In it Judgment of 25 October 2012 in case T-216/09 Astrim SpA and Elyo Italia Srl v European Commission, the General Court has backed up the Commission in its decision to dismiss a tender offer where 0,33% of the itemised prices required by the tender documents were not provided by the tenderers.
In the invitation to tender, the Commission had indeed expressly stressed "the importance of completing all sections of files", and specifically mentioned that" [t]he omission of one or more of [the itemised prices] may result in the exclusion of the bidder from the tender". On the basis of this clear warning, the GC finds no fault in the decision of the Commission to dismiss the tender submitted by the appellants--which, as mentioned, failed to indicate prices for 7 of the 2091 items included in the contractual object.
According to the GC (only French and Italian versions available):
97 L’article 148 du règlement n° 2342/2002 prévoit, quant à lui, que, « [a]près l’ouverture des offres, dans le cas où une offre donnerait lieu à des demandes d’éclaircissement ou s’il s’agit de corriger des erreurs matérielles manifestes dans la rédaction de l’offre, le pouvoir adjudicateur peut prendre l’initiative d’un contact avec le soumissionnaire, ce contact ne pouvant conduire à une modification des termes de l’offre ».
98 Il y a donc lieu de considérer que, en l’espèce, le pouvoir adjudicateur, après avoir constaté l’omission affectant certaines rubriques et avoir vérifié qu’il ne s’agissait pas d’erreurs matérielles manifestes dans la rédaction de l’offre, n’était tenu ni d’apprécier la gravité de l’omission ni, par conséquent, de consacrer une motivation spécifique à l’importance des rubriques non complétées.
99 Il s’ensuit que la Commission n’a pas enfreint le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation en décidant d’exclure les requérantes au motif que certaines rubriques des listes de prix n’avaient pas été complétées.
100 Troisièmement, s’agissant de la prétendue violation de l’article 89 du règlement n° 1605/2002 en ce qui concerne le principe de proportionnalité, il suffit de rappeler que le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation souligne « l’importance de remplir toutes les rubriques des fichiers » et indique que « l’omission d’une ou de plusieurs d’entre elles pourrait avoir pour effet d’exclure le soumissionnaire de l’appel d’offres ».
101 Le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation indique donc clairement que l’omission d’une seule rubrique peut entraîner l’exclusion d’un soumissionnaire de l’appel d’offres. À cet égard, il convient de relever que cette disposition de la lettre d’invitation vise à fournir au pouvoir adjudicateur, en l’occurrence à la Commission, une explication détaillée quant à la manière selon laquelle le prix global offert pour le marché public en cause par chaque candidat se décompose en des prix individuels pour les différents produits et services inclus dans ce marché public.
102 En outre, l’obligation de chaque candidat de mentionner un prix pour toutes les rubriques de la liste des prix vise à permettre la vérification aisée, par la Commission, du caractère exact du prix global offert par chaque soumissionnaire ainsi que du caractère normal de ce prix, conformément à l’article 139, paragraphe 1, du règlement n° 2342/2002 (voir, en ce sens, arrêt Antwerpse Bouwwerken/Commission, précité, point 62).
103 Enfin [...] il y a lieu de rappeler que, si l’un des prix composant une offre n’est pas indiqué et que cette absence d’indication n’est pas le fruit d’une erreur matérielle manifeste et mineure qui permette, même grâce à des précisions et des explications du soumissionnaire, de déduire le prix de l’offre de manière facile et certaine, le pouvoir adjudicateur ne peut qu’exclure ladite offre.
104 Dans ces circonstances, contrairement à ce que soutiennent les requérantes, la Commission n’a pas violé le principe de proportionnalité en décidant d’exclure leur offre sans tenir compte de l’incidence des rubriques non complétées sur la valeur de cette même offre. (GC T-216/09 at paras 97 to 104, emphasis added).
Even if the legal reasoning followed by the GC is formally sound, in my opinion, it sets a negative precedent that potentially restricts the possibilities to take into account marginally-faulty tenders, particularly in its paragraphs 98 and 103, where the GC adopts an absolute approach to the duty to dismiss incomplete or faulty bids (ie non-fully compliant tenders), regardless of the material relevance of the defects--which the contracting authority would be under no obligation to assess. I think that an alternative approach would be preferable.
As indicated elsewhere [A. Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) pp. 318-323]:
During the tender evaluation process, and as a result of applying the evaluation rules […] contracting authorities can determine that a given tender is not fully compliant with the technical specifications or other requirements regulating the tender. This deviation from the tender requirements should be determined in accordance with the mandate to accept functional and performance equivalents and, consequently, cannot be justified on purely formal terms or by relation to a given standard—at least if alternative standards are available and if the tenderer has proven the equivalence of the proposed solution under the latter (art 23(4) and 23(5) dir 2004/18). In any case, deviations from the requirements set by the contracting authority in the tender documents can still take place under the test of functional or performance equivalence, and a determination that a bid is not fully compliant with the tender requirements can clearly take place under the regime regulating technical specifications. In that situation, however, there is room for significant variation as regards the degree of non-compliance of bids. At the one extreme, bids can be completely unsuitable for the purposes intended by the contracting authority and, at the other extreme, tenders can be merely non-compliant with marginal or secondary issues that would not significantly alter the ability of the tender to satisfy the contracting authorities’ needs. Any imaginable situation lying in the middle of these two extremes is possible and, consequently, a rigid rule applicable equally to all instances of formal non-compliance seems to offer relatively limited results. In this regard, contracting authorities might be willing to accept relatively minor deviations from the tender requirements provided that, overall, the tender is beneficial to their interests. Therefore, an automatic and non-waivable requirement to reject non fully compliant bids could limit unnecessarily the alternatives of the contracting authority.
