the comparison of the offers of the competing tenderers, once considered capable, with a view to finally chose that or those which will be entrusted with such provision (award criterion) (AGO, C-9/17, para 44, own translation from Spanish).

And that

… the selection that matters, for the purposes of the concept of public contract in Directive 2004/18, is that which results from the comparison between the capabilities and merits of the offers of the different candidates. That is, what is decisive is the final award, comparatively or by contrast, to the best offer, not the initial selection by reference to a threshold meeting which does not imply competition between the candidates (AGO, C-9/17, para 45, own translation from Spanish).

Ultimately, following this same reasoning, AG Campos takes issue with the fact that there was no competition between the candidates that expressed interest in being included in the framework agreement because the contracting authority ‘did not restrict ab initio the number of potential providers of the services, nor did it carry out a comparison of the offers between them, or chose in a definitive manner one or several of them, on the basis of a comparative evaluation of their respective contents, to the exclusion of the rest’ (AGO, C-9/17, para 48, own translation from Spanish).

However, this triggers two issues. First, under Dir 2004/18/EC, there was no obligation to establish a maximum number of economic operators to be admitted to a framework agreement. Art 32(4) Dir 2004/18/EC solely established a minimum of three for multi-supplier framework agreements, but did not require a maximum number. Second, it is in the nature of framework agreements—particularly those involving mini-competitions, as per Art 32(4)II Dir 2004/18/EC—that the contracting authority, at the point of deciding which economic operators are included in the framework, does not ‘chose in a definitive manner one or several [offers], on the basis of a comparative evaluation of their respective contents, to the exclusion of the rest’ for the purposes of the award of the relevant call-off contracts—which is the situation comparable to Tirkkonen. In particular, it is possible that an economic operator included in a framework agreement is never awarded a call-off, especially if there are mini-competitions, which in my view deactivates the functional reasoning of AG Campos.

In my view, AG Campos also misinterprets the implications of the fact that the framework agreement in Tirkkonen was closed to the economic operators not initially admitted to it, in relation to the ECJ’s Judgment in Falk Pharma. In that regard, it is relevant that the argument was made that the closed nature of the framework agreement distinguishes it from the open-ended mechanism discussed in Falk Pharma, which AG Campos rejects in the following terms:

It is true that, strictly, by limiting the contracting system, during its term, to the economic operators initially admitted by the Agency [Maaseutuvirasto] (which prevents access by new advisors) a certain quantitative restriction is being imposed. However, this is but a consequence of the pure and rigorous temporary limitation of the system of funding for advisory services, which is parallel to the program of rural development for continental Finland 2014-2020 (sic).

For the rest, the reference by the Court of Justice in Falk Pharma to the permanent openness of the contracting system to new tenderers was not, in my view, the ratio decidendi of that case, but rather a statement made ad abundantia. What was determinative in that occasion was that the contracting authority had not awarded, in exclusive, the contract to one of the tenderers [Falk Pharma, para 38].

In this case, just like in the Falk Pharma case, there has not been any element of true competition between the candidates, to evaluate which of their offers is the best and displaces, simultaneously, the remaining other (AGO, C-9/17, paras 51-53, own translation from Spanish)

The reasoning in these paragraphs is strongly skewed towards a very narrow understanding of procurement as implying the award of contracts solely to a winning tenderer, which is not the way framework agreements (and dynamic purchasing systems) operate. I cannot share the analysis in any of these steps of the reasoning.

Firstly, I think that a temporary justification for the irrelevance of the selective nature of a framework agreement is a logical non sequitur. The fact that the funding is limited to the period 2014-2020 can be used to justify the creation of a framework of six years’ duration, but it can have no bearing on the fact that a restriction of the potential suppliers derives from the framework agreement itself. The Maaseutuvirasto could have chosen a fully open licensing system, which would then have avoided the situation of excluding would-be rural advisors as a result of the one-off chance of being accepted into the system (which is a structural result of the framework agreement).

Secondly, in Falk Pharma, the ECJ did not simply consider the lack of choice of a specific supplier and consider the open-ended nature of the ‘authorisation procedure’ ad abundantia, but rather made this a crucial aspect of the analysis, by establishing it as a defining characteristic of the mechanism (see C-410/14, para 14). This is particularly clear on the explicit distinction the ECJ made with framework agreements when it stressed that

it should be noted that the special feature of a contractual scheme, such as that at issue in [Falk Pharma], namely its permanent availability for the duration of its validity to interested operators and, therefore, its not being limited to a preliminary period in the course of which undertakings are invited to express their interest to the public entity concerned, suffices to distinguish that scheme from a framework agreement (C-410/14, para 41, emphasis added).

Finally, the third point on absence of competition is also problematic. Taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that contracting authorities could avoid compliance with procurement rules where they set ‘take it or leave it’ conditions for the provision of services or supplies. This makes no sense because, particularly where there is scarcity in the number of awards (in this case, a limit of total available funding, as well as the restriction in the number of potential awardees that results from the closing of the framework agreement at the initial stage of the 2014-2020 period), there is always implicitly an element of competition (ie to tender or not, and tendering results in a constraint on the overall number/value of awards available to the other competitors) and the fact that the contracting authority limits the dimensions in which the tenderers compete (in Tirkkonen, and implicitly, their geographical coverage) should not exclude this from compliance with procurement rules.

For all the reasons above, I think the Tirkkonen Opinion misconstrues the relevance of the openness of the system in Falk Pharma, and the explicit distinction made by the ECJ between that system and framework agreements. Moreover, the Opinion gives excessive weight to the need to compare tenders or offers (and the choice of one, and almost only one, to the exclusion of all others) for (covered) procurement to take place. In particular, it misrepresents some of the particular features of framework agreements and opens the door to their de-regulation where contracting authorities set ‘take it or leave it’ conditions (eg, in this case, provision of services at rates established by the contracting/funding authority) and then delegate or decentralise decisions on call-offs, even if they provide general guidelines on the way they should take place. For the reasons set out below, I think the Opinion is not only inaccurate from a positive legal analysis perspective (as discussed so far), but also from a normative perspective.

The undesirable combined effect of Falk Pharma and Tirkkonen

Should the ECJ follow the Tirkkonen Opinion, and as a result of the cumulative effect of the resulting expanded Falk Pharma doctrine, Member States willing to avoid compliance with EU public procurement rules could easily do so by creating systems of ‘user/beneficiary choice’. This could be quite problematic particularly in the context of services and supply contracts, where the existence of end users detached from the contracting authority can always enable this type of mechanisms.

In the extreme, if central purchasing bodies created this type of mechanisms for use by individual decision-makers (eg civil servants or public employees), the atomisation of procurement that would ensue could well result in a de-regulation of the procurement function. Procurement rules would not apply to the CPB because it would not ‘choose definitely’ the specific supplier or provider, and they may not apply to the decision to call-off that does exercise that choice if the value of the call-offs is small enough—which would then trigger litigation around the legality or less of the atomisation of the procurement decision on the last stage, for which analysis the concept of ‘separate operational units’ in Art 5(2) of Directive 2014/24/EU (see also recital (20)) would become highly relevant; see K-M Halonen, 'Characteristics of Separate Operational Units – A Study on Aggregation Rules under Public Procurement Law' (2017) report for the Competition Authority; see here. There is thus a functional need to keep proper checks and balances at the level of creation of the mechanism.

On the whole, I was already concerned that Falk Pharma was eroding the scope and effectiveness of the EU public procurement rules, but Tirkkonen could magnify such undesirable effect. Moreover, this would simply displace the problem towards general EU free movement law, which is not a sensible approach in view of the more developed criteria and rules in the EU public procurement framework. Thus, also from a normative perspective, I would plea to the ECJ not to adopt the same approach of AG Campos on this occasion.

New paper: Territorial Extension and Case Law of the Court of Justice: Good Administration and Access to Justice in Procurement as a Case Study

I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN on 'Territorial Extension and Case Law of the Court of Justice: Good Administration and Access to Justice in Procurement as a Case Study', which develops previously sketched ideas on the challenges that the 'regulatory export' of EU procurement rules can create for the functioning of the CJEU and the Commission in the context of the EU's external trade activity (see here). The abstract of the paper is as follows:

This paper explores some of the legal implications of the territorial extension or extraterritoriality of EU public procurement law through free trade agreements and planned flanking retaliatory EU trade policy. The paper has the starting position that, with this policy and regulatory approach, the EU pursues two main goals: first, to further global standards of human rights protection and, second, to further regulatory convergence towards its own procurement standards. The paper concentrates on the pursuit of this second goal and, in particular, on the implications of such territorial extension or extraterritoriality of EU procurement law for the case law of the Court of Justice on good administration and access to justice, as recognised in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The paper concentrates on public procurement due to its relevance in free trade agreements between the EU and third countries, as well as the relevance of statutory and case law requirements concerning procurement remedies. The paper assesses both the outwards and inwards implications of the functional territorial extension for the case law of the Court of Justice. The discussion in the paper also raises general issues concerning procedural design and the consideration of foreign law by the Court of Justice in different settings.

The paper is freely available through SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3081061

Interesting Norwegian case on public procurement of health and social services and alleged discrimination of private enterprises against EU/EEA law (ESA 154/17/COL)

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On 20 September 2017, the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA) decided to close the investigation of a complaint against Norway for the alleged unlawful discrimination of private enterprises and breach of the EEA rules on public procurement in the award of contracts for health and social services (that is, childcare services, management of nursing homes, hospitals, medical and other types of rehab, psychotherapy, professional addiction treatment, etc), on the basis that Norwegian national rules appeared to allow public entities to award those contracts exclusively to non-profit organisations (“ideelle organisasjoner”, according to the terminology used in Norwegian legislation).

The case thus concerned a set of issues closely linked to those decided by the Court of Justice of the European Union in Spezzino (C-113/13, EU:C:2014:2440/ CASTA (C-50/14, EU:C:2016:56) [for discussion, see the special issue of (2016) 11(1) EPPPL]. ESA dismissed the complaint both on procurement and on general EEA law grounds (ie Articles 32 and 39 of the EEA agreement, providing for an exemption for activities 'connected, even occasionally, with the exercise of official authority'; cfr Art 51 TFEU).

Regarding the procurement aspects of the complaint, ESA considered that the Norwegian rules fulfilled 'the legal requirements laid down in case-law exceptionally allowing national contracting authorities to directly award public contracts having as their subject matter services in the social and health sector to non-profit organisations' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 5). Regarding general internal market law, ESA concluded that the Norwegian rules on direct award 'applied to activities connected directly and specifically with the exercise of official authority, in particular those necessary to operate child welfare institutions and requiring the adoption of coercive measures, as specified in Norwegian legislation. Ancillary activities such as works and/or the provision of catering, laundry, transport and similar services remain subject to the EEA rules on public procurement' (idem). 

In this post, I reflect on both lines of argumentation concerning the exemption of the award of contracts for the provision of healthcare and social services from procurement and EEA law. Before engaging with the details , it is worth noting that the case was initiated in 2015 and thus concerned Norwegian law transposing the 2004 EU/EEA public procurement rules (Dir 2004/18/EC, in particular for the 'old' Part II-B services). However, in my view, the decision by ESA raises some issues that will remain relevant for the procurement of healthcare and social services under the light-touch regime of Directive 2014/24/EU (esp Art 77)--on which I offer some concluding thoughts.

The Norwegian reservation and exclusion of contracts

In the case at hand, ESA had to assess the compatibility with general EEA law and with EU/EEA procurement law of Norwegian legislation allowing for the reservation of contracts for the provision of health and social services to non-profit organisations, to the exclusion of private (profit-seeking) enterprises. In particular, the analysis concerned the compatibility or not with EEA law of 'Section 2-1 (3) and Section 1-3(2) lit. k of the Norwegian Regulation No. 402 of 7 April 2006 on public procurement (Forskrift No. 402 om offentlige anskaffelser). While the first legal basis contains a general authorisation to privilege non-profit organisations in award procedures, the second legal basis relies on a presumed exercise of official authority required to provide the services in question' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 1).

In particular, the relevant provisions established that Norwegian contracting authorities did not have to comply with the relevant procurement rules for the award of 'contracts regarding the execution of health and social services' to 'an ideal organisation' (ie “ideelle organisasjoner”) (Section 2-1 (3)); and that those rules did not apply to 'contracts involving the exercise of official authority which can be exempted in line with the EEA Agreement Article 39, cf. Article 32' (Section 1-3(2) lit. k) (see ESA, 154/17/COL, para 3.2). The first rule was based on the limited obligations derived from Dir 2004/18/EC for services covered by category 25 of its Annex II-B (where there was no presumption of cross-border interest in their provision), whereas the second one is clearly linked to the carve-out in the scope of the EEA Agreement for the exercise of official authority. Given that the rules had different legal bases, ESA decided to assess them separately ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4).

Reservation of contracts to non-profit organisations

In order to assess the compatibility with EU/EEA procurement law of the possibility to directly award contracts to 'ideal organisations', ESA relies on the case law of the Court of Justice in Spezzino and CASTA (above), which it interprets as establishing the following principles:

  • EU/EEA law does not categorically prohibit the privileged treatment of non-profit organisations in award procedures (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.2).
  • The legal requirements derived from the case law for a privileged treatment of non-profit organisations in award procedures are as follows (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.2):
    • the service must be exclusively or, at least predominantly, a non-priority service covered by Annex II-B of Dir 2004/18/EC;
    • the service in question must have some cross-border relevance in order to trigger the application of the general principles of EU public procurement law, which is of limited relevance in the context of EEA law, where EEA States 'could, in principle, adopt a less strict set of rules than those foreseen in Directive 2004/18, allowing a preferential treatment of voluntary organisations, provided that there is no discrimination based on nationality';
    • there has to be an objective justification consisting in an interest to protect human health and life, and 'it is for the EEA States ... to decide on the degree of protection which they wish to afford to public health and on the way in which that degree of protection is to be achieved'; 
    • the award must contribute to the social purpose and the pursuit of the objectives of the good of the community and budgetary efficiency, which is subject to a case by case analysis; and
    • the organisations beneficiaries of privileged treatment are not allowed to pursue objectives other than the good of the community and budgetary efficiency, and are not allowed to make any profit as a result of their services apart from reimbursement of the variable, fixed and on-going expenditure to provide them, or to procure any profit for their members.
    • Finally, resort to this exception from the general rules on public procurement finds its limits in the prohibition of abuse of rights.

