ECJ avoids providing guidance on intensity of judicial review of procurement decisions by sticking to strictly formalistic approach: The Gaping hole remains (C-171/15)

In its Judgment of 14 December 2016, Connexxion Taxi Services, C-171/15, EU:C:2016:948, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has provided clarification on whether contracting authorities can decide to subject their decisions to exclude economic operators from procurement procedures to a proportionality assessment even where such assessment would deviate from the strict rules created in the tender documentation by the contracting authorities themselves.

In the case at hand, a Dutch contracting authority had published tender documents that seemed to create an automatic obligation to exclude by stating that: 'A tender to which a ground for exclusion applies shall be set aside and shall not be eligible for further (substantive) assessment'. However, the contracting authority subsequently sought to rely on generally applicable Dutch administrative law (in particular, the Explanatory Memorandum of the law transposing the 2004 public procurement Directive) to subject the exclusion decision to a proportionality assessment. On the basis of that proportionality analysis, the contracting authority decided not to exclude the tenderer and to award it the contract.

This triggered the challenge by a competing tenderer, which claimed that, having found that the tenderer had been guilty of grave professional misconduct, the contracting authority was not in a position to make an assessment of proportionality. That assessment would have already been carried out by including the misconduct as an absolute ground for exclusion in the descriptive document. Given the wording of the latter, it was argued that it would be contrary to the principles of public access, transparency and equality in matters of administrative procurement for the contracting authority to have the power to assess the proportionality of the ground for exclusion.

The Dutch referring court asked the ECJ to consider whether Art 45(2) of Directive 2004/18/EC precluded a contracting authority from being obliged to assess under national law, and in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether a tenderer which had been guilty of grave professional misconduct should be excluded from a contract. The referring court put particular stress on the fact that the ECJ had not adjudicated on the importance to be attached to the fact that, in the tender conditions, the contracting authority had provided for the rejection, without any examination of the substance, of any tender to which a ground of exclusion applies. In answering those questions, the ECJ decided to stick very closely to two of its lines of case law that, ultimately, create a very difficult (dis)functional situation.

First, following precedents in La Cascina and Others, C‑226/04 and C‑228/04, EU:C:2006:94, and in Consorzio Stabile Libor Lavori Pubblici, C‑358/12, EU:C:2014:2063, the ECJ reiterated that the discretionary exclusion grounds regulated in Art 45(2) Dir 2004/18 (and now in art 57(4) Dir 2014/24) do 'not provide for uniform application at EU level of the grounds of exclusion it mentions, since the Member States may choose not to apply those grounds of exclusion at all or to incorporate them into national law with varying degrees of rigour according to legal, economic or social considerations prevailing at national level. In that context, the Member States have the power to make the criteria laid down in Article 45(2) less onerous or more flexible' (C-171/15, para 29). This led the ECJ to establish that

31 As far as concerns the grounds for excluding a tenderer which has been guilty of grave professional misconduct from a contract, it is clear from the order for reference that [Dutch] legislation requires the contracting authority concerned, which establishes that the tenderer has been guilty of such misconduct, to determine, in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether the tenderer should in fact be excluded.
32 Thus, it appears that that assessment of the proportionality of the exclusion makes the application of the ground of exclusion relating to grave professional misconduct laid down in Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18 more flexible ... Furthermore, it follows from recital 2 thereof that the principle of proportionality applies in a general manner to public procurement procedures (C-171/15, paras 31-32, emphasis added).

Ultimately, then, national legislation which requires a contracting authority to assess, in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether it is in fact appropriate to exclude from a public contract a tenderer which has been guilty of grave professional misconduct is compatible with EU public procurement law (C-171/15, para 33).

Second, and in stark contrast with this seemingly functional and principles-oriented interpretation of the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC, the ECJ then moved on to adopt a very formalistic approach when considering the specific situation where the contracting authority would have excluded the possibility of such proportionality assessment in the tender documentation by establishing that exclusion on specific grounds would not be subjected to any substantive assessment. It may have been relevant at this point to know with more precision whether that would have been illegal under Dutch law for the tender documentation could be seen as contra legem (as, in my view, it would have been eg under Spanish law due to the public administration's duty to conduct its business with subjection to the applicable laws and regulations).

Be it as it may, the ECJ framed the issue in the following terms:

 36 It is conceivable that, when the contract documents are drafted, the contracting authority concerned may take the view, in accordance with the nature of that contract, the sensitive nature of the services which are its subject, and the requirements of professional honesty and reliability of the economic operators which arise from that, that the commission of grave professional misconduct must result in the automatic rejection of the tender and the exclusion of the tenderer at fault, provided that the principle of proportionality is observed when the seriousness of that misconduct is assessed.
37 Such a clause, inserted into the contract documents in unambiguous terms ... enables all economic operators which are reasonably well informed exercising ordinary care to be apprised of the requirements of the contracting authority and the conditions of the contract so they may act accordingly (C-171/15, paras 36-37, emphasis added).

I find these passages, and in particular para 36, very confusing. It seems to indicate that the contracting authority, despite the discretion it has in deciding to include as applicable the ground of discretionary exclusion due to grave professional misconduct in the tender documentation or not, remains bound to ensure that 'the principle of proportionality is observed when the seriousness of that misconduct is assessed'. That would, in and of itself, exclude the possibility of predetermining that the exclusion on that ground will be absolute and not subjected to any further (substantive) assessment. Therefore, making this be followed by para 37, where the contrary underlying position exists in the determination that setting a clause of automatic exclusion in unambiguous terms provides tenderers with a clear view of the requirements, is at least disconcerting.

