Within the last week, the General Court has ruled on three disputes concerning public procurement activities of the European Commission to which the Financial Regulation was applicable. All cases involved the rejection of tenderers/tenders (at different stages of the procurement procedures) and challenges against the immediate rapport established between the Commission and the disappointed tenderers, which involved some sort of (discretionary) management of confidential information by the contracting authority. Remarkably, all cases have been decided in favour of the European Commission.
Reading them together, a common theme emerges from the Judgments in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, EU:T:2014:831; Flying Holding and Others v Commission, T-91/12, EU:T:2014:832; and Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission, T-199/12, EU:T:2014:848. Functionally, all these Judgments are concerned with the duty of good administration, some of its more specific requirements (such as the duty to provide reasons, or the duty to protect confidential information), and its boundaries--which is a topic of increasing relevance in EU public law and, particularly, in EU public procurement law [see J Mendes, ‘Good Administration in EU Law and the European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour’, EUI Working Paper Law 2009/09, and some related comments here].
In my view, these three Judgments clearly indicate that despite the increasing complexity and detail of the public procurement rules, most decisions end up being assessed on the basis of the reasonableness, objectivity and proportionality of the decisions taken by contracting authorities as implicit requirements of the principle of good administration. The following is a closer discussion on why I think this is so.
(1) Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF) is concerned with the rejection of an offer submitted for the services contract concerning the revamping of the website of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). More specifically, Evropaïki Dynamiki challenges the withholding of information regarding the technical aspects of the winning offer, which the Commission justified on the basis that it 'might affect the successful tenderer’s legitimate business interests ..., or might distort fair competition between the undertakings concerned' (which follows what is established in art 100(2) Financial Regulation, as discussed here, here and here). In the applicant's view, this amounts to a violation of the duty to state reasons and, ultimately, of the principle of good administration.
The GC engages in a detailed assessment of the duty to state reasons and the balance with the protection of the confidential information and business interest of other tenderers (and, particularly, the awardee of the contract) (paras 28-50). In my view, the argument is ultimately concerned with compliance with these two conflicting requirements of the more general duty of good administration. It is worth highlighting that the GC clarifies that
in order to fulfil its obligation to state reasons, the [contracting authority] was required to communicate to the applicant the reasons for the rejection of its tender, the characteristics and relative merits of the successful tender, and the name of the successful tenderer (order of 29 November 2011 in Case C-235/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 46). By contrast, it does not follow from those provisions or from the judgment of 10 September 2008 in Case T-59/05 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR [...] that the [contracting authority] was required to provide the applicant with a complete copy of the evaluation report (see, to that effect, order of 20 September 2011 in Case C-561/10 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 25) (T-498/11 at para 43).
It is also important to stress that the GC finds no shortcoming based on the principle of good administration in the use of relatively generic justifications for the withholding of information:
It is thus apparent that the [contracting authority] fulfilled its obligation to state reasons [...] regardless of the fact that the wording of those letters was stereotypical in nature as regards the reasons for the removal of some information (see, to that effect, judgment of 24 April 2012 in Case T‑554/08 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 141). Such wording is permissible in light of the fact that it may be impossible to state the reasons precisely justifying the confidentiality of each of the pieces of information concerned without disclosing them and therefore negating the effectiveness of the second subparagraph of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation (T-498/11 at para 45, emphasis added).
In my view, this Judgment is important in that it should reinforce the message that the principle of good administration requires a careful balance of the duty to state reasons against the duty to protect propietary and confidential business information, which should allow contracting authorities to give more importance to the second element and be less afraid of litigation on the basis of alleged shortcomings in the duty to state reasons. Generally, it may contribute to a better balance between transparency and competition in the public procurement setting, which should be welcome [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, Albert, 'The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives' (2013) University of
Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11].
(2) Flying Holding and Others v Commission (not available in English) concerned the hire of aerotaxis for the President and other members of the EU Institutions and was organised as a two-stage restricted procedure. In this case, Flying Holding and its subsidiaries were not invited to the second phase of the tender due to the incompleteness of the documentation supporting their expression of interest and, in particular, certain security audits.
The dispute revolves around the (lack of) clarity of the documentary requirements included in the call for expressions of interest, as well as the Commission's unwillingness to accept the belated submission of those documents by Flying Holding due to a previous false declaration that they did not exist. The arguments of the challenger fundamentally rely on alleged breaches of the principles of proportionality, right to defence, and good administration. Interestingly, the GC has upheld the initiative taken by the Commission to directly contact the relevant aviation authorities to enquire about the safety of the operations of Flying Holding and its subsidiaries in the absence of documentation in the expression of interest. Furthermore, the GC has considered that even if the way in which such contact was carried out may have amounted to a violation of the right of defence, that would not have altered the outcome of the procedure due to the automatic application of the exclusion grounds based on falsity of (self)declarations in the public procurement setting (under art 94 Financial Regulation).