In my view, the interpretation of the Spezzino/CASTA case law by ESA is largely adequate, but it seems to omit an explicit assessment of the importance given in those cases to the Italian constitutional framework, which created a special protection for third sector voluntary organisations at a constitutional level (Spezzino, EU:C:2014:2440, para 9; CASTA, EU:C:2016:56, para 9, for further discussion, see here and here). It would have been interesting for ESA to express a view on whether such constitutional requirements form part of the case law or not (implicitly, it seems the view is that they do not) and how they applied to the Norwegian context (in particular, in view of the absence of a specified constitutional position of such 'ideal organisations', see below).

In applying the legal requirements derived from the Spezzino/CASTA line of case law, ESA followed a light-touch approach and considered that all of them were met (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.4). In particular, ESA stressed that the Norwegian Government considered that

Section 2-1(3) of the Norwegian Regulation aims to ensure that non-profit organisations can continue to provide health and social services ... [and that] non-profit organisations are an important alternative to common service providers. A combination of public, commercial and non-profit providers of health and social services shall ensure a diversified offer, designed to fulfil the different needs of the population. The Authority infers from this explanation that the legislative objective pursued by the national provision in question is to safeguard public health and social welfare, both being legitimate grounds, which justify a derogation from the principles of transparency and non-discrimination in EEA public procurement law, as established in the Court of Justice’s case-law.

While the national provision in question seems to be based on policy considerations, namely to create conditions for involving non-profit organisations in the provision of health and social services, the Authority does not see any inconsistency with the general objective of protecting public health and social welfare in Norway. As the Court of Justice has repeatedly emphasized, EEA law does not detract from the power of the EEA States to organise their public health and social security systems. Consequently, the said national policy consisting in favouring non-profit organisations with the aim of increasing their degree of involvement in the national health and social system must be regarded as one of the many considerations the EEA States may take into account when exercising their discretion as regards the manner how the wish to organise their public health and social security systems (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.4, pages 9-10, footnote omitted, emphasis added). 

In my view, this passage of the Decision is not too clear and the analysis comes to conflate two issues: first, the absence of constraints on decisions of organisation of public health and social security systems and, second, the applicability of EU/EEA procurement rules to specific modes of organisation derived from those decisions and, in particular, to modes of organisation involving the buy-in of services from the market (even if the market is limited to that of non-profit organisations). From this perspective, the boundaries of the constitutional limits to the self-organisation (which under EU law are controlled by Art 14, Protocol No (26) and Art 345 TFEU) seem to be slightly blurred, and thus the benefit that could have been derived from more explicit reasoning considering the classing of the activity and the existence or not of constitutional-level protection in Norway.

Similarly, the application of the requirement of contribution to budgetary efficiency is limited to general considerations leading to the conclusion that there was no 'indication that tender procedures carried out under this legal regime might not be driven by budgetary efficiency concerns' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.4, page 10), and the analysis of the boundaries of the concept of 'ideal organisation' is equally loose where ESA relies on the following:

... the concept of “ideelle organisasjon” ... is generally understood by the Norwegian Government and contracting authorities as synonymous for “non-profit organisation in pursuance of a social aim”. Due to the absence of any legal definition in national legislation and/or any national registry of recognised entities, the classification as non-profit must be carried out ad hoc by every contracting authority for every award procedure. In order to ensure a consistent administrative practice, the classification is based on guidelines developed by the Norwegian Government, which specify the criteria that must be met. According to these guidelines, “either the business pursued shall not have any profit objective or the profit gained must be used exclusively to operate humanist and social services in the interest of the general public or that of particular groups”. In addition, “the entire organisation, without any economic incentive, must work to alleviate social needs of the community or specific vulnerable groups”. Both the entity’s organisational structure and any tax privileges are taken into account as relevant factors in the overall assessment. According to the information provided, contracting authorities have nonetheless established a practice with regard to which providers are considered to be non-profit. As a result, unless their status changes, no documentation will be required from them in order to prove their status a non-profit organisation (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.4, pages 9-10, footnotes omitted, emphasis added).

On the whole, in my view, the analysis is rather lenient. This follows the same normative direction as the Spezzino and CASTA Judgments of the Court of Justice, but it may become too lenient under the revised regime of Directive 2014/24/EU (see below). Interestingly, ESA saved this possibility by explicitly indicating that 'given the limited scope of the Authority’s assessment, this preliminary conclusion does not extend to the question of a possible compatibility of currently applicable Norwegian law with Article 77 of Directive 2014/24' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.5).

Direct award of contracts involving the exercise of official authority

Concerning the second Norwegian rule under examination--ie the possibility to directly award contracts involving the exercise of official authority--ESA explained that Section 1-3(2) lit. k of the Norwegian Regulation 'constitutes a legal basis allowing contracting authorities to derogate from the general national rules on procurement, where the provision of public services in the health and social sector requires the exercise of official authority. In accordance with the national policy referred to above, in support of an increased involvement of voluntary organisations, this legal provision is applied as a legal basis for excluding economic operators other than non-profit organisations from tender procedures if contracting authorities wish so' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.1). Therefore, the crucial aspect that required analysis concerned the test applicable to determine whether the provision of certain types of health and social services require the exercise of official authority. In that regard, ESA established the relevant test as follows

The Court of Justice has interpreted these provisions on several occasions, shedding light on the requirements their application is subject to. It has ruled that, as derogations from the fundamental rules of freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services, they must be interpreted in a manner which limits their scope to what is strictly necessary in order to safeguard the interests which they allow the EEA States to protect. Furthermore, the Court of Justice has ruled that derogations provided for under those articles must be restricted to activities which, in themselves, are directly and specifically connected with the exercise of official authority. Such a connection requires a sufficiently qualified exercise of prerogatives outside the general law, privileges of official power or powers of coercion. This applies, in particular, to activities entailing the exercise of powers of constraint. Accordingly, the exceptions in question do not extend to activities that are merely auxiliary or preparatory to the exercise of official authority, or to certain activities whose exercise, although involving contacts, even regular and organic, with the administrative or judicial authorities, or indeed cooperation, even compulsory, in their functioning, leaves their discretionary and decision-making powers intact, or to certain activities which do not involve the exercise of decision-making powers, powers of constraint or powers of coercion (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.2, pages 12-13, footnotes omitted, emphasis added).

The test seems unobjectionable and, in my view, it reflects adequately the case law of the Court of Justice. However, in the assessment of the application of the test to the analysis of the case at hand, it is necessary to bear in mind that ESA was analysing tenders for the operation of child welfare institutions (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.3), which will make the criterion of 'exercise of powers of constraint' particularly important, not least because 'these services have as their objective the wellbeing of minors, who, due to the special protection they require, are placed under the care and the surveillance of the State. The conditions for their – voluntary or compulsory – internment in the institutions in question are regulated in detail in national legislation. The same applies to the conditions for the adoption of a number of measures, aimed at ensuring the fulfilment of the tasks, such as body searches, search of rooms and personal belongings, confiscation and destruction of dangerous objects and drugs, control of mail as well as the recovery of minors who have escaped from the institutions' (ibid). 

In that regard, ESA reached the conclusion that, given the impact of the decisions adopted by the staff of the operators of child welfare institutions on the fundamental rights of the children interned there, 

 it is evident ... that child welfare institutions in Norway exercise coercive powers within the meaning of Articles 32 EEA and 39 EEA, as interpreted in the case-law of the Court of Justice, when adopting the said measures on minors in the accomplishment of the tasks assigned. This occurs in an official function, as it is expressly authorised by the national legislator on the basis of a specific legal base in domestic law and does not require further involvement and/or authorisation of State bodies typically entrusted with the exercise of official authority, in particular the use of force. Furthermore, the use of coercive measures occurs in fulfilment of tasks concerning essential interests of society. The consequence of this conclusion is that activities requiring the use of these coercive measures are not covered by the fundamental rules of the right of establishment and the freedom to provide services. As a result, the EEA rules on public procurement do not apply to this specific area of social and health services. From this point of view, these rules do not preclude a national provision such as Section 1-3(2) lit. k of the Norwegian Regulation, which allows the exclusion of economic operators other than non-profit organisations from tender procedures if contracting authorities wish so (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.3, page 11, emphasis added).

However, ESA is also clear in stressing the fact that, in the context of contracts for the operation of these institutions, the exercise of official authority will only concern some activities, but not others. In that regard, the decision is clear in stressing that

The obligation to subject exceptions to the fundamental freedoms to a narrow interpretation, thus limiting them to activities connected directly and specifically with the exercise of official authority in order to ensure the functioning of the internal market, makes it nonetheless necessary to distinguish them from other activities possibly falling within the definition of “works” and/or “services” within the meaning of Article 1 of Directive 2004/18. Activities such as the construction of infrastructure needed for the operation of child welfare institutions and/or the provision of catering, laundry and transport services do not appear ... to be connected directly and specifically with the exercise of official authority, and could be equally performed by economic operators specialised in the respective area. Performance of these tasks would merely require supervision by the institution’s management bodies, but not necessarily the adoption of measures falling under the State’s prerogatives. Consequently, in order not to deprive the rules on the right of establishment and the freedom to provide services, Directive 2004/18 intends to implement, of all practical effectiveness, it is upon the contracting authority to carry out a case-by-case assessment of the applicability of Section 1-3(2) lit. k of the Norwegian Regulation to every public contract to be tendered out, taking into account the purpose of Articles 32 EEA and 39 EEA, as interpreted in the case-law referred to above. The contracting authority must thereby assess whether other merely ancillary activities, not strictly requiring the exercise of official authority in order to safeguard legitimate State interests, would be eligible for being subject to a separate tender procedure foreseeing the participation of both non-profit organisations and other economic operators alike. In its assessment, the contracting authority must take due account of the objective underlying the EEA rules on public procurement, consisting in ensuring the development of effective competition in the field of public contracts, while the principles of transparency, non-discrimination and equal treatment are upheld (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.5, page 17, footnotes omitted, emphasis added).

In my view, the general criterion is adequate and the need to limit the exception based on the exercise of official authority is correctly stated. Nonetheless, the ESA decision could have indicated some criteria as to how to carry out such assessment of severability of activities and, in particular, of the proportionality requirements applicable to such assessment. In my view, it will be difficult for a contracting authority to identify the extent to which it should insist on the tender of separate contracts for works or services for ancillary activities when it is choosing to award a contract for the operation of facilities providing health or social services. Functionally, the selection of the operator comes to avoid the need for the contracting authority to directly manage those facilities, which seems rather incompatible with the on-going obligation that the authority would retain if it were to impose procurement obligations on the operator of those facilities in relation to non-core or ancillary activities. Equally, it is not clear the extent to which this approach is compatible with the rules on the mandatory tendering of subsidised contracts (in particular where the 'construction of infrastructure needed for the operation of' those facilities is concerned), ex Art 8 Dir 2004/18/EC and, now, Art 13 Dir 2014/24/EU--which ESA could have considered explicitly in its decision.

In any case, it seems that this could soon be subjected to a re-examination, given that ESA reserved 'itself the right to investigate possible breaches derived from an application of that legal basis to contracts covering activities not linked to the exercise of official authority, such as those referred above, including, but not limited to, contracts expected to be awarded in tender procedures concerning the construction and operation of nursing homes' (which seems to form part of an on-going dispute; ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.2.6, page 17).

critical considerations, in particular concerning Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU

In my view, the decision of ESA in this case indicates that--even from a normative position of minimum intervention and creation of maximum policy space for EEA (and EU) Member States, such as that derived from the Spezzino/CASTA case law and from the recognition that the provision of health and social services (and any 'services to the person') can have an impact on the fundamental rights of the beneficiaries of those services, which should be conceptualised as the exercise of official authority (in particular to subject their control to the guarantees of the ECHR and the Charter of Fundamental Rights)--there are important unresolved issues where Member States decide to outsource the operation of facilities for the provision of those services.

Firstly, the creation of preferential treatment is now to be governed by the specific light-touch regime of Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU, which creates specific requirements for the operators that can benefit from the reservation of public contracts for the provision of social and special services. Each Member State will need to adopt policies that are both in compliance with their constitutional structure and tradition and their broader social policies, and with the specific requirements in the Directive. From that perspective, it seems no longer acceptable for Member States not to have clear rules on which entities fall within the remit of Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU and any such assessments of compatibility will require effective monitoring by the relevant authorities (ie either each contracting authority, or some central authority or body in each Member State). In addition, and implicitly, there has to be a mechanism to ensure the mutual recognition of entities covered by Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU in other EU/EEA jurisdictions. In the specific case, ESA did not need to assess this issue due to the inapplicability of Dir 201424/EU, but it is worth stressing that, as part of its assessment, it highlighted the fact that 'economic operators from other EEA States are welcome to submit tenders in the area of health and social services provided that they are registered as non-profit organisations in their respective States of origin' (ESA, 154/17/COL, para 4.1.4, page 9). However, this possibility will have to remain effective, and that would not necessarily be the case if contracting authorities were allowed to act in certain ways (eg with insufficient transparency, or relying on pre-approved (or informal) lists of potential non-profit providers--in particular if those included in the lists or informal arrangements were never audited to ensure continued compliance with the applicable requirements).

Secondly, and probably with more practical complications, it seems difficult to establish bright-line criteria to determine the boundaries of the material scope of the exemption from competitive tendering (either due to a reservation of contract under Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU or, in the context of EEA law, due to the exercise of official authority--which may now become a testable argument under EU law to seek exemptions beyond Art 77 Dir 2014/24/EU). In particular where the contract is not solely for the provision of the 'core' health or social services (which will rarely be), but rather for the operation of facilities where those services are provided--which might be the most common way of commissioning those services. In that regard, it seems that there can be an incentive for contracting authorities to opt for the outsourcing of the management of health or social services facilities where the contracting authority can enter into a single contract and thus detach itself from the day to day operation thereof. In that context, if contracting authorities need to engage in a detailed analysis of the services that can or cannot be exempted (and those that, consequently, need to be tendered separately and with full subjection to the procurement rules), possibly with a view of running several procurement processes and, eventually micro-managing the contracting of ancillary services (with the ensuing integration and coordination risks, for the split of contracts would create residual risks for the contracting authority), the incentive for the outsourcing can largely be lost.

