Who is an interested undertaking in procurement and State aid cases? (T-182/10)

The recent Judgment of the General Court of 15 January 2013 in case T-182/10 Aiscat v Commission (not available in English) raises a relevant question for the EU system of oversight of public procurement procedures that may have State aid implications--in the case at hand, due to the direct award of a works concession contract, as well as in view of the terms of the remuneration paid to the works concessionaire. 

In particular, the Aiscat Judgment establishes who is to be considered an "interested undertaking" and, consequently, who can act as complainant before the Commission and, eventually, challenge its Decisions in a State aid procedure based on Regulation 659/1999. In my view, a detailed analysis of the position of the GC in Aiscat shows certain inconsistencies between the (broad) concept of "disappointed bidder" under the EU public procurement regime and the concept of "affected undertaking" under State aid rules--which can diminish the effectiveness of a coordinated enforcement of both sets of rules.

In Aiscat, the Italian association of road concessionaires challenged the direct award of a works concession in the Padua region. The complaint submitted to the European Commission had a dual set of legal grounds. On the one hand, a "pure" public procurement claim that challenged the legality of the direct award of the contract under the in-house provision doctrine (which the Commission dismissed by considering that the awardee was in fact a "Teckal" entity controlled by the Italian contracting authorities). And, on the other hand, a State aid claim whereby the (illegal) direct award of the works concession contract and its terms of remuneration were considered an undue economic advantage in breach of Article 107 TFEU (which was also dismissed by the European Commission on the basis of the previously declared legality of the award and the absence of "direct" public funding).

Aiscat challenged the State aid decision of the Commission before the GC, which the Commission opposed on the basis of lack of active standing on the part of the association. In my view, the analysis conducted by the GC regarding the standing of the association to challenge the direct award of the contract is particularly relevant:
61 [...] with respect to the area of State aid, persons other than the recipients who question the merits of the decision appraising the aid are considered individually concerned by that decision if their market position is substantially affected by the aid analysed in the decision in question (see, to that effect, Cofaz/ Commission [169/84, ECR p. 391] paragraphs 22 to 25, and Commission / Aktionsgemeinschaft Recht und Eigentum, [C-78/03, ECR I-10737] paragraphs 37 and 70).
62 This issue should be examined separately with respect to each of the two measures challenged by the applicant before the General Court, namely the award of the concession contract of the Passante without competitive bidding and increasing toll on the Tangenziale [which was the undue advantage identified by the appellant].
- The award without competitive bidding for the concession on the Passante
63 In the absence of any indication of the parties on the relevant market, it must be identified as that of motorway concessions in Italy, a market in which the 23 members of the applicant association that operate toll roads represent the demand, while the the State, represented by ANAS, which awards grants, represents the offer. According to statistics presented by the applicant, in November 2009, the toll road network in Italy extended over about 5,500 km.
64 As regards the determination of a substantial impairment of the market position, the Court of Justice has observed that the mere fact that an act such as the contested decision could influence the competitive relationships existing in market in question, and that the affected undertaking is in a competitive relationship of any kind with the beneficiary of that act does not suffice to conclude that it is of concern to that undertaking (see, to that effect, Case Justice of 10 December 1969, Eridania and others / Commission, 10/68 and 18/68, ECR p. 459, paragraph 7, the order of the Court of Justice of 21 February 2006, Deutsche Post and DHL Express / Commission, C-367/04 P, not published in the ECR, paragraph 40, and the judgment of the Court of 22 November 2007, Spain / Lenzing, C-525/04 P, ECR p. I-9947 , paragraph 32).
65 Therefore, an undertaking cannot rely solely on its status as a competitor of the beneficiary, but must also prove that it is in a factual situation that individualises it just as much as the beneficiary (judgment of the Court of May 23, 2000, Comité d'entreprise de la Société française de production and others / Commission, C-106/98 P, ECR p. I-3659, paragraph 41; Deutsche Post and DHL Express / Commission, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 41, and judgment in Spain / Lenzing, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 33).
66 However, the evidence that the position of a competitor in the market was significantly affected cannot be limited to the presence of certain elements indicating a worsening of its commercial or financial results, but may result from demonstrating the existence of a loss of revenue or less favorable business evolution than would have taken place had such aid not been granted (judgment in Spain / Lenzing, cited in paragraph 64 above, paragraph 35).
67 In the present case, in what respects the substantial affectation of the market position of the members of the applicant association due to the award of the concession on the Passante without competitive bidding, it should be noted that the applicant states in the claim the reasons why it considers that such direct award constitutes a breach of the principle of prohibition of State aid. As part of its observations on the objection of inadmissibility, the applicant claims an interest of its 23 members, as they were allegedly deprived from the opportunity to participate in a public tender for the award of the contract for the management and exploitation of the Passante.
68 However, in a market that consists of 5,500 km of toll roads, although the award without competitive bidding for the concession on a stretch of highway of about 32 km may have some impact on competition because other operators have not had the opportunity to increase the length of the networks that each exploits, it cannot be regarded that as such, this constitutes a substantial impairment of the competitive position of those other operators. Therefore, the applicant association has not demonstrated that the contested decision affected its members differently than all other operators wishing to exploit the concession on the Passante.
69 Consequently, the Court concludes that, with respect to the award of the concession on the Passante without competitive bidding, the contested decision did not affect the individual members of the applicant association. Consequently, they are not entitled to bring an action themselves to that effect and the applicant association also lacks standing to bring an action on behalf of those interests. (T-182/10, paras 61 to 69, own translation, emphasis added).