The ECJ then decided to follow very formalistic precedents whereby 'the contracting authority must comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself laid down (see, to that effect, judgment of 10 October 2013, Manova, C‑336/12, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 40 and the case-law cited) in the light, in particular, of Annex VII A, paragraph 17, to Directive 2004/18' (C-171/15, para 38). It also added that, following its more recent Judgment in Pizzo, C‑27/15, EU:C:2016:404, 'the principle of equal treatment requires tenderers to be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their tenders, which therefore implies that the bids of all tenderers must be subject to the same conditions' and that 'the obligation of transparency requires that all the conditions and detailed rules of the award procedure must be drawn up in a clear, precise and unequivocal manner in the contract notice or specifications so that, first, all reasonably informed tenderers exercising ordinary care can understand their exact significance and interpret them in the same way and, second, the contracting authority is able to ascertain whether the tenders submitted satisfy the criteria applying to the contract in question' (for discussion, see here).

On the basis of this, the ECJ creates an argument whereby tenderers from different Member States will be less likely to submit tenders when they are affected by an exclusion ground because they may not be aware of the possibility of their exclusion actually being subjected to a proportionality assessment despite the explicit terms of the tender documents, which the ECJ considers domestic tenders would do. From that, the ECJ concludes that 'the assessment of the exclusion at issue in the light of the principle of proportionality, where the tender conditions of the contract concerned provide for the rejection of tenders which are covered by such an exclusion clause without any assessment of that principle, is liable to place the economic operators concerned in an uncertain position and adversely affect the principle of equal treatment and compliance with the obligation of transparency' (see C-171/15, paras 41-43). Ultimately, then, the ECJ considers that the decision to subject the decision whether to exclude the tenderer to a proportionality assessment despite the explicit terms of the tender documents was contrary to EU public procurement law.

Critical remarks

I find the Connexxion Taxi Services Judgment very confusing because it seems to answer two interconnected questions about the relevance and effectiveness of the general principles of public procurement in an intrinsically contradictory manner, and it seems to me that the ECJ has taken another step down the formalist road. In the case at hand, and following the proposals of Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona (see here), I considered that it must be right that contracting authorities are always under a general obligation to act in a proportionate manner and, consequently, each decision they adopt needs to be proportionate under the circumstances and pro-competitive, and that ultimately 'a contracting authority must retain the power to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the gravity of the circumstances that would lead to exclusion of the tenderer. And ... it must also balance them against the effects that such exclusion would have on competition' [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 293, references omitted].  

Despite the fact that the Connexxion Taxi Services Judgment sticks to the traditional formalist approach whereby the Court does not allow contracting authorities to deviate from the strictures of the published tender documentation, and this must at this stage not come as a surprise, the decision strikes as particularly odd because the ECJ does not seem to give much weight to the general principle of proportionality--either as enacted under the disputed Dutch rules, or more generally under the EU public procurement rules themselves--despite having accepted that the general principle can (and should?) control all procurement decisions. Remarkably, the ECJ deviated from the more progressive and flexible approach advanced by the AG and also created a strange focus of analysis by moving from the assessment of the decision of the contracting authority to the potential incentives of participation for non-domestic economic operators in a way that I also find very formalistic and potentially misguided.

Considering Connexxion Taxi ServicesManova and other precedents together, what seems clear is that contracting authorities can only reduce the scope of their discretion by self-imposed restrictions published in the tender documents. Thus, they would be better off by publishing bare bones tender documents and then exercising administrative discretion subject only to compliance with general principles of public procurement, as well as applicable domestic rules. However, this would fly on the face of Pizzo where the way the contracting authority justifies its decisions does not result immediately from the tender documents, which then gives contracting authorities the contrary incentive to reiterate all domestic rules in the tender documentation.

Other than contradictory, these sets of case law are also extremely formalistic and ultimately built on a non-functional obsession with the integration of the single market that can get on the way of the development of sound public procurement practice. Ultimately, the general principles of public procurement should be there to create sufficient checks and balances and, in their generality, they should rank higher than tender documents. Actually, it is not foreign to the ECJ case law to consider that tender requirements that are disproportionate or discriminatory cannot be included in the tender documentation (or need to be set aside, or ultimately determine the ineffectiveness of the procurement exercise). Thus, it would be desirable for that logical hierarchy to remain a constant, even if it means that cross-border participation in procurement processes does not come at zero transaction costs and that interested undertakings need to make themselves familiar with the domestic rules of the jurisdiction in which they are tendering.

Beyond that, it also seems to me that the ECJ is inadvertently creating an absolute need for an exclusion-related special procedural phase, where tenderers other than those affected by potential exclusion have a justiciable right to force the contracting authority to review the circumstances of other tenderers. This is not necessarily an overall undesirable development, but it can be problematic in many ways, not least because the EU substantive and procedural rules are not adapted to that function [see A Sanchez-Graells, “‘If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts”, in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming]. 

Last, but not least, it is also worth noting that, by answering in the way it has, the ECJ has avoided the need to provide clarification on the requirements of intensity of judicial review of public procurement decisions at Member State level, on which AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona had put together a rather stringent and not uncontroversial proposal (see here). Unfortunately, then, given the ECJ's unwillingness to answer that question, we will continue puzzledly looking at the gaping hole that Prof Caranta identified in the ECJ's jurisprudence concerning public procurement remedies [see R Caranta, 'Many Different Paths, but Are They All Leading to Effectiveness?', in S Treumer & F Lichère (eds), Enforcement of the EU Public Procurement Rules, vol 3 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF Publishing, 2011) 53, 84].