On the whole, then, it seems that additional clear guidance is needed on the scope of Art 77 of Dir 2014/24/EU and, more generally, on the extent to which the light-touch regime foreseen in Arts 74-77 thereof is subject to limitations in cases of outsourcing of entire facilities. In that regard, it would seem desirable for the European Commission to adopt a more proactive approach to the publication of interpretive guidance of the 2014 Public Procurement Package beyond the meagre fact sheets currently available.

CJEU decision on EIB-funded procurement sheds some light on interpretation of Arts 9 & 17 Dir 2014/24/EU (C-408/16)

In its Judgment of 6 December 2017 in Compania Naţională de Administrare a Infrastructurii Rutiere, C-408/16, EU:C:2017:940, the Court of Justice (ECJ) has decided a case concerning procurement potentially covered by the rules of an international financing institution (in particular, the European Investment Bank - EIB). In the case, which is somehow complicated by transitory arrangements linked to Romania's accession to the EU, the ECJ has advanced some relevant considerations on the interpretation of the now repealed Art 15(c) of Directive 2004/18/EC, which foresaw an exclusion for contracts tendered 'pursuant to the particular procedure of an international organisation'. In my view, those considerations will be relevant for the interpretation of the revised rules in Articles 9(2) and 17(2) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which now extend the exclusion to contracts tendered 'in accordance with procurement rules provided by an international organisation or international financing institution, where the [contracts] concerned are fully financed by that organisation or institution'.

The CNADNR case

In 2003, the EIB and Romania entered into a finance agreement for the construction of the Arad-Timişoara-Lugoj motorway, which was to be managed by Compania Naţională de Autostrăzi şi Drumuri Naţionale of România SA (‘CNADNR’, now renamed as Compania Naţională de Administrare a Infrastructurii Rutiere). As part of a linked 2004 loan contract, it was established that ‘the CNADNR shall comply with the EIB’s procedures for the procurement of goods, the guarantee of services and the undertaking of works necessary for the project’, namely ‘through international calls for tender open to candidates from all countries’.

At that time, this commitment derived from Chapter 3 of the 2004 EIB Guide to Procurement (since replaced by a 2011 version), which controlled procurement linked to its operations outside the EU. However, the implementation of the project would eventually span beyond the date of Romania's accession to the EU on 1 January 2007, which triggered some issues of transitional procurement arrangements that require some consideration.

The Romanian Adhesion Protocol established that public procurement procedures linked to pre-accession financial commitments but initiated after accession shall be carried out in accordance with the relevant Union provisions (Art 27(2)), and that all EU secondary legislation shall be given effectiveness in Romania from the date of accession, save if a different date was agreed for specific instruments (which did not include the then effective Dir 2004/18/EC; Art 53(1)). In short, this meant that all new procurement procedures starting on or after 1 January 2017 were subjected to the rules of Dir 2004/18/EC.

The same result would derive from the EIB Guide, according to which the rules in its Chapter 3 would apply 'until the deadline when [borrowing countries] were committed to applying the EU Directives on procurement as agreed during their negotiations with the Commission to the extent that they have transposed these Directives into their national legislation at that moment' and, from that moment, Chapter 2 on operations within the EU would apply to them--thus requiring, by and large, compliance with specific procedures as regulated by the EU Directives.

Romania generally subjected all of its post-accession procurement to its domestic transposition of Directive 2004/18/EC by means of the Government Emergency Order No 34/2006 (OUG No 34/2006). However, Government Emergency Order No 72/2007 (OUG No 72/2007) created a specific exception for the motorway project, according to which '[b]y way of derogation from the provisions of [OUG No 34/2006] … for the purposes of the procedure for the award of public works contracts … relating to the Arad-Timișoara-Lugoj motorway …, the [CNADNR] shall apply the provisions of the [EIB Guide], Chapter 3' (C-408/16, para 17). Somehow, the need for this exception seemed to derive from the fact that a contract had been awarded in 2006 for the consulting services necessary for the preparation of the procurement file for the public works contracts (see para 20), which probably established requirements concerned with tendering under Chapter 3 of the EIB Guide, rather than under the rules of Directive 2004/18/EC.

The exception created for the tendering of the contracts funded by the EIB was eventually caught by an audit linked to the granting of retroactive EU funding for the project. The exception from compliance with the tender rules in Dir 2004/18/EC was considered an irregularity, which triggered a financial correction of 10% of the value of the contract. The audit also noted that non-compliance with the rules of Dir 2004/18/EC was not solely formal, but that 'three pre-selection criteria laid down by [the EIB-compliant tender documents] were more restrictive than those provided for by Directive 2004/18, namely, firstly, a criterion relating to the candidate’s personal situation and in particular, the background of non-performance of contracts, which is contrary to Articles 44 and 45 of Directive 2004/18, and secondly, a criterion relating to the applicant’s financial situation which is contrary to Article 47 of Directive 2004/18 and, thirdly, a criterion relating to the applicant’s experience which does not comply with Article 48 of that directive' (ibid, para 25). 

Ultimately, in view of the impossibility of reconciling the requirements of EIB Chapter 3 with those of Dir 2004/18/EC, a legal dispute arose as to whether this discrepancy could be saved by the exclusion from coverage of Dir 2004/18/EC of contracts 'governed by different procedural rules and awarded ... pursuant to the particular procedure of an international organisation' (Art 15(c))--in that case, the EIB's.

As could be expected, the ECJ has found that the specific exception created by OUG No 72/2007 contravened EU law. In clear terms, it has reiterated that accession to the EU requires compliance with EU procurement rules, to the effect that this 'precludes a Member State’s legislation that provides, for the purposes of a public procurement procedure initiated after the date of its accession to the European Union, in order to complete a project started on the basis of a finance agreement concluded with the EIB prior to that accession, the application of the specific criteria laid down by the provisions of the EIB Guide which do not comply with the provisions of that directive' (para 52).

The ECJ's decision, even if it carries significant financial implications, does not raise any legal concerns--in particular in view of the fact that the transition to full compliance with the EU Directive derived both from the Adhesion Protocol (para 48) and the transitory rules in the EIB Guide (para 50; particularly in view of the fact that Romania transposed the relevant EU Directive ahead of its accession, by means of OUG No 34/2006). However, the way the ECJ has approached the analysis can shed some light on the likely interpretation of the revised rules in Dir 2014/24/EU.

The ECJ's reasoning concerning procurement rules of international organisations under Dir 2004/18/EC and relevance for Dir 2014/24/EU

In its assessment of whether Art 15(c) Dir 2004/18/EC would have subjected the tender at issue to the EIB procurement rules to the exclusion of those in the domestic transposition of the same directive, the ECJ established that

Article 15(c) of Directive 2004/18 states that that directive does not apply to public contracts governed by particular procedural rules of an international organisation ... that article, read in conjunction with recital 22 of Directive 2004/18, lists three cases of public contracts to which that directive does not apply to the extent that those public contracts are governed by different procedural rules. Moreover, it is clear that that article forms part of Section 3, entitled ‘Excluded contracts’, of Chapter II, entitled ‘Scope’, of Title II, itself entitled ‘Rules on public contracts’ of Directive 2004/18. It thus follows both from the wording of Article 15(c) of Directive 2004/18 and from the context in which it appears, that that article constitutes an exception to the material scope of that directive. Such an exception must necessarily be interpreted strictly ... In order to assess whether a public procurement procedure ... may fall within the exception provided for in Article 15(c) of Directive 2004/18, it is necessary to determine whether such a procedure can be considered to be governed by particular procedural rules of an international organisation (C-408/16, paras 43-46, references omitted and emphases added).

In my view, there are two main potential implications of this passage. The first one concerns the scope of the concept of 'international organisation' under Art 15(c) Dir 2004/18/EC, and how it will impact an interpretation of the equivalent concept in Arts 9 and 17 of Dir 2014/24/EU. Even if the ECJ made it clear that the construction of the exception in Art 15(c) Dir 2004/18/EC had to be narrow, the Court did not pay much attention to the legal nature of the EIB and did not consider whether it could be classified as an 'international organisation' stricto sensu. This could be surprising, as the EIB has a status under EU law that could be difficult to subsume within certain (narrow) interpretations of the concept of 'international organisation'.

Indeed, under Arts 308 and 309 TFEU and Protocol (No 5) on the statute of the European Investment Bank, the EIB has a sui generis status that derives from EU primary law [see both the Judgment in Commission v EIB, C-15/00, EU:C:2003:396, and the Opinon of AG Jacobs in that case (EU:C:2002:557), as well as the European Parliament's 2003 working paper on the EIB's Institutional Status]. From this perspective, assigning it the nature of 'international organisation' may have required some additional scrutiny under the strict interpretive approach outlined by the ECJ. The absence of such additional scrutiny could seem to point towards a certain leniency or flexibility in the scoping of the concept of 'international organisation'. However, this may be misleading if we take into account that, in the CNADNR case, the non-compliant rules of Chapter 3 of the EIB guide would not have governed the contract anyway--which may have conditioned the ECJ's approach throughout the case. 

In the future, and in the specific case of the EIB and other multilateral lending institutions, this may not be too relevant in the context of Arts 9 and 17 of Directive 2014/24/EU because they make explicit reference to procurement subject to the rules of an 'international organisation or international financing institution' (emphasis added). However, given the possibility of disputes as to whether specific entities or institutions can be considered 'international organisations' stricto sensu, and in the absence of an obligation to communicate a list of those organisations to the Commission (cfr Art 9(1) in fine Dir 2014/24/EU for exceptions based on legal instruments creating international law obligations), understanding whether the ECJ approach is restrictive or not will be important. In that regard, in my view and despite the fact that the analysis in the CNADNR could have been clearer, the exception in Arts 9(2) and 17(2) Dir 2014/24/EU will have to be constructed on the basis of a strict interpretation of the concept of 'international organisation'.

The second potential implication of the passage cited above--and in particular of the ECJ's consideration that '[i]n order to assess whether a public procurement procedure ... may fall within the exception ..., it is necessary to determine whether such a procedure can be considered to be governed by particular procedural rules of an international organisation' (C-408/16, para 46)--is that not EU law, but rather the rules of the international organisation providing putative coverage will determine the applicability of the exception. Or, in other words, it seems that the national review bodies and courts, and ultimately the ECJ, will have to engage in assessments of whether the procurement rules of the given international organisation or international financing institution cover or not a specific tender, which will potentially require them to engage in the interpretation of those 'foreign' rules. This triggers complicated issues linked to the ability of the ECJ (and other administrative and judicial bodies) to engage in the interpretation of those rules, which is something I discuss in some detail in a recent paper [see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Territorial Extension and Case Law of the Court of Justice: Good Administration and Access to Justice in Procurement as a Case Study' (2017) SSRN working paper]. This will trigger some additional interpretive difficulties surrounding the scope of the exclusion in Arts 9 and 17 Dir 2014/24/EU and, once more, my view is that the ECJ will tend to take a narrow approach.

Could the Finn Frogne case law get any weirder? The strange case of the partial termination of a parking concession (Conseil d’État, N°s 409728, 409799)

© Erwin Wurm

© Erwin Wurm

In its Decision of 15 November 2017 in the case of the Commune d'Aix-en-Provence and the Societe d'économie mixte d'équipement du Pays d'Aix (SEMEPA) (N°s 409728, 409799, the ‘SEMEPA Decision’), the Conseil d’État applied the new French rules on the modification of concession contracts that transpose Art 43 of the Concessions Directive (Dir 2014/23/EU). In the SEMEPA Decision, the Conseil d’État followed an approach that resembles very closely that of the Court of Justice of the European Union in its Judgment 7 September 2016 in Finn Frogne, C-549/14, EU:C:2016:634 (see here, which the Conseil d’État does however not mention), and decided that the partial termination of a concession contract for the exploitation of street and underground parking sites in Aix-en-Provence in a way that changed the overall nature of the contract was illegal. The SEMEPA Decision leaves an important factual element unexplored—ie the potential existence of an in-house relationship between the contracting authority and the concessionaire—which raises some questions as to the scope and limits of the applicability of the modification and termination rules derived from the 2014 Public Procurement Package to in-house providing structures.

Regardless of that, in itself, the Decision of the Conseil d’État is remarkable (and puzzling) for the extreme brevity of the justification given for the conclusion that the partial termination of the concession contract was illegal. In my view, the only plausible explanation for this extremely brief justification by the Conseil d’État is the even weirder background of the dispute, which involves a rebellious rejection by the municipality of Aix-en-Provence of a legal reform that transfers the competence for the management of (certain types of) parking sites to a higher level of regional administration (the ‘métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence’). In this post, I briefly address these two aspects of a truly interesting case that Prof François Lichère brought to my attention—for which I am grateful.

The illegality of the partial termination of the concession contract

In the case at hand, the municipality of Aix-en-Provence had entered into a series of concession contracts with SEMEPA for the exploitation of street and underground parking sites in that city—the oldest of which dated back from 29 December 1986. SEMEPA is a mixed economy company in which the municipality holds a controlling stake and appoints the majority of the board of directors (ie a body governed by public law and, prima facie, an in-house entity). On 9 June 2016, the municipality decided to partially terminate one of the concession agreements, and this decision was brought under judicial review. On this specific point, the Decision of the Conseil d’État establishes that

Considering, in the first place, that under the terms of Article 55 of the Ordinance of 29 January 2016 on concession contracts, applicable by virtue of Article 78 thereof to the modification of concession contracts in force prior to the entry into force of the Ordinance: ‘the conditions in which a concession contract can be modified during its term without a new concession award procedure are established by implementing regulation. Such modifications cannot change the overall nature of the concession contract. / Where the execution of the concession contract cannot be carried out without a modification contrary to the terms of this Ordinance, the concession contract can be terminated by the conceding authority’; under the terms of Article of the Decree of 1 February 2016 which sets implementing rules for the application of this Ordinance: ‘A concession contract can be modified in the following cases: (…) 5 Where the modifications, of whichever value, are not substantial. / A modification is considered substantial where it changes the global nature of the concession contract. In any case, a modification is substantial where any of the following conditions is met: / a) it introduces conditions which, had they been part of the initial concession award procedure, would have attracted additional participants in the concession award procedure, or allowed for the admission of candidates or tenderers other than those initially admitted, or for the acceptance of a tender other than that originally accepted. b) it changes the economic balance of the concession in favour of the concessionaire in a manner which was not provided for in the initial concession (…);

Considering that it is proven that the agreement concluded on 29 December 1986 between the municipality of Aix-en-Provence and SEMEPA, which had as its object the concession of the management of a public service of off-street parking and a public service of on-street parking, constituted, in fact and notably from the characteristics of its financial equilibrium, a single agreement; that, even if the municipality of Aix-en-Provence and SEMEPA declared to have proceeded to the ‘partial termination’ of that agreement, the agreement of 9 June 2016 had as its object a modification of the initial concession contract; that this modification needs to be view, in regard to its extension [ie the fact that it covered a large number of the parking sites initially covered], as changing the global nature of the initial contract; that it [the modification] introduced, in addition, conditions which, had they been part of the initial concession award procedure, could have attracted additional participants, or allowed for the admission of candidates or tenderers other than those initially admitted, or for the acceptance of a tender other than that originally accepted; that, consequently, [the challenge] based on the fact that this modification of the agreement of 29 December 1986 was adopted in breach of the rules for the modification of concession contracts is such as to create serious doubts as to its validity (paras 19-20, own translation from French).