This is a very narrow analysis of the actual interest of potential bidders to participate in a tender and it follows a "de minimis-like approach" that does not match (easily) the requirements of Art 1(3) of Directive 2007/66/EC on public procurement remedies, which requires that "Member States shall ensure that the review procedures are available, under detailed rules which the Member States may establish, at least to any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement". In my view [Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 354], this means that
Directive 2007/66 requires Member States to adopt a broad approach to the setting of detailed rules regulating active standing to access bid protests and review procedures (as clearly indicated by the requirement of making these procedures available ‘at least’ to potentially affected parties—which seems to be oriented towards not excluding systems granting universal standing); and to do so attending both to the criterion of participation in the tender, and to the criterion of the effects generated or potentially generated by the alleged infringement.
To be sure, an alternative reading could suggest a more restrictive approach, requiring a potential challenger to meet simultaneously participation and harm requirements in order to have standing in bid protest and review procedures. However, from a logical perspective, configuring both requirements in a cumulative manner seems superfluous—since it would be very difficult to envisage a situation where a person having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract would not risk being harmed by an alleged infringement of public procurement rules. Moreover, it would seem an overly restrictive measure—particularly in cases where compliance with the first criterion is factually impossible, eg because a given contract was awarded without tender. Along the same lines, a systematic interpretation of Directive 2007/66 seems to exclude the possibility of restricting the standing for review to the candidates and tenderers that have participated in the tender, which are defined as ‘tenderers and candidates concerned’ [art 2a(2) dir 89/665 and art 2a(2) dir 92/13 (both as amended by dir 2007/66)]. The use of a much broader wording as regards the rule on standing [art 1(3) dir 89/665 and art 1(3) dir 92/13 (both as amended by dir 2007/66)] seems to clearly depart from its narrow construction. Moreover, it is submitted that such a restrictive approach would be undesirable from the perspective of guaranteeing the effectiveness of EU public procurement directives in general—and the embedded principle of competition in particular—and, therefore, would be contrary to the main goal of Directive 2007/66. Therefore, as anticipated, in our view, the best reading of the standing requirements imposed by Directive 2007/66 is that Member States have to adopt a broad approach to the setting of detailed rules regulating active standing to access bid protests and review procedures, and that they have to do so attending both to the criterion of participation in the tender, and to the criterion of the effects actually or potentially generated by the alleged infringement—so that bid protest and review procedures are open to any party that has taken part in the tender or that can otherwise prove that it has been harmed or risks being harmed as a result of the alleged infringement, regardless of its actual participation (or lack of it) in the specific tender that gave rise to it.
Therefore, by requiring a "singular" negative effect of the direct award on a complainant to allow it to raise a challenge on the basis of State aid rules generates frictions in the system. In some scenarios, it is not hard to see how an undertaking may be unable to challenge a direct award of a contract both under "pure" public procurement and State aid rules. And, certainly, this is not a situation that leads to effective enforcement of either of these important sets of EU economic law.
In my view, a revision of the Aiscat Judgment by the CJEU would be desirable in order to broaden the active standing of "disappointed bidders" (broadly conceived), and would also give the CJEU an opportunity to clarify its unclear decision in case C-496/99 Succhi di Frutta [2004] ECR I-3801 (where it seemed to adopt a similarly restrictive approach to active standing contrary to the posterior criteria of Directive 2007/66/EC).