Non-Fully Compliant Tenders and Non-Fully Compliant Variants. Regardless of whether contracting authorities authorise or not the submission of variants, the issue of the treatment of non-fully compliant bids remains largely open. On the one hand, where no variants are authorised, bids can be non-fully compliant with the general requirements included in the tender documents. Similarly, where variants are accepted, both ‘standard’ and ‘variant’ tenders can be non-fully compliant with the ‘minimum’ requirements contained in the tender documents. In either case, contracting authorities could have an interest in accepting non-fully compliant bids that, however, are substantially suited to satisfying their needs, and prove to be superior to fully compliant bids in some relevant respects—ie, bids that would be considered the most economically advantageous under the relevant award criteria (even taking into consideration their partial or non-full compliance with one or several criteria) and which might not be admissible precisely (or only) because of such partial or non-full compliance. As suggested, these decisions on the treatment granted to non-fully compliant bids can alter the outcome of the tender and can have an impact on competition and, consequently, merit further scrutiny.
Directive 2004/18 does not contain express rules determining whether contracting authorities are bound to reject non-fully compliant bids in all cases or, on the contrary, whether they can retain a certain degree of discretion to accept them. Nonetheless, this issue has been addressed by the case law of the EU judicature, which has determined that ‘the principle of equal treatment of tenderers requires that all the tenders comply with the tender conditions so as to ensure an objective comparison of the tenders submitted by the various tenderers’ and that ‘[t]hat requirement would not be satisfied if tenderers were allowed to depart from the basic terms of the tender conditions … except where those terms expressly allow them to do so’. In principle, it might seem that—unless contract documents expressly allow for specific departures from the basic requirements (ie, unless variations are authorised)—there is an absolute obligation to dismiss non-fully compliant bids as a requirement or corollary of the principle of equality of treatment. Therefore, it might seem that, other than according to the rules on variants, the acceptance or rejection of a non-fully compliant bid is not within the discretion of the contracting authority—which must automatically reject all non-fully compliant bids in order to guarantee equality of treatment. However, it is hereby submitted that such a reading of the interpreting case law is unnecessarily restrictive and might lead to excessive limitations of competition based solely on largely formalistic criteria that might also diminish the ability of contracting authorities to obtain value for money. Consequently, while complying with the requirements of the principle of equal treatment, an alternative reading might give leeway to more pro-competitive results.
In this regard, it seems compatible with the abovementioned case law to allow contracting authorities to include in the tender documents a rule allowing for the acceptance of non-fully compliant bids—and, therefore, to make known to all potentially interested tenderers right from the beginning that such a possibility exists—where certain stringent conditions are met, so that i) the partial non-compliance does not materially affect the ability of the tender to satisfy the needs of the contracting authority and/or does not grant the tenderer a material advantage over other competing bidders (which, in the case of quantitative criteria could be limited by authorising a given percentage of deviation from the set requirements)—ie, where the tender is not unsuitable, but merely non-fully compliant; ii) the tender is superior to fully compliant bids in some relevant respects—ie, it is the most economically advantageous under the relevant award criteria— even taking into account the partial and non-material non-compliance with one or various requirements included in the tender documents; and iii) the rules do not confer on the contracting authority unrestricted freedom of choice amongst tenderers. Such rules could be supplemented by setting a penalisation system for non-fully compliant bids (either fixed, or varying with the number of criteria with which the tender is non-fully compliant), in order to ensure that their overall superiority compensates for and exceeds the potential deficiencies derived from partial non-compliance with one or several tender requirements. Also, contracting authorities could always establish that certain tender requirements are not subject to partial compliance (ie, awarding constraints).
In our view, effective competition for the contract could be fostered by allowing tenderers that cannot fully comply with the specifications to submit tenders for the contract and, as long as the rules applicable to non-fully compliant tenders were clearly set in the tender documents ex ante, no breach of the principle of non-discrimination or the ensuing transparency obligation would arise. Therefore, it seems justified to require contracting authorities to adopt such an approach, whenever clear rules and criteria for the appraisal of non-fully compliant rules permit it. Once again, implementing this approach might raise the complexity and costs of the tender procedure and, consequently, should be subjected to a proportionality test.
Hence, I submit that a more flexible approach should have been adopted by the GC in T-216/09 or that, at least, future developments of EU public procurement law should not be restricted by the very tight corset created by the GC in paras 98 and 103 of the Astrim SpA and Elyo Italia v Commission Judgment. As the classics said, summum ius, summa iniuria...