Is Altmark not applicable to ambulance services? Or is San Lorenzo & Croce Verde not very clear? (C-113/13)

In view of the Judgment in San Lorenzo and Croce Verde Cogema, C-113/13, EU:C:2014:2440, the rules applicable to the provision of emergency ambulance services is definitely clear as mud. In the case at hand, the applicants challenged an Italian law whereby emergency ambulance services must be awarded on a preferential basis and by direct award, without any advertising, to certain voluntary bodies (such as the Red Cross). This rule has, ultimately, constitutional protection in Italy, as 'the Italian Republic has incorporated into its constitution the principle of voluntary action by its citizens. Thus, the last paragraph of Article 118 thereof provides that citizens, acting individually or in an association, may participate in activities of public interest with the support of the public authorities, on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity' (para 9).

The applicants' argument was not necessarily of a constitutional level, but rather that freedom of establishment is unduly restricted by a preferential scheme that excludes the tendering out of those ambulance services. They brought forward arguments based on general free movement provisions, public procurement rules and competition rules. The latter are not examined because the CJEU considered that the public procurement analysis makes it unnecessary (para 64).

In my view, if read paragraph by paragraph, the reasoning of the CJEU is accurate and technically precise, but the overall Judgment is too timid in spelling out the conditions for the application of the 'public service exception' under art 106(2) TFEU (or otherwise) tot he direct award of emergency ambulance services to voluntary action associations. I will try to summarise my criticism and doubts as succinctly as possible. This is an area where more considered research is definitely needed.

On the bright side, I think that some positions of the CJEU can be clearly spelled out. 

(1) When fully applicable, both Dir 2004/18 and Dir 2014/24, preclude legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings which provides that the local authorities are to entrust the provision of urgent and emergency ambulance services on a preferential basis and by direct award, without any advertising, to the voluntary bodies mentioned in the agreement (para 44). However, Dir 2004/18 does not automatically apply to ambulance services (see 2 below) and art 10(h) Dir 2014/24 clearly excludes these contracts from its scope of application (para 8). Hence, this clear position is not that useful in practice.

(2) Where the Directives are not fully applicable (ie where contracts can be tendered under part B services rules under dir 2004/18, or under the special regime for social services under arts 74-77 dir 2014/24), the general principles of transparency and equal treatment flowing from articles 49 TFEU and 56 TFEU would be applicable (para 45) if the contract is of cross-border interest (paras 46-50). In that case, it is also clear that such a preferential scheme would run contrary to the Directives, which are: 'intended to ensure the free movement of services and the opening-up to competition in the Member States which is undistorted and as wide as possible' (para 51). 

(3) Implicitly, then, where the Directives do not apply at all but the contract is still of cross-border interest (ie the new likely situation under art 10(h) dir 2014/24), the award of the contract is 'merely' subjected to the (residual/general) requirements of articles 49 TFEU and 56 TFEU. In that case (not expressly assessed in the San Lorenzo & Croce Verde Judgment), the contracting authority still would need to go through the applicable assessment under the market access test generally applicable to restrictions of freedom of establishment [for two thought provoking attempts to rationalise this test, see E Christodoulidis, 'The European Court of Justice and Total Market Thinking' (2013) 14 German Law Journal 2005; and MS Jansson & H Kalimo, 'De minimis meets “market access”: Transformations in the substance – and the syntax – of EU free movement law?' (2014) 51(2) Common Market Law Review 523].

Hence, there are always concerns and constraints derived from EU law (either general, or the specific rules of public procurement) if the contract is of cross-border interest. Nonetheless, they are of varying degrees of intensity and it looks as if upon the entry into force of Directive 2014/24, the award of service contracts for emergency ambulance services  (either exclusively, or for most of their value if the contracts include other sorts of ambulance services) will exclusively be governed by the general rules on freedom of establishment.

On the shady side, though, once the potential incompatibility with EU public procurement or general free movement law is established (and, really, there seems to be no escape to 1-3 above except if the contract has no cross-border interest whatsoever--and, on that, see the  Ancona issue here), the CJEU will apply a Sodemare-like test because the provision of ambulance services falls within the (very broad) remit of the organisation of healthcare and social security systems (paras 55-59). In that case, then, it will particularly important that "EU law does not detract from the power of the Member States to organise their public health and social security systems" (para 55), but that "it is for the Member States, which have a discretion in the matter, 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" (para 56). So far, so good.

On the dark side, however, and significantly departing from the more developed approach in Altmark for SGEIs (is the CJEU implicitly recognising--without analysis--that ambulance services are per se SSGIs?), the CJEU has created an economically oriented safeguard that leaves too much room for maneuver by ruling that
Having regard to the general principle of EU law on the prohibition of abuse of rights (see, by analogy, judgment in 3M Italia, C‑417/10, EU:C:2012:184, paragraph 33), the application of that legislation cannot be extended to cover the wrongful practices of voluntary associations or their members. Thus, the activities of voluntary associations may be carried out by the workforce only within the limits necessary for their proper functioning. As regards the reimbursement of costs, it must be ensured that profit making, even indirect, cannot be pursued under the cover of a voluntary activity and that volunteers may be reimbursed only for expenditure actually incurred for the activity performed, within the limits laid down in advance by the associations themselves (C-113/13, para 62, emphasis added).
In my view, this is way too timid. Indeed, the CJEU constructs a rather weak safeguard by not focussing at all in the economic efficiency of the voluntary activities (which, even on a non-profit, reimbursement basis can be extremely inefficient) and imposes a sort of 'anti-fraud' test that, in my view, misses the point. In order to ensure compatibility with State aid provisions (which should not have been set aside so quickly in para 64), an efficiency based test like the one existing in the fourth condition of Altmark should have been imposed [for discussion, see A Sanchez Graells, “The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI”, in E Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds) Financing SGEIs: State Aid. Reform and Modernisation, Legal Issues of Services of General Interest Series (The Hague, TMC Asser Press / Springer, 2012) 161-181]. 

Indeed, the analysis of the applicability of Art 106(2) TFEU to the case is totally missing and this is strange. It looks like the difference between SGEIs and SSGIs will haunt all of us also under the 2014 Directives and revised guidance from the European Commission is becoming urgently needed, given the implicit vacuum that can exist if Member States maximise the possibilities of direct award under art 10(h) dir 2014/24, but equally under its arts 74-77 (and particularly, the latter).

As briefly mentioned, this is an area where more research is needed. I hope I can convince some colleagues to put together a research project on this soon. Interested contributors, please feel free to contact me at