The CJEU's maximalism and minimalism in the treatment of experience as a procurement award criterion (C-601/13)

In Ambisig, C-601/13, EU:C:2015:204, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has been confronted again with the issue of the use of the experience and qualifications (ie academic and professional background) of the staff assigned to performance of the contract as an award criterion under EU public procurement rules (ie the Lianakis distinction of selection and award criteria). The Ambisig Judgment still applies the rules of Directive 2004/18, but the reasoning and principles will remain relevant for the interpretation of Directive 2014/24.

At first reading, and depending on one's view of the strictness of Lianakis, it may seem that Ambisig is fundamentally a repetition of the discussion on the assessment of staff's experience as an award criterion that was recently rehearsed in Spain v Commission (financial support for cuenca hidrográfica del Júcar), C-641/13, EU:C:2014:2264 (not available in English, see my comments here).

However, some close reading may lead to a different (or at least more nuanced) conclusion, given the tone that the CJEU has used in two such close cases. It may be worth reminding that the rhetoric used in Spain v Commission presented Lianakis as follows:

... as is apparent from paragraphs 30-32 of the judgment Lianakis and others (EU:C:2008:40) ... the Court has clearly distinguished award criteria from the selection criteria that are essentially linked to the assessment of the bidders' ability to perform the contract in question, and considered that the criteria relating to the experience, qualifications and means of ensuring proper performance of the contract in question belong to the latter category and, therefore, do not have the character of award criteria (C-641/13, para 36, own translation, emphasis added).

We could call this the maximalist reading/reporting of Lianakis. However, as we shall see below, this is not the position adopted in Ambisig, where the referring Portuguese court was concerned with two aspects that in its view seemed to make it difficult to apply such a maximalist reading of Lianakis: (1) that the contract was for intellectual services (ie training and consulting); and (2) that the 2011 proposal for a new Directive (now Dir 2014/24) "constitute[d] a new factor in relation to the case-law of the Court in this area".

In that regard, it is interesting to see how the CJEU has now adopted a minimalist approach to Lianakis that basically comes to read into the rules of Dir 2004/18 the content of the new rules under art 67(2)(b) Dir 2014/24. In the words of the CJEU in Ambisig
25 ... the case-law highlighted in the judgment in Lianakis and Others (C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40) concerns the interpretation of Council Directive 92/50/EEC of 18 June 1992 relating to the coordination of procedures for the award of public service contracts (OJ 1992 L 209, p. 1), which was repealed by Directive 2004/18, and that that judgment does not rule out the possibility that the contracting authority may, in certain circumstances, fix and apply a criterion [enabling evaluation of the teams specifically put forward by the tenderers for the performance of the contract and which takes into consideration the composition of the team and the experience and academic and professional background of the team members] at the stage of awarding the contract.

26 That judgment concerns the staff and experience of the tenderers in general and not, as in present case, the staff and experience of the persons making up a particular team which must actually perform the contract.

27 It should be noted, in relation to the interpretation of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 which is the subject of the referring court’s question, that that directive introduced new elements into the Union legislation on public procurement in relation to Directive 92/50.

28 First of all, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 provides that ‘the tender most economically advantageous’ is to be identified ‘from the point of view of the contracting authority’, thereby giving the contracting authority greater discretion in its decision-making.

29 Secondly, the third paragraph of recital 46 in the preamble to Directive 2004/18 states that, where the contracting authorities choose to award a contract to the most economically advantageous tender, they are to assess the tenders in order to determine which one ‘offers the best value for money’, which tends to reinforce the importance of quality in the award criteria for public contracts.

30 Furthermore, Article 53(1) of Directive 2004/18 does not set out an exhaustive list of the criteria which may be used by the contracting authorities in determining the economically most advantageous tender, and therefore leaves it open to the authorities awarding contracts to select the criteria on which they propose to base their award of the contract. Their choice is nevertheless limited to criteria aimed at identifying the tender which is economically the most advantageous (see, to that effect, Lianakis and Others, C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40, paragraphs 28 and 29 and the case-law cited). To that end, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 specifically requires that the award criteria be linked to the subject-matter of the contract (see judgment in Commission v Netherlands, C‑368/10, EU:C:2012:284, paragraph 86).

31 The quality of performance of a public contract may depend decisively on the ‘professional merit’ of the people entrusted with its performance, which is made up of their professional experience and background.

32 This is particularly true where the performance of the contract is intellectual in nature and, as in the main proceedings in the present case, concerns training and consultancy services.

33 Where a contract of this nature is to be performed by a team, it is the abilities and experience of its members which are decisive for the evaluation of the professional quality of the team. That quality may be an intrinsic characteristic of the tender and linked to the subject-matter of the contract for the purposes of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18.

34 Consequently, that quality may be included as an award criterion in the contract notice or in the relevant tendering specifications
(C-601/13, paras 25 to 34, emphasis added).
This is an interesting exercise of judicial rhetoric, which shows the CJEU's willingness to ensure certain cross-temporal validity of its case law in the area of public procurement, where change is a constant. This is not a bad thing in itself. However, it may be puzzling for observers (it definitely is for me) because I am not sure that many would have expected the CJEU to engage in such an explicit change of hats in the space of about 5 months in the way it reports its own previous case law, particularly in such a controversial and debated area [for very insightful discussion on this type of implications of Lianakis, see S Treumer, "The Distinction between Selection and Award Criteria in EC Public Procurement Law—A Rule without Exception" (2009) 18(3) Public Procurement Law Review 103-111]

In the end, it is worth reminding that one of the justifications for the revision/repeal of Dir 2004/18 by Dir 2014/24 was to address the "Lianakis issue" [see S Arrowsmith, "Modernising the European Union's public procurement regime: a blueprint for real simplicity and flexibility" (2012) 21(3) Public Procurement Law Review 71, 80; and rec (94) dir 2014/24]. To some extent, then, the Ambisig Judgment renders a significant (if relatively hidden) justification for the 2014 generation of EU public procurement rules useless.

This may have implications for the future, where the lack of clarity of the CJEU's case law in certain new/revamped areas of public procurement (let's just mention life-cycle costing or asymmetrical negotiations, for now) may trigger calles for further legislative reform--which should, in my view, be avoided to the extent that they rest on maximalistic interpretations of the CJEU's usually sparse and confusing passages, as we now know that it only (?) takes some adequate prompting for the CJEU to provide minimalistic twists that exclude the need for reforms.