As mentioned above, the Decision of the Conseil d’État in SEMEPA seems aligned with the Finn Frogne Judgment of the Court of Justice in the sense that it considers that a material reduction of the scope of the concession contract is able to change its nature and thus determine the illegality of the modification. However, in Finn Frogne the change in the nature of the contract derived (at least partially) from the fact that the partial termination resulted in a supply (and installation?) contract, rather than a concession. This is not the case in SEMEPA and it is hard to disentangle the two reasons given by the Conseil d’État in the same para (20): that the material reduction was such as to alter the global nature of the contract AND one that, had it been part of the initial award procedure, would have created different competition conditions and possibly led to a different award decision. From that perspective, the SEMEPA Decision does not make much to contribute to a proper understanding of the several grounds prohibiting different types of illegal (concession) contract modifications.

Additionally, given that SEMEPA is an in-house entity (or at least that is what seems to derive from the discussion in the next paragraph of the Decision, see below), the Conseil d’État missed an opportunity to clarify whether the applicability of the rules on contract modification in this specific case result solely from an (expansive) interpretation of the domestic law, or rather derive from the rules in the Concession Directive and/or general principles of EU public procurement law—which is, however, a tricky issue best saved for another time.

Procurement law to the rescue? Background to the partial termination of the concession

Going back to the SEMEPA Decision, and as also mentioned above, the only plausible explanation I can find for the extremely shallow and formalistic analysis and the brief justification given by the Conseil d’État for the finding of illegal modification is the even weirder background of the dispute, which is described in the following terms:

Considering, in the second place, that in a communication of 20 June 2016, published on the [Aix-en-Provence] municipality’s website, it indicated that the City Council had sold eight ‘off-street’ parking sites to SEMEPA, which had until then been exploiting them in the framework of a public service delegation, that this sale would allow the municipality to ‘avoid the obligation of gratuitously transmitting its parking sites to the [métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence], which the law required’, that ‘such parking sites constitute an estate, which the municipality has created, that its inhabitants have paid for, et [which] it would have been abnormall to have to donate them [to the métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence]’, and that ‘to those who doubt that this sale contributes to take the parking policy from the elected, to transfer it to the non-elected, without any guarantee that such policy will be preserved, it will be put that the exact opposite will happen: SEMEPA is a mixed economy company managed by a board of directors in which the elected from the municipality are the majority. The tariffs will continue to be controlled by the municipality; this will form part of the contract between both partners. In addition, SEMEPA’s annual activity report is presented annually to the City Council’; … proceeding to the … modification of the [concession] contract of 29 December 1986, and to the transfer of the off-street parking sites to SEMEPA, the Municipality and SEMEPA had as the sole goal to prevent the exercise, by the métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence of the power to regulate parking sites which it is given with effect from 1 January 2018the [challenge] based on the fact that the [modification] of 9 June 2016 had an illicit object and had to be considered an ‘abuse of power’ is such as to create serious doubts as to its validity  (paras 21, own translation from French).

Now, that explains everything! Except the need to use public procurement law at all in a situation of such clear fraudulent use of contractual mechanisms to avoid mandatory public law duties …

 

Friday Plug: Inaugural call for papers of the Nordic Journal of European Law

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The editors of the newly established Nordic Journal of European Law have asked me to bring their inaugural call for papers to your attention. So here it is:

The Nordic Journal of European Law (NJEL) is proud to announce its first call for papers for the 2018 spring term. The NJEL is a Nordic-based peer-reviewed journal of European law. The journal is a PhD-run initiative from Lund University, in cooperation with other Nordic universities with the aim to promote the knowledge and research of European law in the Nordic countries. The NJEL will be published through open-access on a bi-annual basis.

The NJEL is aimed at publishing legal or inter-disciplinary works related to issues of European law in its widest sense. We welcome submissions in the form of articles, case notes and book reviews. Submissions are open to both senior and junior researchers as well as practitioners. We accept submissions from practitioners and researchers who are not based in the Nordic countries. 

Please send your submission to NJEL@jur.lu.se  by the 31st of March 2018. For formal requirements please see the NJEL style guidelines available at: http://www.law.lu.se/#!Nordicjournalofeuropeanlaw.

Xavier Groussot, Senior Editor
Max Hjärtström, Editor in Chief
Baldwin Kristjánsson, Student Editor 

Some additional thoughts on the interaction between procurement remedies and the principle of State liability—re Fosen-Linjen (E-16/16) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority ([2017] UKSC 34)

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After I published some comments on the EFTA Court’s Judgment in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS (E-16/16, see here) some three weeks ago, I have had some interesting exchanges and discussions with some academic colleagues (Dr K-M Halonen, Dr R Vornicu, Dr P Bogdanowicz, Prof R Caranta, Dr A Georgopoulos, Dr Herrera Anchustegui and Aris Christidis) and with policy-makers and practitioners (which mostly wish to remain anonymous). I am grateful to all of them for forcing me to think harder about some of the issues that derive from the Fosen-Linjen case and, in particular, for their repeated invitations to consider it by comparison to the Judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority v EnergySolutions EU Ltd (now ATK Energy Ltd) [2017] UKSC 34 (the ‘NDA’ judgment; for my views on an interim decision at the start of the litigation, see here).

Indeed, comparing those cases is interesting, for the Fosen-Linjen and NDA judgments offer diametrically opposed views of the interaction between the use of damages as a procurement remedy and the principle of State liability for breach of EU law, in particular concerning the threshold for liability under the so-called second Francovich condition—ie whether liability arises from a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law, or from any (unqualified) infringement of the rules.

In this post, (1) I compare the approach to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction in both judgments, to then offer some brief reflections on (2) the implications of minimum harmonization of this subject-matter through the Remedies Directive (ie, Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC; see its consolidated version), (3) the possibility to reform the Remedies Directive so as to achieve maximum harmonization, and (4) the potential implications of a damages-based procurement enforcement strategy in the context of the emergence of EU tort law. This post is meant, more than anything, as an invitation for further discussion.

(1) Opposing approaches to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction

One of the contended issues in academic, and now also judicial, debate around public procurement remedies is the relationship between, on the one hand, the liability in damages derived from the Remedies Directive (art 2(1)(c), requiring a power for review bodies or courts to ‘award damages to persons harmed by an infringement’ of relevant EU public procurement rules) and, on the other, the liability derived from the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law (following Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, and Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79).

This is an issue that the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) explicitly addressed in Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751 ('Spijker'), when it stated that Art 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive

gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible …

… as regards state liability for damage caused to individuals by infringements of EU law for which the state may be held responsible, the individuals harmed have a right to redress where the rule of EU law which has been infringed is intended to confer rights on them, the breach of that rule is sufficiently serious, and there is a direct causal link between the breach and the loss or damage sustained by the individuals. In the absence of any provision of EU law in that area, it is for the internal legal order of each member state, once those conditions have been complied with, to determine the criteria on the basis of which the damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated, provided the principles of equivalence and effectiveness are complied with (Spijker, paras 87 and 92, emphases added).

However, maybe surprisingly, Spijker is not (yet) universally seen as having settled the issue of the interaction between the actions for damages under the Remedies Directive and the Francovich doctrine.

As mentioned above, the main point of contention rests on what could be seen as a lex specialis understanding of the interaction between the two regulatory frameworks (which could formally match a literal reading of para 87 of Spijker, but is more difficult to square with its para 92)—ie a view that the general condition for there to be a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU law under Francovich is relaxed by the Remedies Directive by solely mentioning the need for an (unqualified) infringement as sufficient ground for a damages claim. This is specifically a point where the UK Supreme Court and the EFTA Court have taken opposing views in their recent judgments.

The UK Supreme Court's approach

Indeed, in its NDA Judgment (as per Lord Mance, with Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Sumption and Lord Carnwath agreeing), the UK Supreme Court followed what I think is the correct reading of Spijker and established that

para 87 [of Spijker] proceeds by making clear that the liability of an awarding authority is to be assessed by reference to the Francovich conditions. Subject to these conditions being met, paras 88 to 90 go on to make clear that the criteria for damages are to be determined and estimated by national law, with the further caveat that the general principles of equivalence and effectiveness must also be met (para 91). Finally, para 92 summarises what has gone before, repeating the need to satisfy the Francovich conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [23]).

More importantly, the UK Supreme Court considered that

… there is … very clear authority of the Court of Justice confirming that the liability of a contracting authority under the Remedies Directive for the breach of the [public procurement rules] is assimilated to that of the state or of a public body for which the state is responsible. It is in particular only required to exist where the minimum Francovich conditions are met, although it is open to States in their domestic law to introduce wider liability free of those conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [25], emphasis added).

Therefore, the UK Supreme Court takes the clear view that the existence of grounds for an EU damages action based on the Remedies Directive requires the existence of a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law. At the same time, it takes no issue with the possibility for more generous domestic grounds for actions for damages (although it eventually decided that this was not the case in relation to the Public Contract Regulations 2006; see NDA, per Lord Mance at [37], with which I also agree).

The EFTA Court's approach

Conversely, in its Fosen-Linjen Judgment, and despite the fact that similar arguments on the interpretation of Spijker were made before it (in particular by the Norwegian Government), the EFTA Court considered that

Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive … precludes national legislation which makes the right to damages for an infringement of public procurement law by a contracting authority conditional on that infringement being culpable … The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability

A requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision of EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State. In such circumstances, economic operators would encounter substantial difficulties in assessing the potential liability of contracting authorities in different EEA States’ (Fosen-Linjen, paras 77 and 78, emphases added).

This led it to reach the view that

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met including, in particular, the existence of a causal link (Fosen-Linjen, para 82, emphasis added).

I already discussed (here) the reasons why I think the EFTA Court’s Judgment does not accord with the ECJ’s case law (notably in Spijker) and why I hope the ECJ will explicitly correct this situation. In the remainder of this post, I briefly discuss the themes of minimum and maximum harmonisation of procurement remedies that emerge from a comparison of the approaches adopted by the UK Supreme Court and by the EFTA Court.

(2) Minimum harmonization through the Remedies Directive

The UK Supreme Court’s approach is implicitly based on a conceptualisation of the Remedies Directive as a minimum harmonization instrument, which sets the basic elements of the (effective and equivalent) remedies that Member States must regulate for, in accordance with the peculiarities of their own domestic systems. I think that this characterisation of the Remedies Directive is uncontroversial (see eg the recent report by the European Commission on its implementation at Member State level, at 4). Following the logic of minimum harmonization, the UK Supreme Court clearly has no problem with the existence of two potential tiers of remedies: a lower or more basic EU tier (subject eg to a requirement of ‘sufficiently serious breach’), and a higher or more protective domestic tier (subject eg to ‘any infringement’), which may or may not exist depending on the policy orientation of each EU/EEA State.

This approach has both the advantage of being in accordance with the current state of the law as interpreted by the ECJ (as above), and of not imposing—as a matter of legal compliance, rather than policy preference—an absolute harmonisation of public procurement remedies (at least as the threshold of liability for damages is concerned).

However, this approach is not without some practical difficulties, as there is a thick mist of uncertainty concerning what is a sufficiently serious breach of procurement rules (but also of what rules in the EU directives are ‘intended to confer rights’ on the tenderers—ie the first Francovich condition, which has been so far largely untested), and the existing ECJ case law on the interpretation of substantive EU procurement rules would require significant reconceptualisation in order to provide clarity in this respect. The existence of the preliminary reference mechanism of Art 267 TFEU can alleviate this legal uncertainty (in the long term, and maybe starting soon with the pending decision in Rudigier, C-518/17), but not without creating a significant risk of collapse of the ECJ (or, at least, an even more significant growth in procurement-related preliminary references). From that perspective, the possibility to engage in maximum harmonization (as rather implicitly advocated by the EFTA Court) deserves some consideration.

(3) Maximum harmonization through a revised remedies directive?

In my view wrongly, the EFTA Court holds the implicit normative position that the Remedies Directive is an instrument of maximum harmonisation when it emphasises its ‘objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement’ (see Fosen-Linjen, para 78 above, emphasis added). The EFTA Court derives this objective in an earlier passage, where it stresses that a 'fundamental objective of the Remedies Directive is to create the framework conditions under which tenderers can seek remedies in the context of public procurement procedures, in a way that is as uniform as possible for all undertakings active on the internal market. Thereby, as is also apparent from the third and fourth recitals to the Remedies Directive, equal conditions shall be secured (sic)' (Fosen-Linjen, para 66, emphasis added).

I think this is a clear judicial excess and I do not think the Remedies Directive can be considered an instrument of maximum harmonization (ie a tool that sets a ceiling, or even a common core of protections that must be uniformly provided in all EEA States) in the way the EFTA Court does. In my view, this is particularly clear from recital (6) of the Remedies Directive, according to which: ‘it is necessary to ensure that adequate procedures exist in all the Member States to permit the setting aside of decisions taken unlawfully and compensation of persons harmed by an infringement’ (emphasis added; note that adequate procedures are not necessarily homogeneous or identical procedures)--which the EFTA Court includes in its Judgment (para 3), but then largely ignores.

However, the EFTA Court does have a point when it stresses that the divergence of rules on (damages) remedies can distort the procurement field and, in particular, discourage cross-border participation—which could be alleviated by a reform of the Remedies Directive to create such maximum harmonization. Such revision and an explicit view on the elements of a uniform system of maximum harmonisation could bring a much needed clarification of the function and position of different types of remedies under its architecture—notably, it would clarify whether damages are a perfect substitute for other remedies (as the EFTA Court seems to believe) or an ancillary remedy [as I posit, maybe not in the clearest terms, in A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018)]. Maximum harmonisation could also provide an opportunity to consider the creation of safe harbours (at least of damages liability) for purely procedural errors, or in the context of certain general guidelines.