The reasoning of the GC is riddled with very technical points (see paras 41-50) but, in my opinion, the ultimate functional reading is that contracting authorities that proactively seek to clarify the (in)existence of a ground for exclusion/qualitative selection of tenderers are adequately discharging their duties under the principle of good administration, even if they contact third parties or authorities [for discussion of the new rules under Directive 2014/24, see A Sánchez Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing in the New Public Sector Procurement Directive 2014/24', in F
Lichere, R Caranta and S Treumer (ed) Novelties in the 2014 Directive on Public
Procurement, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series, (Copenhagen, Djøf
Publishing, 2014)]. The requirements of the right of defence in that case are limited to communicating the result of such enquiries to the candidate or tenderer concerned, as well as providing it with an opportunity to comment.
It is also interesting to stress the reasoning the GC undertakes in relation to false or inexact (self)declarations and their relationship with the right to defend against the imposition of administrative sanctions (paras 51-79), which in my view are bound to trigger significant litigation in non-institutional (or general) procurement once Directive 2014/24 gets transposed (and, particularly, its rules on the European Single Procurement Document of art 59). The GC sees no breach of the principle of proportionality in the application of very strict standards in the interpretation and enforcement of exclusion grounds (paras 81-91). On that point, some more space may be created in the treatment of non-fully compliant tenderers, in the same way as for abnormally low and non-fully compliant bids [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, (2013), 'Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions' in M Comba & S Treumer (eds), Award of Contracts in EU Procurements, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series, Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013, 267-302].
(3) Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission concerned the provision of services related to the 'Crimean tourism diversification and support project', for which the challenging consortium's offer was not selected. Legally, this case is peculiar because the application of the Financial Regulation derives from the Practical Guide to Contract Procedures for EU external actions, in its 2010 version, updated in March 2011 (‘the PRAG’). Generally, the case is interesting because it focusses on the irregular situation where the disappointed tenderer seemed to have gained access to confidential information while the tender procedure was still under way, which triggered the involvement of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) [however, I could not find public information on that strand of the case].
As procurement is concerned, in the case at hand, Euro-link had access to a version of the CV of the team leader proposed by a competing tenderer and used it to challenge the technical assessment of her experience. Avoiding issues of confidentiality of that document, the GC considered that, even if the two versions of the CV (the one submitted by the competing consortium and the one used by Euro-link in its challenge) were different, this was not relevant. In its words,
As regards the alleged infringement of the principle of equal treatment, it must be noted that, according to settled case-law, that principle requires that comparable situations not be treated differently and different situations not be treated alike unless such treatment is objectively justified (see judgment of 10 October 2013 in Manova, C‑336/12, ECR, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 30 and the case-law cited). In the present case, it must be noted that the different treatment of the version of Ms T.’s CV submitted to the Evaluation Committee by the consortium led by GDSI and that submitted by the applicants is justified by the different situations in which those two documents were submitted. The first, submitted in the context of the evaluation procedure, was intended to be examined by the contracting authority, whereas the second, submitted after the contract had been awarded, did not constitute, subject to the examinations carried out by the Commission, evidence capable of calling into question the probative value of the first (T-199/12 para 78).
This reasoning based on the principle of equal treatment seems odd and it is submitted that an alternative assessment based on the principle of good administration may have led to the same conclusion. Where the Commission has carried out a proper evaluation procedure and is satisfied that all requirements are met by a given tenderer, there is no breach of its duty of good administration if it does not reassess that position on the basis of (confidential) documentation submitted by a tenderer that does not provide substantial new facts.
As a tentative working conclusion, I think that this group of cases highlight the increasing trend of litigation of procurement decisions based on general principles of EU administrative and public law. Moreover, it makes it clear that contracting authorities will not be blamed for balancing the duty to state the reasons for their decisions with competing needs, even if they: 1) ensure a high level of protection of confidential information, particularly where third party (business) interests are at stake; 2) take proactive steps in the verification of the information provided by candidates (hence, lifting partially the confidentiality of the procedure or seeking access to third party confirmation, provided defence rights are upheld); or 3) disregard competing claims based on confidential information if they have carried out their own verification procedures (at evaluation stage).
Generally, I think that this group of cases should show that contracting authorities that exercise discretion in the management of confidential information are much less open to (viable) legal challenge than could have been though. And this should reduce the existing pressure towards excessive transparency in the public procurement setting, which can ultimately result in a healthier competitive environment. Consequently, this line of legal development must be welcome.