In its Judgment of 5 December 2013 in case C-561/12 Nordecon and Ramboll Eesti, the CJEU has ruled on the interpretation of Article 30(2) of Directive 2004/18 as regards the negotiation of technical elements between a contracting authority and the tenderers participating in a negotiated procedure.
The case is complicated by the fact that a more general issue concerning the (potential) obligation to exclude technically non-compliant tenders in a negotiated procedure is entangled with the limits of the negotiation authorisation provided for in Article 30(2) Directive 2004/18. In my view, by not clearly distinguishing both issues, the CJEU may have provided unnecessarily limiting guidance on the proper interpretation of Article 30(2) Directive 2004/18.
In the case at hand, the contracting authority launched a negotiated procedure for the construction of a new road. The road had to have certain technical characteristics (including, amongst others, specific width in different parts of the road) and the technical specifications did not allow for the submission of variants, which (implicitly) means that all technical requirements were mandatory (art 24 dir 2004/18) and, consequently, tenders that failed to meet the technical specifications (in full) should had to be rejected by the contracting authority.
However, the contracting authority engaged in negotiations with all tenderers, including one that had submitted a tender that did not meet the technical description of the road (it was narrower in some points). Even if, eventually, that tenderer was not awarded the contract, there were several challenges against the award decision and the case ended up before the CJEU on grounds of a potential infringement of Art 30(2) Directive 2004/18. The Court addressed it as follows:
33 [...] the referring court asks whether Article 30(2) of Directive 2004/18 allows the contracting authority to negotiate with tenderers tenders that do not comply with the mandatory requirements laid down in the technical specifications of the contract.
34 In that regard, it must be recalled that, in certain cases, Article 30(2) of Directive 2004/18 allows the negotiated procedure to be used in order to adapt the tenders submitted by the tenderers to the requirements set in the contract notice, the specifications and additional documents, if any, and to seek out the best tender.
35 According to Article 2 of Directive 2004/18, contracting authorities are to treat economic operators equally and in a non-discriminatory manner and are to act in a transparent way.
36 The Court has stated that the obligation of transparency is essentially intended to preclude any risk of favouritism or arbitrariness on the part of the contracting authority (Case C‑599/10 SAG ELV Slovensko and Others  ECR I‑0000, paragraph 25).
37 Accordingly, even though the contracting authority has the power to negotiate in the context of a negotiated procedure, it is still bound to see to it that those requirements of the contract that it has made mandatory are complied with. Were that not the case, the principle that contracting authorities are to act transparently would be breached and the aim mentioned in paragraph 36 above could not be attained.
38 Moreover, allowing a tender that does not comply with the mandatory requirements to be admissible with a view to negotiations would entail the fixing of mandatory conditions in the call for tenders being deprived of useful effect and would not allow the contracting authority to negotiate with the tenderers on a basis, made up of those conditions, common to those tenderers and would not, therefore, allow it to treat them equally.
39 In the light of the foregoing considerations, the answer to the first question is that Article 30(2) of Directive 2004/18 does not allow the contracting authority to negotiate with tenderers tenders that do not comply with the mandatory requirements laid down in the technical specifications of the contract (C-561/12 at paras 33-39, emphasis added).
In my view, this is a problematic interpretation, as Article 30(2) Directive 2004/18 covers a range of cases and, at least in some of them, the interpretation provided by the CJEU nullifies Art 30(1) Directive. To be more specific, under Art 30(1)(a) Directive 2004/18, contracting authorities are allowed to resort to negotiated procedures "in the event of irregular tenders or the submission of tenders which are unacceptable [...] in response to an open or restricted procedure or a competitive dialogue insofar as the original terms of the contract are not substantially altered".
The interpretation provided by the CJEU would imply that the lack of compliance or the reason that made the tenders unacceptable could not have been of a technical nature (or, at least, could not affect a mandatory technical specification) because, in that case, even if the procedure would be formally available under Art 30(1)(a), the contracting authority could not engage in any meaningful negotiation oriented towards adapting the tenders to the requirements set in the (technical)
specifications--which is precisely the purpose of Art 30(2) dir 2004/18, or one of them at least. Moreover, risks of excessive deviation from the original conditions are controllable by the last caveat in Art 30(1)(a), where it is expressly required that the original (technical?) terms of the contract are not substantially altered.
The interpretation provided by the CJEU could work when Article 30(2) is triggered by other grounds for resorting to the negotiated procedure under Art 30(1), but not for Art 30(1)(a). In my view, this derives from an excessive reliance on the principle of non-discrimination and a too rigid understanding of the need and purpose for a negotiated procedure triggered by a fundamental flaw of the initial competitive procedure (be it due to a fundamental technical flaw, excessive requirements, or any other reasons).
In my view, the CJEU could have found two alternative routes to sort out the case. Well, possibly three.
The first one, by accepting the criticisms raised as to the inadequacy of Art 30(2) Dir 2004/18 to solve this specific case--which should have led it to declare the question inadmissible and leave it at that.
The second one, to consider that the case was actually concerned with an illicit acceptance of technical variants and, consequently, a breach of Art 24 Directive 2004/18--hence sending out the clear message that, in negotiated procedures, contracting authorities still need to indicate that variants are acceptable if they want to engage in technical dialogue [except in the case of art 30(1)(a) where the tenders are inadmissible or unacceptable on technical grounds].
There would be a potential third option, ie to set out a differential interpretation of Art 30(2) depending on the ground in Art 30(1) which triggers the availability of the negotiated procedure--something that we can only do speculatively now by stressing the factual conditions that surrounded the cases [although it is not explained why the contracting authority resorted to a negotiated procedure and why it was acceptable under art 30(1) dir 2004/18, which seems duboius in the circumstances].
As a conclusion, I think that the Nordecon Judgment would actually create a very significant problem if technical negotiations were completely excluded in all cases and under all circumstances in negotiated procedures--and, particularly, where negotiations are triggered by the technical unsuitability of all the tenders received. However, this is something that may be avoided under the new Directives if an uncritical reading of Art 30(2) as interpreted in Nordecon is not carried forward to future Art 27 of the new Directive on the (rebranded) competitive procedure with negotiation.