Nonetheless, despite potential advantages derived from a revision of the system to consider maximum harmonization, given the vast differences in the rules on damages claims across EU jurisdictions, it would be certainly difficult, if not outright impossible, to reach an agreement on the adequate level of protection and the relevant procedural mechanisms [for comparative discussion, see for example, the contributions to S Treumer & F Lichère (eds), Enforcement of the EU Public Procurement Rules (DJØF, 2011), and to D Fairgrieve & F Lichère (eds), Public Procurement Law. Damages as an Effective Remedy (Hart, 2011); see also H Schebesta, Damages in EU Public Procurement Law (Springer, 2016)].

Given these practical difficulties, I would not think the European Commission would be willing to engage in the exercise of designing such maximum harmonization, even if it decided to revise the Remedies Directive in the future (which, unfortunately, seems very unlikely at least for now). What then should not be acceptable is for such maximum harmonisation to be achieved or imposed through an excessively broad interpretation of the Remedies Directive as, in my view, the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen judgment does.

(4) Damages-based enforcement of procurement rules & EU tort law

As a last thought, I think it is worth stressing that, in addition to the practical difficulties derived from the current minimum harmonization of procurement remedies, and the not smaller difficulties in attempting a maximum harmonization, there are also structural tensions in the use of damages actions for the enforcement of EU public procurement rules. As recent research has clearly shown (see P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017)), the use of damages actions (either based on Francovich liability, or sector-specific rules) for the enforcement of substantive EU law creates distortions in the domestic legal systems of the Member States. From that perspective, both the minimum and maximum harmonization approaches are problematic.

From the minimum harmonization perspective, because the existence of two tiers of protection can also result in two tiers of regulation and/or case law concerning the interpretation and application of the rules, which is bound to create legal uncertainty (eg if issues around the effectiveness of the remedy in the EU-tier create pressures on the interpretation of the domestic-tier remedies as a result of reverse pressures resulting from the principle of equivalence—ie the domestic remedy can hardly be both broader in scope and less effective in its consequences).

From the maximum harmonization perspective, because the creation of a one-size-fits-all remedy (such as that derived from the lower threshold for damages liability in the EFTA Court’s Judgment) can have rather drastic impacts for some Member States (in particular, those without a ‘higher-tier’ domestic protection), not only in the area of procurement law, but also in other areas of (economic) law which regulation and case law can be distorted as a result of the EU rules.

Thus, it seems adequate (and it may not be too late…) to reconsider a drastic change in the enforcement strategy to reduce the current over-reliance on tenderer-led administrative and/or judicial reviews, and start to move away from damages-fueled private enforcement of EU public procurement law and towards a more robust architecture of public enforcement with a restriction of damages compensation solely in exceptional cases—certainly where that compensation goes beyond direct participation costs.

Discussing the possibilities of doing so and the challenges it would imply far exceeds the possibilities of this post, but given that reaching a ‘happy median’ in the regulation of (private) damages actions in the context of procurement remedies in the EU would not be a minor feat, it may be time to (re)open that discussion.

Examining Brexit Through the GPA’s Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?

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Dr Pedro Telles and I have just published 'Examining Brexit Through the GPA’s Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?' (2017) 47(1) Public Contract Law Journal 1-33 and, thanks to the permission of the American Bar Association, made it available through SSRN https://ssrn.com/abstract=3076543. This is the abstract:

The United Kingdom has formally started the process of leaving the European Union (so called Brexit). This has immersed the UK Government and EU Institutions in a two-year period of negotiations to disentangle the UK from EU law by the end of March 2019, and to devise a new legal framework for UK-EU trade afterwards. The UK will thereafter be adjusting its trading arrangements with the rest of the world. In this context, public procurement regulation is broadly seen as an area where a UK ‘unshackled by EU law’ would be able to turn to a lighter-touch and more commercially-oriented regulatory regime. There are indications that the UK would simultaneously attempt to create a particularly close relationship with the US, although recent changes in US international trade policy may pose some questions on that trade strategy. Overall, then, Brexit has created a scenario where UK public procurement law and policy may be significantly altered.

The extent to which this is a real possibility crucially depends on the framework for the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU. Whereas ”EU-derived law” will not restrict the UK’s freedom to regulate public procurement, the conclusion of a closely-knit EU-UK trade agreement covering procurement could thus well result in the country’s continued full compliance with EU rules. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily a guaranteed scenario and, barring specific requirements in future free trade agreements between the UK and the EU or third countries, including the US, the World Trade Organisation Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) seems to be the only regulatory constraint with which future UK public procurement reform needs to conform. However, the position of the UK under the GPA is far from clear. We posit that the UK will face a GPA accession process and GPA members may see Brexit as an opportunity to obtain new concessions from the UK and the EU, which could be both in terms of scope of coverage or regulatory conformity. Further, given the current trend of creating GPA plus procurement chapters in free trade agreements, such as the US-Korea FTA, the GPA regulatory baseline will gain even more importance as a benchmark for any future reform of public procurement regulation in the UK, even beyond the strict scope of coverage of the GPA. Given the diversity of GPA-compliant procurement systems (such as the EU’s and the US’), though, the extent to which the GPA imposes significant restrictions on UK public procurement reform is unclear. However, we argue that bearing in mind the current detailed regulation in the UK might itself limit deregulation due to the need to comply with the international law principle of good faith as included in the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and, to a certain extent, the United Nations Convention Anti-Corruption. 

The aim of this paper is to try to disentangle the multi-layered complexities of Brexit and to explore the issues that Brexit has created in the area of international public procurement regulation, both from the perspective of ‘internal’ EU law-related issues and with regard to broader ‘external’ issues of international trade regulation, as well as to assess the GPA baseline regulatory requirements, and to reflect on the impact these may have on post-Brexit public procurement reform in the UK.

Interesting AG Opinion on limits of duty to investigate intra-group collusion in procurement (C-531/16)

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In his Opinion of 22 November 2017 in Specializuotas transportas, C-531/16, EU:C:2017:883, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has considered the limits of a contracting authority's duty to investigate potential intra-group collusion or manipulation of tender procedures by entities belonging to the same corporate group--in particular in a setting where the tenderers are under no specific obligation to disclose their links to the contracting authority, but the contracting authority is aware of those links and can identify signs that point towards potential collusion. In my view, his approach is functional and enabling, and pushes for a competition-orientated exercise of the contracting authority's discretion.

AG Campos concluded that, on the one hand, '[i]n the absence of an express legislative provision or a specific requirement in the specifications governing the conditions for the award of a service contract, related tenderers which submit separate tenders in the same procedure are not under an ineluctable duty to disclose their links to the contracting authority'. And, on the other hand, that '[t]he contracting authority will be obliged to request from those tenderers the information it considers necessary if, in the light of the evidence available in the procedure, it harbours doubts concerning the risk that the simultaneous participation of those tenderers will undermine transparency and distort competition between operators tendering to provide the service' (para 87).

In my view, and for the reasons discussed below, AG Campos' approach creates the right set of incentives both for national legislators and for contracting authorities. Even if his Opinion is concerned with the regime under Directive 2004/18/EC, in my view, the balance of duties deriving from EU law and those that can be created under the national law of the Member States will extend to the system created by Directive 2014/24/EU--as, ultimately, the second part of AG Campos' conclusion is compatible with the principle of competition in Article 18(1) thereof, and the first part will be largely unaffected by any self-certification requirements concerning the discretionary exclusion ground in Art 57(4)(d) under the ESPD.

The case and the questions in the preliminary reference

In the case at hand, both Specialus autotransportas UAB (‘tenderer A’) and Specializuotas transportas UAB (‘tenderer B’) had submitted tenders for a contract for the provision of municipal waste collection and transportation services. Both tenderers were subsidiaries of Ecoservice UAB (‘Ecoservice’) (see paras 15 and 16). However, they did not disclose this information explicitly to the contracting authority. Instead, tenderer B 'voluntarily submitted a declaration of honour to the effect that it was taking part in the call for tenders on an autonomous basis and independently of any other economic operators which might be connected to it, and it requested the [contracting authority] to treat all other persons as competitors. It further stated that it undertook, should it be so required, to provide a list of economic operators connected to it' (para 17).

The contracting authority eventually rejected tenderer A’s tender on the ground that it did not comply with one of the conditions set out in the tender specifications; and tenderer A did not contest that decision. The contract was ultimately awarded to tenderer B. The review court rejected a complaint by a disappointed competitor, arguing that the tenders submitted by A and B had not been properly evaluated and that the principles of transparency and equality before the law had been infringed. An appeal of such decision brought the preliminary reference to the Court of Justice (see paras 18-21).

Thus, in Specializuotas transportas, the referring court asked a long list of very detailed questions concerning the duties for a contracting authority to carry out an in-depth assessment of potential intra-group collusion for the manipulation of a public tender.

Interestingly, during the procedure before the Court of Justice, the contracting authority clarified that it was aware of the links between the tenderers because this was public knowledge, so that at no time was it misled when it took its decisions; and that 'quite apart from the relationship between the tenderers, which does not of itself imply an absence of competition, there [were] a number of objective factors in the instant case which enabled it to conclude that those tenderers were in competition with one another' (paras 26-27).

AG Campos' analysis

AG Campos grouped the questions under reference into two main issues: (1) whether related tenderers which submit separate tenders are under a duty, in all cases, to disclose that relationship to the contracting authority and, if so, what the consequences of failure to do so are; and (2) how must the contracting authority — and any court which reviews its actions — proceed where it becomes aware of the existence of important links between certain tenderers (para 42).

The answer to the reformulated issue (1) is straightforward, and AG Campos puts it simply that 'A requirement (the alleged duty to declare links with other companies) which is not set out in the contract documents, is not provided for in national law and is not laid down in Directive 2004/18 does not pass the transparency test referred to by the Court. ..., in the absence of an express legislative provision (of EU law or of national law), related tenderers are not under a duty to disclose the relationship between them to the contracting authority' (para 48, emphasis in the original). In my view, this is the correct approach. Any practical shortcomings derived from the absence of such explicit rules should by now be overcome with the adoption of the European Single Procurement Document (see part III.C of Annex 2 of the ESPD Implementing Regulation) and, if not, the position adopted in the Opinion creates a clear incentive for all Member States to reconsider their approach to tenders by related undertakings and the corresponding information requirements for exclusion/rejection screening purposes.

Moreover, AG Campos also provides convincing reasons for the rejection of an implicit duty to disclose the links between tenderers (paras 49-52), as well as for rejecting the analysis of both tenders as variants (constructively) submitted by the same holding company (Ecoservice) (paras 53-62). In this part of the analysis, AG Campos refers to my views on the automatic exclusion of tenders submitted by entities belonging to the same corporate group (see fn 20, with reference to Sánchez Graells, A., Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, Hart, Oxford, 2nd ed., 2015, p. 341). I am greatly honoured by this reference.

The answer to the reformulated issue (2) is potentially less straightforward and the reasoning of AG Campos merits close attention. His starting point is that the relevant analysis concerns 'whether ... the contracting authority is under a duty to ask related tenderers to provide evidence that their situation does not run counter to the principle of competition ... [and] whether inactivity on the part of the contracting authority would be sufficient for a declaration that its conduct in the procedure is unlawful' (para 67). Furthermore, he considers that 'the aim is not so much to protect the (general) competition between independent operators in the internal market as to protect the (more specific) competition which must operate in procedures for the award of public contracts. From that perspective, what really matters is the separateness of and genuine difference between the respective tenders (which will enable the contracting authority to choose the tender most favourable to public interests), whether the tenderers are independent or related economic operators' (para 71, reference omitted and emphasis added). In my view, this points towards an analysis that is more demanding than a simple general competition test because, as the Opinion also rightly points out, the general prohibition of anticompetitive conduct in Article 101(1) TFEU does not apply to intra-group relationships (para 69).

Concerning the specific duty to investigate potential intra-group collusion in the procurement setting, AG Campos constructs the following reasoning:

... the judgment in Etruras and Others states that ‘the principle of effectiveness requires that an infringement of EU competition law may be proven not only by direct evidence, but also through indicia, provided that they are objective and consistent.’ The judgment in VM Remonts and Others states that, in the absence of EU rules on the matter, ‘the rules relating to the assessment of evidence and the requisite standard of proof … are covered … by the procedural autonomy of the Member States’.

Applying that case-law to the facts at issue in the main proceedings, where the contracting authority is aware that related tenderers are participating in the procedure, the ‘active role’ expected of it, as the guarantor of genuine competition between tenderers, should normally lead it to make certain that the tenders submitted by those tenderers are separate

In short, that requirement is just one of the measures aimed at "[examining] all the relevant circumstances … in order to prevent and detect conflicts of interests and remedy them, including, where appropriate, requesting the parties to provide certain information and evidence."

However, the contracting authority may, in cases such as the present one, dispense with a communication to the related tenderers, asking them, ... "to clarify whether and how their personal situation is compatible with free and fair competition between tenderers". Clearly, "where appropriate, requesting the parties to provide certain information and evidence" may be important if the information and evidence available to the contracting authority is not sufficient for it to form a view regarding the risk that the tenders are not separate and distort competition.

Therefore, what matters is not that the contracting authority contacts the related tenderers, asking them for information about their relationship and seeking their view regarding the protection of the principle of competition between tenderers. The decisive factor is, rather, that the contracting authority is in a position to conclude that the simultaneous participation of those related operators does not jeopardise competition. The contracting authority may, of course, reach that conclusion by requesting that information or that view from the tenderers but it may also do so by referring to the information already available in the procedure and therefore without the need to approach the tenderers (paras 76-80, references omitted and emphasis added).

Ultimately, when assessing the extent to which the contracting authority discharged its duty to ensure effective competition for the contract and equality of treatment in the assessment of the tender, AG Campos stresses that '[e]verything will depend on the sufficiency or insufficiency of the available evidence and, therefore, on the objective soundness of the contracting authority’s decision to allow related tenderers to participate in the tendering procedure, on which it ultimately falls to the national court to rule' (para 86).

Final thoughts

As mentioned above, I think that the approach taken by AG Campos in the Specializuotas transportas Opinion is functional and enabling, and pushes for a competition-orientated exercise of the contracting authority's discretion. In situations where the contracting authority is aware of the existence of links between (seemingly) competing tenderers, it is appropriate to expect a high level of diligence--that is, to establish that 'the ‘active role’ expected of it, as the guarantor of genuine competition between tenderers, should normally lead it to make certain that the tenders submitted by those tenderers are separate' (para 77).

In my view, this is completely in line with the principle of competition of Article 18(1) Dir 2014/24/EU and seeks to avoid that contracting authorities tolerate an artificial narrowing of competition by inaction or omission. Conversely, the Opinion also seems to indicate that contracting authorities have a self-standing role as 'guarantors of genuine competition between tenderers', which is a good foundation on which to build a broader due diligence duty to identify the existence of indications of distortions of competition by colluding tenderers--whether linked through corporate group relationships or not. On the whole, then, the Opinion of AG Campos in Specializuotas transportas must be welcome and it can be hoped that the Court of Justice will not only follow his approach, but consolidate the general duty for contracting authorities to actively act as the 'guarantors of genuine competition between tenderers'

GC decision delimiting obligation to assess abnormally low tenders, where contracting authority changes tenders (T-281/16)

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In its Judgment of 10 October 2017 in Solelec and Others v Parliament, T-281/16, EU:T:2017:711 (only available in French), the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) decided one more case concerning the analysis of potentially abnormally low tenders under the 2012 Financial Regulation. Solelec brings in a twist to the previous case law, which derives from the fact that the winning tender was unilaterally 'arithmetically adjusted' by the contracting authority during the award process in a manner that increased its value by approximately 10%. The GC, perhaps surprisingly, took no issue.

This is an area of litigation that has triggered a significant number of recent decisions (see here, here and here), and these are consolidating a two-step approach to the analysis of abnormally low tenders: (i) an initial motu proprio duty for the contracting authority to screen tenders for signs of apparent abnormality without a corresponding duty to explicitly provide reasons when it does not identify those signs (and, alternatively, a duty to start the information-seeking inter partes procedure with the affected tenderer), and (ii) upon allegations by the tenderers, a duty to investigate claims of apparent abnormality, and an interrelated duty to provide sufficient reasons for its findings (one way or the other).

Solelec concerned the second type of duties, as the GC was faced with a case where a disappointed tenderer (Solelec, as part of a consortium, together with Mannelli, Wagner & Socom) challenged the award of a contractual lot to a competing consortium (Muller & Putman), on the basis that (i) the latter's tender was abnormally low and (ii) that Muller & Putman did not meet the applicable qualitative selection criteria. This second line of argument makes the case also partially comparable to Marina del Mediterráneo (see here), concerning the justiciability of allegations of improper assessment of selection criteria concerning competing tenderers. In that regard, in my view, Solelec is another case supporting the need to regulate more clearly pre-litigation procedural phases where undertakings want to challenge qualitative selection decisions concerning themselves or competing tenderers.

In Solelec, the European Parliament rejected Solelec's arguments on the lack of qualification of the Muller & Putman consortium the first time they were submitted on the basis that tenderers are not allowed to contact the contracting authority after the submission of the tenderers and until an award decision is made (see paras 5-6). This is a highly formalistic approach, and one that pushes all such claims to the litigation stage. This is undesirable and, in general, the regulation of a pre-litigation possibility of airing all concerns about qualification would be desirable [see A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts', in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Bruylant, 2018, forthcoming)].

On substance, firstly and concerning Solelec's claims that Muller & Putman did not meet the required qualitative selection criteria, the GC dismissed the argument that the late deposit of financial statements under domestic law (Luxembourg) can be a cause for a determination of lack of financial or professional standing, in particular if that is not indicated in the tender documentation as an exclusion ground (paras 28-32), it also dismissed a claim that a potential breach of domestic corporate law could lead to exclusion, where that breach would be in the future and susceptible of being remedied by the tenderer concerned (paras 33-45--in the case, the need to extend the period of establishment of a corporate entity), and engaged in a very detailed assessment of claims of inexistence of required references supporting past experiences claims, in a setting where the information that had been disclosed to Solelec had been redacted on the basis of the protection of commercial and business secrets of Muller & Putman (paras 46-106). Part of the latter discussion is particularly interesting in relation with the possibility of remedying incomplete tender documents (à-la-Manova, see paras 60-78).

Secondly, and concerning Solelec's claim that Muller & Putman's tender was abnormally low, the GC discusses the reasons why the fact that the latter offer was 30% lower than Solelec's and almost 13.5% lower than the estimated budget did not necessarily lead to a finding of abnormality (paras 107-164)--much in the same line as in TV1 v Commission, T-700/14, EU:T:2017:35 (see here). Maybe the most interesting point of this part of the Judgment is the one concerned with an upwards 'arithmetical adjustment' of the winning tender carried out by the contracting authority, which increased the offered price of €41.4 million to an award of €45.6 million (paras 150-164). According to the contracting authority, such adjustment resulted 'on the one hand, from the correction of calculation errors and, on the other hand, from the correction resulting from the modification of the quantity of certain activities in the tender form of the successful tenderer, in the course of the tender procedure' (para 154. own translation from French).

Concerning the possibility for the contracting authority to introduce an upwards modification of the volumes of activities included in the original tender form, the GC indicated that the change was acceptable because the need for the adjustment in the volume of activities derived from the fact that, during the period for the submission of tenders, the contracting authority issued a revised scope of works that was presented as a revision of estimated prices, but also included changes in quantities of works.

In the words of the GC

It is certainly true that the successful tenderer [Muller & Putman] drew up its tender on the basis of the first version of the price schedule and that the said schedule was replaced, before the date of submission of the tenders, by a second version which was made available to all bidders through a computer platform. The applicants [Solelec] for their part, drew up their offer on the second version of the price schedule.

It follows that the error to be corrected in the present case results from the fact that the successful tenderer failed to take into account, in its tender, the changes in the quantities of certain services set out in the second version of the price schedule (paras 156-157, emphasis added, own translation from French).

This is certainly a difficult situation, and one where, in the absence of specific rules in the tender documentation establishing the way the contracting authority could proceed to amend the tenders, a unilateral corrective intervention by the contracting authority would not necessarily be beyond reproach. However, in the case at hand, the contracting authority had reserved the right to adjust the content of the tenders received in a limited number of circumstances, including a mention that 'the quantities or other elements of the tender schedule [ie the form according to which all tenders had to be submitted] that are modified by the tenderer will be put back to the state of the tender schedule provided to the tenderers in the tender dossier' (para 158, own translation from French). Or, in other words, the contracting authority indicated that the quantities had to be fixed for all tenderers, and that it would make any required adjustments to the tenders received to that effect.

This led to the GC's assessment that 'there is no reason to conclude that the contracting authority was not entitled to correct the tenderer's tender based on the first version of the schedule in the light of the second version of the schedule ... in order to to allow the award to be made on as good a basis as possible, and in order to improve the comparability of tenders and not to jeopardize the equal treatment of tenderers. The Parliament therefore proceeded lawfully by making this correction in accordance with the power at its disposal', which the GC identifies in the tender documentation (para 160, own translation from French).

In my view, the extent to which this approach in the tender documentation is acceptable and fully compatible with the general principles of procurement law can be controversial (what are the limits on the changes that a contracting authority can unilaterally reserve the right to introduce, and is compliance with an implicit transparency requirement sufficient to legitimise such an approach?). Arguably. it would have been preferable for the contracting authority to foresee in the tender documents the possibility to have contacted the tenderer and given it the opportunity to correct the obvious error (which is in any case allowed by the case law), rather than reserving a right to directly proceed to the correction. Moreover, some more detailed discussion of whether the error was obvious (and why would changes in quantities be possible at all, as the tenderers could have been requested to solely submit unit prices), and whether it corresponded with the grounds for unilateral adjustment of the tenders included in the tender documentation would have been useful (in particular by reference to the Slovensko case law).

AG suggests CJEU should declare fines for clarification or supplementation of procurement documents as contrary to EU law only if disproportionate (C-523/16)

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In his Opinion of 15 November 2017 in case MA.T.I. SUD, C-523/16, EU:C:2017:868, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has considered whether, in a situation where a tenderer for a public contract has submitted incomplete information, national rules subjecting the possibility of supplementing that documentation to the payment of a fine are compatible with EU public procurement law.

The dispute concerned a 2014 reform of the Italian law transposing 'Article 51 of Directive 2004/18/EC in a manner which enabled tenderers for public contracts to remedy any irregularities in their tenders, but at the same time imposed on them a financial penalty proportional to the value of the contract' (para 1)--of between 0.1% and 1% of the value of the contract, with a maximum ceiling of €50,000 (para 5, by reference to Art 38(2a) of the Italian Legislative Decree No 163 of 2006). Interestingly, the rule also foresaw that '[i]n the case of non-substantial irregularities, that is, any non-essential absence or incompleteness of declarations, the contracting authority shall not require the remedying thereof or impose any penalty' (idem).

AG Campos has submitted that Art 51 Dir 2004/18 did not prohibit the imposition of such fines, 'provided that [the national legislation] ensures compliance with the principles of transparency and equal treatment, that the remedying of those irregularities does not make possible the submission of what, in reality, would be a new tender and that the burden is proportionate to the objectives justifying it' (para 80), but that, under the circumstances of the case, a fine of between 0.1% and 1% with a maximum of €50,000 was not allowable (para 80). The AG Opinion and the future Judgment of the Court of Justice will be relevant for the interpretation of Articles 56 and 59 of Directive 2014/24/EU, but I am not sure that the reasoning can be simply carried forward to a regulatory setting that indicates more clearly the conditions for the request of clarifications. In this post, I pick on a few elements of the analysis of AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona in his MA.T.I. SUD Opinion, and reflect on the applicability of the reasoning to the post-2014 setting.

Some preliminary normative thoughts

As a preliminary point, though, I think it worth stressing that the functioning of a system allowing for ‘remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ is probably better understood as a system allowing 'avoiding exclusion for payment', in the sense that an undertaking that has submitted incomplete or unclear documentation is given a chance to avoid exclusion from the procurement procedure under the double condition that (a) it is able to submit a clarification or supplementary documentation that does not materially alter its tender, and (b) it is able (and willing) to pay the financial sanction. While (a) is relevant to the goals of the procurement 'triage' process because the contracting authority has a structural interest in attracting as many (in open procedures) or the best (in restricted and different variations of negotiated procedures) qualified tenderers, (b) is irrelevant unless and except in the case in which the inability to pay the fine signals financial difficulties or bankruptcy--which should in any case be captured by discretionary exclusion grounds based on that specific circumstance. Therefore, (b) comes to create a functional distortion of the procurement procedure and, in particular, of the aims of the qualitative selection phase. 

While sanctions in this setting may be seen as an incentive for undertakings to submit full and accurate documentation, this can also be the type of provision that creates a disincentive to participate, and one that seeks to displace part of the costs of the administrative procedure from the contracting authority unto the tenderers (for, statistically, there will be errors and this type of cost should thus be seen as part of the ordinary costs of running procurement processes). While the financial impact of the 'fine-based remedial system' will then largely be borne by the tenderers, the benefits will also fall on the contracting authority (at least in those cases where the 'paying, sloppy undertaking' ends up being awarded the contract for having submitted the most advantageous tender). This creates a strange trade-off between private costs and private and public benefits, which can be further complicated where the imposition of the fine has a discretionary element to it (eg the possibility to waive the fine for non-essential defects, where the determination of the threshold of 'essentiality' is far from clear-cut and objective).

At first sight, then, this seems like the type of rule that can create perverse incentives--in particular in terms of SME access to procurement procedures, or their ability to continue in the race when they commit mistakes--which comes to raise the threshold of 'professionalism' needed to participate in procurement processes without risking significant financial consequences. On the whole, then, from a normative perspective, I think that this is the kind of rule that seeks to reduce the administrative cost of procurement at the expense of reduced (potential) competition for public contracts, in particular from SMEs. The same way I argue against charging potentially interested tenderers for access to the tender documentation, I would also take the normative position that imposing fines for the remediation of documentation shortcomings is undesirable, and would propose their eradication de lege ferenda (by analogy, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 280-281).

This should be kept in mind when reading the remainder of this post, as this line of normative argumentation was used by the parties. In particular, in the clear formulation of the European Commission, which stressed that 'the contrast between paying a fine for a minor irregularity and the uncertainty of being awarded a contract may cause tenderers, especially small and medium-sized undertakings, not to participate in tenders or, where applicable, to withdraw their participation after the tenders have been submitted' (para 38, although the Commission goes on to note that the payment would be allowable despite its dissuasive effects, 'provided that it pursues a legitimate objective of general interest. Such objectives may include both the aim of making undertakings behave responsibly (encouraging them to act seriously and promptly when supplying the documentation for their tenders) and that of financially compensating the contracting authority for the work involved in the more complicated and extended procedure of remedying procedural shortcomings', para 39, which is not completely aligned with my normative position).

‘Remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ under the pre-2014 EU public procurement rules

In the pre-Slovensko (C-599/10, EU:C:2012:191), pre-Manova (C-336/12, EU:C:2013:647) setting, where some doubts could be harboured as to the possibility for contracting authorities to seek clarifications of the tender documentation, and its limits, the only guidance the then current EU rules provided was to be found in the sparse Article 51 Dir 2004/18/EC, which foresaw that 'The contracting authority may invite economic operators to supplement or clarify the certificates and documents submitted pursuant to Articles 45 to 50'--that is, clarifications or supplements to the certificates and documents concerning (i) the personal situation of the candidate or tenderer (art 45); (ii) its suitability to pursue the professional activity (art 46); (iii) its economic and financial standing (art 47); (iv) its technical and/or professional ability (art 48); (v) its quality assurance standards (art 49); and (vi) its environmental management standards (art 50).

However, Slovensko and Manova came to clarify the possibility for clarifications to be sought (which in my view can result in a duty to seek clarifications under certain conditions, see here), and this seemed to prompt a legislative reaction in Italy. Given the need to allow for clarifications and modifications of the tender documentation in certain cases, Italian procurement law was modified from a system of strict disqualification for formal shortcomings, to as system allowing for 'remedying procedural shortcomings for payment' [see M Comba, 'Qualification, Selection and Exclusion of Economic Operators (Tenderers and Candidates) in Italy', in M Burgi, M Trybus & S Treumer (eds), Qualification, Selection and Exclusion in EU Procurement (DJØF Publishing, 2016) 85, 97-100]. However, this modification of the rules and the increased procedural flexibility were subjected to the payment of an administrative fine by the undertakings that had presented incomplete or unclear documentation (see above).

AG Campos assesses the compatibility of this approach to financially-conditional clarification or supplementation of documents under the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC (as Directive 2014/24/EU was not applicable ratione temporis, see paras 50-52 of his Opinion). In his view, there is 'nothing in [the case-law of the Court on Directive 2004/18] which might preclude the Member States from providing for contracting authorities to charge a certain amount (in this case, as a penalty) to tenderers who have placed themselves in that situation' (para 56, reference omitted). Further, he considers that there is no objection in principle and that any EU-law derived restriction on this possibility would be a matter for a proportionality assessment. In his words,

... national legislation may ... authorise the remedying of formal shortcomings in the tenders, while imposing on the tenderers a certain economic burden in order to encourage them to submit their tenders correctly and to pass on to them the additional cost (if any) arising from the procedure for remedying shortcomings. However, national legislation of that kind, which, owing to the magnitude of that burden, constitutes a not easily surmountable obstacle to the participation of undertakings (in particular, small and medium-sized ones) in public procurement procedures, would run counter to Directive 2014/18 and to the principles underlying it; moreover, this would also undermine the competition to be desired in respect of those procedures (para 58, references omitted and emphasis added).

This leads him to stress that he does 'not consider ... that objections of principle can be raised to a mechanism which makes the correction of shortcomings in the submission of a tender subject to a payment by the person responsible for those shortcomings and required to remedy them' (para 59, emphasis in the original).

AG Campos then proceeds to assess whether such non-negligible restriction to participation is created by the Italian rule at stake. He also addresses the issue whether the Italian provision may be in breach with the Court of Justice's case law on the limits to the allowable modifications and clarifications to tender documentation (paras 60-65). However, this concerns a literal interpretation of the Italian rule (which foresees the possibility of remedying '[a]ny absence, incompleteness or any other substantial irregularity in the information'). However, even if part of the rule should be quashed for exceeding the relevant case law, the possibility would have remained to require payment for the remediation of a 'Manova-like' situation that concerned the absence of (pre-dating) information. Thus, the analysis of the rule remains interesting even in the case of partial incompatibility.

A tricky proportionality assessment

In AG Campos' view, the relevant point is thus to establish whether the financial burden derived from the 'remedy for payment' rule is not an 'easily surmountable obstacle' to participation in procurement procedures, in particular by SMEs. In the second part of his Opinion, he deals with this point and considers two sets of issues. First, he carries out a strict proportionality assessment. Second, he goes back to points of principle despite his previous position that no objections of principle could be raised against the mechanism, which is slightly puzzling.

On the strict proportionality front, the Opinion submits that

The two criticisms of that instrument ... are, on the one hand, that the amount of the penalty is determined a priori, in the contract notice itself, without attempting to assess the magnitude of the irregularities committed or the infringing tenderer’s economic circumstances, and, on the other hand, that the resulting amounts (up to a maximum of EUR 50 000) do not comply with the principle of proportionality. Moreover, the exorbitant amount of the penalty is such as to deter participation in the tendering process, especially by small and medium-sized undertakings, thereby restricting competition.

... the objectives which might justify the imposition of the penalties are not consistent with the minimum and maximum amounts of those penalties...

Of course, the argument of higher administrative costs does not justify such substantial amounts: it should be borne in mind that even the minimum of 0.1 per cent (and a fortiori 1 per cent), in contracts subject to [Union] directives, is in itself high, given the lower thresholds for the application of those directives. That argument is also not consistent with a single amount which is established a priori and consists in a percentage of the amount of the contract, since it would be logical, following that line of thought, to tailor to each individual case to the resulting higher costs.

The disproportionate nature of the penalties is evident in the present two cases, which merely arise from the practical application of the legal provision: an executive’s forgetting to sign and the failure to provide a sworn statement regarding a criminal record result in fines of EUR 35 000 and EUR 50 000 respectively. I find it difficult to accept that the higher cost to the contracting authorities, merely for detecting those two anomalies and for inviting the tenderers to remedy them, corresponds to those amounts, which seem rather to be designed to increase their revenue (paras 71-74, references omitted and emphasis in the original).

This part of the reasoning seems unobjectionable and comes to challenge the possibility of imposing a fine for the remedying of documentation, rather than imposing a duty to cover any additional administrative costs ensuing from the remedial action--which would have been preferable, even if still normatively undesirable (see above). Importantly, this part of the reasoning would have sufficed to quash the Italian provision at stake. However, the Opinion proceeds to assert that

Nor does the aim of ensuring the seriousness of tenders justify such large fines. In the first place, because such fines are imposed (as stated in the tender specifications) regardless of the number of irregularities, that is, regardless of the type of information or document which is missing or must be supplemented and of its greater or lesser significance. The provision treats the offences in a uniform manner and allows their level of complexity to be disregarded.

In the second place, that aim [of ensuring the seriousness of tenders] must be weighed against that of promoting the widest possible participation of tenderers, resulting in greater competition and, in general, the best service to public interests. An excessive penalty will probably deter undertakings with smaller financial resources from participating in calls for tenders for high-value contracts, given the percentage limits stated above. They might also be deterred from participating in future calls for tenders which include the same penalty provision.

Moreover, such a burden will be even more of a deterrent to ‘tenderers established in other Member States, inasmuch as their level of knowledge of national law and the interpretation thereof and of the practice of the national authorities cannot be compared to that of national tenderers’.

In short, a provision the purpose of which was, precisely, to help to remedy formal errors made by tenderers (by amending the previous national rule) and, thereby, to increase their chances of successfully participating in public procurement procedures ultimately deters such participation by imposing financial burdens which are disproportionate to its objective (paras 75-78, references omitted and emphasis added).

In this second part, AG Campos seems to adopt a half-way approach to the objection in principle to the establishment of dissuasive barriers to participation, but only through disproportionate or excessive penalties. I find this problematic because it is very difficult establish at which level the dissuasive effect will kick-in, regardless of what can be considered excessive or disproportionate for the purposes of finding an infringement of EU internal market law. Thus, as mentioned above, I think that there are good reasons to oppose the creation of these mechanisms out of principle (the principle of maximising competition for public contracts, to be precise) and, from that perspective, I find the Opinion in MA.T.I. SUD unnecessarily shy or insufficiently ambitious. This does not affect the outcome of the specific case, but perpetuates the problem in view of the 2016 reform of the controversial Italian law, as discussed below.

‘Remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ under the post-2014 EU public procurement rules

Interestingly, the case comprises a dynamic element that remains unresolved. It is worth noting that the Italian rule at stake in MA.T.I. SUD has been amended, and a 2016 reform relaxed 'the conditions for requiring the fine (imposing it only if rectification is required) and reduced its maximum ceiling (from EUR 50 000 to EUR 5 000)' (para 8). Additionally, any substantive assessment of the revised rule will now have to take place within the setting of the rules in Directive 2014/24/EU, where it can be argued that contracting authorities are under a duty to seek clarifications [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 321-323]. In my view, in this setting, the analysis should not rely on a matter of proportionality, but on a more sophisticated understanding of the functions and balance of interests involved in the qualitative selection phase of each procurement procedure, which very much opposes the levying of financial penalties for clarifications sought by the contracting authority, regardless of their amount.

My view seems to run contrary to that of AG Campos and the European Commission, which both seem to have hinted at the fact that the new maximum amount of €5,000 for necessary rectifications saves the mechanism. This is seen with favour by both the European Commission in its submissions ('a maximum ceiling of EUR 5 000, such as that adopted by the new Public Contracts Code, is more reasonable', para 41) and, in less clear terms, by the AG ('Perhaps that reform, by significantly reducing the absolute maximum ceiling to EUR 5 000, was a response to the national legislature’s belief that that ceiling had been excessive, as the referring court implies', para 72).

If this represented the position the European Commission would defend in a future case involving the revised Italian rule, and/or the position taken in an Advocate General Opinion, I would strongly disagree because I do not consider helpful the view that €5,000 per rectification is 'more reasonable' or 'less excessive' than €50,000 per error (unless waived due to its non-essential character). Going back to the principles behind the creation of this type of mechanisms, important questions remain as to whether the goals it seeks to achieve are either justified in the public interest, or not already sought by other aspects of the procurement rules.

As submitted by the Italian Government and the Commission, the double legitimate goal of the measure would be 'first, to make the tenderer responsible for acting diligently when producing the documentation which will accompany his tender and, second, to compensate the contracting authority for the additional work involved in administering a procurement procedure which allows for the possibility of remedying those irregularities' (para 70).

On the second point, I am not sure that there is a clear public interest in seeking to recover part or all of the administrative costs involved in rectifying qualitative selection decisions in the view of supplemented or clarified information, in particular because this recovery of costs comes at the expense of an immeasurable potential reduction of competition (and, if one is to adopt AG Campos' reasoning, particularly acute in the case of undertakings from other jurisdictions, see para 77--although I am not sure this part of the argument is persuasive). On the first point, the argument that the financial penalty will ensure that undertakings participating in tender procedures will act diligently seems moot. The main incentive for undertakings to act diligently in the preparation of their tenders is the economic incentive derived from being awarded the contract. Thus, creating a negative incentive that works in the same direction that the main economic incentive (ie to prompt undertakings to submit their best possible tender) makes no economic sense because it creates a double-whammy on less diligent tenderers, whereas it adds no incentive for diligent tenderers.

By isolating the qualitative selection phase and thinking that tenderers have an interest in acting in less than diligent terms (within their abilities) seems to me to miss the point. While the frustration at the administrative burden of carrying out several (or at least two) iterations of inspection of documents where there have been mistakes is understandable, that should not lead to the creation of financial penalty mechanism that is bound to both be ineffective in what it tries to achieve and to create a likely high shadow cost in terms of lost potential competition for public contracts. In that regard, I would have preferred for the Italian mechanism to be quashed as a matter of principle on this occasion. But, even if this does not happen and the Court of Justice follows the intermediate approach of AG Campos' Opinion, I would still hope that a fresh consideration of the revised Italian rule under the setting of Directive 2014/24/EU delivered that result.

Postscript [16 Nov 2017, 9am]

After publishing this post, it was brought to my attention that I had missed the additional information in fn 5 of AG Campos' Opinion, where he explains that the Italian fees for remediation of documentation shortcomings has been abolished. Indeed, the fn says:

Although it can have no bearing on the consideration of the questions referred ... a further, more radical amendment of the Code ... occurred in 2017. In fact, Legislative Decree No 56/2017 of 19 April issued a new draft of Article 89(3) which definitively removed the requirement to pay for the remedying of shortcomings upon its entry into force (20 May 2017). Since then, economic operators have been able to rectify the absence of any formal element from their proposals (except those relating to the economic and technical aspects of the tender) without incurring any kind of penalty or other similar charge.

Thus, the issue will remain unresolved, unless similar charges or financial penalties exist in other jurisdictions.

Mixed views on General Court decision concerning claim of 'artificial narrowing of competition' through too strict procurement selection requirements (T-668/15)

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In its Judgment of 10 November 2017 in Jema Energy v Entreprise, T-668/15, EU:T:2017:796 (only available in Spanish and French), the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) engaged with a claim that, by setting exceedingly demanding qualitative selection criteria, the contracting authority had artificially narrowed down competition. I find this case very interesting because I expect this type of argument to be increasingly used in procurement challenges as a result of the consolidation of the principle of competition in Article 18(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU [for my interpretation, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) ch 5]. Even if Jema Energy v Entreprise was decided on the basis of the Implementing Rules of the Financial Regulation applicable to procurement by Fusion for Energy, given that the GC explicitly considered Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24/EU, I think that the Judgment offers valuable pointers as to how the case law may develop in this area.

The case at hand concerned a tender for the design, manufacture, supply and installation of electrical equipment where the contracting authority established qualitative selection criteria concerned with previous experience that required tenderers to demonstrate previous delivery of specific types of equipment in the 5 years prior to the tender. A tenderer requested repeated clarifications on the requirements and prompted the contracting authority to change the requirements. The contracting authority replied that it did not appreciate the presence of objective circumstances requiring such changed. Eventually, the tenderer was rejected for not meeting the requirements and the decision was challenged. One of the grounds for the challenge was based on a breach of the principle of proportionality and on the 'artificial narrowing of competition'. I will concentrate on this ground of appeal (paras 67-109 of the Judgment).

It is interesting that the third ground of appeal treated separately claims on the basis of the principle of proportionality (supported by reference to the Commission's Guidance for practitioners on the avoidance of the most common errors in projects funded by the European Structural and Investment Funds) and on the artificial narrowing of competition (which was build by reference to Art 18 Dir 2014/24/EU). After making reference to the broad discretion of contracting authorities in the design of the tender procedure, including the choice of qualitative selection criteria and their form of assessment, and the subjection of the exercise of that discretion to compliance with general principles of EU law (paras 73-74), the GC assessed each claim separately.

The proportionality analysis is very formal and mostly relies on the lack of supporting evidence for some of the technical claims against the proportionality of the qualitative selection criteria. It is also disappointing that the GC decided not to engage with the arguments based on the functional criteria included in the Commission's guidance for ESI-funded procurement on the basis that this specific project did not concern those funds, which misses the opportunity of both identifying whether the guide includes best practice recommendations and, if so, to rely on them for the development of more detailed case law on the application of the principle of proportionality to discretionary decisions of the contracting authority. Granted, such engagement may not have been necessary to decide the case at hand, but this flat-out rejection of the substantive argument comes to diminish the value of soft law efforts oriented to the creation of best practice standards--which is the only type of guidance the Commission seems willing to adopt these days.

Going back to the case... the GC's analysis of the claim of artificial narrowing down of competition is very interesting because, even if the GC equally rejected to engage in a direct consideration of Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24/EU on the basis that it was not applicable ratione temporis (86-88), and given that this prompted the claimant to request for the argument to be assessed on the basis of Directive 2004/18/EC, the GC was willing to establish that

It should be noted that Directive 2004/18 did not contain a provision similar to Article 18, paragraph 1, second paragraph, of Directive 2014/24 [prohibiting a contracting authority from designing the tender with the intention of artificially narrowing competition by unduly favoring or disadvantaging certain undertakings]. Indeed, Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 referred, as does Article 18 of Directive 2014/24, to the principles of awarding contracts, namely the principles of equal treatment, non-discrimination and transparency, without explicitly referring to the prohibition of artificially restricting competition. However, Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 must be interpreted in the light of the recitals in the preamble thereto, and in particular in recital 2, which provides for effective competition in public contracts, as well as in light of the case-law according to which effective competition and the opening to undistorted competition are essential objectives of Directive 2004/18 and in particular of its Article 2, for which attainment Union law applies in particular the principle of equal treatment between tenderers or candidates and the obligation of transparency that results from it (see, in this regard, the judgment of 17 March 2011, Strong Segurança, C-95/10, EU:C:2011:161, paragraph 37, see also, in in this sense, the judgments of March 29, 2012, SAG ELV Slovensko and others, C-599/10, EU:C:2012:191, paragraph 25 and the case law cited therein, and of October 10, 2013, Manova, C- 336/12, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 28 (T-668/15, para 91, emphasis added, own translation from Spanish).

This starting position allowed the GC to carry on with the assessment of whether (even if proportionate) very demanding qualitative selection criteria could be in breach of the EU procurement rules due to the ensuing artificial narrowing of competition. In particular, the analysis concentrated on the requirements derived from general principles of EU law and, in that regard, the GC further considered that

... the principle of equal treatment between tenderers, which aims to encourage the development of healthy and effective competition between undertakings participating in a public tender, requires that all bidders have the same opportunities in formulating the terms of their offers and implies that they are subject to the same conditions for all competitors.

In addition, the courts of the Union have stated that one of the objectives of the Union rules on public contracts is to open them up to the widest possible competition and that it is in the interest of Union law to ensure the broadest participation possible of bidders in a tendering procedure. It should be added, in this respect, that such an opening to the widest possible competition is contemplated not only in relation to the Union interest in the free movement of goods and services, but also in the self-interest of the contracting authority involved, which will thus have greater choice in terms of the most advantageous offer and the best adapted to the needs of the public entity concerned (judgment of 10 November 2015, GSA and SGI / Parliament, T-321/15, unpublished, EU:T:2015:834, paragraph 58, see also, in this regard, the judgments of December 23, 2009, CoNISMA, C-305/08, EU:C:2009:807, paragraph 37 and case law cited, and of June 18, 2015, Martin Meat, C-586/13, EU:C:2015:405).

It follows that an obligation for the contracting authority not to artificially restrict competition can be deduced from the general principles of law to which the [contracting authority] is subject, and especially from the principle of equal treatment (T-668/15, paras 101-103, emphasis added, own translation from Spanish).

I find this point of departure extremely interesting and I think it comes to confirm my long-held view that the 2004 procurement rules already included an embedded principle of competition, which the rest of the general principles seek to give effectiveness to [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 1st edn [Oxford, Hart, 2011] ch 5]. I also think that it provides the right framework for the assessment of the competition implications of the requirement of demanding qualitative selection criteria.

However, in the operationalisation of the test to check whether such obligation not to artificially narrow down competition had been respected, I find some fault in the approach followed by the GC in Jema Energy v Entreprise because it is limited to the specific requirements of the principles of proportionality, transparency and non-discrimination, without any sign of competition-orientedness. In that regard, I find it disappointing that the GC decided that, in the case at hand, the selection criteria were not contrary to the obligation not to artificially narrow competition because: (i) the demanding criteria were objectively justified and did not favour or disadvantage any undertaking or impair the ability of the contracting authority to choose the most advantageous offer (para 105); (ii) they had been subjected to proper transparency requirements (para 106); (iii) the time period of allowed references on previous experience had been extended from the minimum 3 years to 5 years prior to the tender (para 107); and (iv) the fact that 3 out of 5 tenderers were able to meet the selection criteria is a sign that competition was not restricted (para 108).

I think that the tests applied by the GC do not add any meaningful competition check. First, because proportionate is different than competition-neutral. Second, because transparency is irrelevant (whereas its lack may be relevant). Third, because extending time periods is also irrelevant if the material content of the requirement is limiting competition. And fourth, because finding that competition was not restricted because a majority of tenderers that expressed interest managed to qualify falls in the trap of tender-specific reasoning and ignores the possibility that many undertakings were dissuaded from participating in view of the (potentially) exceedingly demanding qualitative selection requirements.

Thus, my view of the GC Jema Energy v Entreprise Judgment is mixed. On the one hand, I think it is good news that the existence of the principle of competition and the ensuing prohibition of artificially narrowing competition constitute an uncontroversial grounds for the review of procurement decisions--even where Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24/EU does not apply, as a consequence of the competition-orientedness of the applicable general principles. However, it is also clear to me that more work is necessary for this test to be developed in a way that adds to the standard analysis under those general principles, so that the obligation is not rendered moot. This is something I am currently working on, and which I will build on the basis of the preliminary ideas I presented at Oxford recently. I will keep readers of the blog posted.

Important EFTA case on procurement damages: Was the court of one mind, and will the CJEU follow? (E-16/16)

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In its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, the EFTA Court issued an important Opinion on the interpretation of the procurement Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC) and, in particular, on the conditions for the recognition of a right to damages compensation where the contracting authority uses an illegal award criterion and subsequently decides to cancel the tender for that reason. That is, cases where it is clear (and acknowledged by the contracting authority itself) that the procurement procedure was not fully compliant with substantive EU/EEA public procurement rules--which comes to constrain the legal analysis to the question whether the irregularity is such as to allow disappointed tenderers to claim damages compensation.

The Fosen-Linjen case raised a number of issues in the six questions sent to the EFTA Court, such as the threshold for liability, evidentiary requirements, causation, exoneration causes and due diligence requirements. All of them are important but, in my view, the main relevance of the case concerns the threshold of liability, on which the EFTA Court found that 

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link (E-16/16, para 82).

The EFTA Court reached this position in answer to a series of questions and sub-questions concerning whether liability under the Remedies Directive was conditional upon the contracting authority having deviated markedly from a justifiable course of action, upon it having incurred a material error that justified a finding of culpability under a general assessment, or upon it having incurred in an inexcusable'material, gross and obvious error' (question 1), or whether liability can be triggered under a test of 'sufficiently qualified breach' where the contracting authority was left with no discretion as to how to interpret or apply the infringed substantive rule (question 2). 

In the case at hand, the EFTA Court decided to group these questions and address them together. In my view, this has been determinative of the outcome of the case. Had the Court addressed the questions sequentially, and inverting the order, it would have been possible to establish that a breach of a substantive provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion constitutes a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law triggering liability (if all other requirements are met) (question 2), which would have rendered the other issues (question 1) moot and unnecessary in this case. By choosing not to do so, the EFTA Court grabbed an opportunity to influence the development of EU/EEA law in the area of procurement remedies in a way that I am not sure will be productive in the long run, particularly because the rather extreme position taken by the EFTA Court--ie that any simple breach of EU/EEA procurement law suffices to generate liability for damages--was not really necessary under the circumstances and does not easily sit with previous developments in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Ultimately, this finding is controversial because of (1) the way the EFTA Court couches the deviation of liability standards under the Remedies Directive and under the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law, as well as (2) due to the fact that the EFTA Court engages in contradictory normative assessments in the reasoning that leads to this conclusion--which makes the interpretation and operationalisation of its main finding rather tricky. In my view, these two points of contention make it unclear that the CJEU--which is not bound by the EFTA Court's interpretation--will adopt the same approach. I will explore these two issues in turn.

Is public procurement special?

One of the normative and doctrinal issues in the background of the discussion surrounding the threshold of liability under the Remedies Directive concerns its relationship with the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law. The position taken by the EFTA Court on this point is not very clear--despite explicit submissions to that effect by the parties, the Norwegian government and the EFTA Surveillance Authority--but it seems to indicate that the Court considers that procurement law is somehow special.

While it is commonly accepted that the State liability doctrine is premised on the existence of a sufficiently serious breach of EU/EEA law (as seminally established in Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, para 35, and in Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79, paras 31 and 51, and consistently reiterated by the CJEU, most recently in Ullens de Schooten, C-268/15, EU:C:2016:874, para 41), the EFTA Court is not willing to retain this threshold of liability in the area of procurement. As the EFTA Court indicated

... it has already been established that a national rule making the award of damages conditional on proof of fault or fraud would make actions for damages more difficult and costly, thereby impairing the full effectiveness of the public procurement rules ... The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability (E-16/16, para 77, emphasis added).

In other words, the EFTA Court is not willing to tolerate a situation where what could be termed de minimis breaches of EU/EEA public procurement law remain unchallenged and, in that regard, the Court seems to have been influenced by the European Commission's position that 'any infringement of public procurement law should be followed up and should not be left unattended because the breach is not “sufficiently serious”' (E-16/16, para 59). The EFTA Court thus seems to consider that the establishment of an almost absolute right to claim damages is necessary to ensure the desirable effectiveness of EU/EEA procurement law.

The Court also considers that '[a] requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision on EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State' (E-16/16, para 78), which is by no means obvious, in particular if the preliminary reference mechanism works appropriately. 

In my opinion, this general line of reasoning conflates two separate issues. First, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should trigger a ground for the review of the procurement decision concerned and, if justified, to set it aside. Second, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should provide a right to claim damages. By conflating both issues, the EFTA Court implicitly assumes that claims for damages are the only effective remedy. The Court does not take into account the existence of public oversight mechanisms able to 'pick up' on those de minimis infringements of EU/EEA public procurement law, and seems not to think it possible for disappointed tenderers to exercise rights of review in the absence of the financial incentives resulting from damages claims. This comes both to establish a hierarchy of remedies that is absent in the Remedies Directive [see A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018) forthc.], and to create the same risk of deformation of EU tort law that we have witnessed in other areas of EU economic law [see O Odudu & A Sanchez-Graells, 'The interface of EU and national tort law: Competition law', in P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017); as well as the rest of contributions to that volume].

From a normative perspective, I find this approach problematic due to the perverse incentives it creates--and which I think the EFTA Court was somehow aware of (see below). Moreover, I am not persuaded that this would necessarily be the position of the CJEU, which has in the past held that Art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 'gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible' (Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751, para 87, emphasis added). From that perspective, and even if the CJEU is likely to continue developing its line of case law that prevents the creation of additional requirements for the existence of liability in damages (as is clear it did by rejecting the imposition of a requirement of fault in Strabag and Others, C-314/09, EU:C:2010:567), I see no reason why it would accept that the requirement for a 'sufficiently serious breach' does not apply in this sub-field of State liability.

In my view, this is particularly important because the position taken by the EFTA Court was both unnecessary for the resolution of the case, and not explicitly premised on a deviation of the State liability doctrine, which leaves the CJEU an easy way out if it decides to take a different approach in the future. In my view, this is likely, because from a normative point of view, the position taken by the EFTA Court is not easily tenable.

What are the implications for contracting authorities and tenderers?

One of the important normative aspects on which the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment rests concerns the incentives that different liability thresholds and requirements create. In that regard, the Court seems to adopt two contradictory normative standpoints in dealing with the twin question of the threshold for liability and the causality requirement--which are indivisibly interlinked in its overall finding that 'A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability ... provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link' (E-16/16, para 82, emphasis added). The contradiction is as follows.

On the one hand, the EFTA Court considers that a simple infringement of EU/EEA public procurement rules must suffice to trigger liability because

... damages seek to achieve a three-fold objective: to compensate for any losses suffered; to restore confidence in the effectiveness of the applicable legal framework; and to deter contracting authorities from acting in such a manner, which will improve future compliance with the applicable rules. Liability through damages may also provide a strong incentive for diligence in the preparation of the tender procedure, which will, ultimately, prevent the waste of resources and compel the contracting authority to evaluate the particular market’s features. Were liability to be excluded, this may lead to a lack of restraint of the contracting authority (E-16/16, para 76, emphasis added).

Thus, in this part of the Judgment, the EFTA Court considers a high likelihood of liability a proper incentive for adequate diligence and decision-making on the part of the contracting authority.

Conversely, on the other hand, when assessing the causality requirements for the recognition of a right to damages compensation (in the context of the fourth question referred by the Norwegian court), the EFTA Court stresses that

... there must be a balance between the different interests at stake. While liability of the contracting authority for any errors committed promotes, in principle, the overall compliance with the applicable legal framework, exaggerated liability of the contracting authority could lead to excessive avoidance costs, reduce the flexibility of the applicable framework and may even lead to the unjust enrichment of an unsuccessful tenderer. Furthermore, excessive liability may provide an incentive for a contracting authority to complete award procedures, that were evidently unlawful, or impinge upon the freedom to contract (E-16/16, para 101, emphasis added). 

This clearly indicates that the existence of liability needs to be constrained or modulated. The EFTA Court seems to want to do so by establishing a complicated approach to causality requirements that would distinguish between those applicable to claims for negative and positive damages (ie bid costs and loss of profits). Even in the context of the first question, the EFTA Court had already shown some inconsistency when establishing that 'a claim for damages can only succeed if certain other conditions are fulfilled, such as the condition that there must be a sufficient causal link between the infringement committed and the damage incurred' (E-16/16, para 81, emphasis added)--which, however, is not equally reflected in the wording of its general finding, which only makes reference to 'the condition of a causal link' (para 82). 

In my view, the approach (implicitly) followed by the EFTA Court is not better than the alternative approach of having closely stuck to a requirement for a sufficient breach of EU/EEA public procurement rules. Even if a combination of low liability threshold (simple breach) and high causality requirements ('sufficient causality') could lead to the same practical results that a requirement for 'sufficiently serious breach', the EFTA approach creates legal uncertainty and more scope for divergence across EU/EEA jurisdictions, not the least because causation is within the remit of domestic law. more importantly, it can create a wave of litigation based on any (minimal, formal, irrelevant) errors in the conduct of procurement procedures in an attempt to test the boundaries of that test.

In my view, on the whole, it would have been preferable to stick to the general framework of the State action doctrine as specified in the Remedies Directive, which is compatible with a finding of a requirement for there to be a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law and, at the same time, with a finding that breaching a provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion (eg the obligation to be in a position to verify the content of tenders against its requirements and award criteria, as in Fosen-Linjen) suffices to trigger liability (the same way that the mere lack of transposition of a Directive triggers State liability under the general test). Therefore, I very much hope that this issue is brought to the CJEU soon, and I would strongly advocate for the CJEU to explicitly reject the EFTA Court's approach.