A second look at the CJEU's public procurement activity--and a reflection on its implications in terms of remedies and the effectiveness of eu judicial activity

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has now published the final version of its Judicial Activity 2015 Annual Report. The release of these final statistics on the CJEU activity for the past year provides a chance to take a second look at the evolution of procurement cases over a long(ish) time period--statistics are now available for a full decade regarding the General Court (GC) and for the period since 2010 for the Court of Justice (ECJ). A quick look at the the statistics shows a continuation of the trend of increasing backlog in this area (see here), and a closer look reveals how the backlog at the ECJ level has been deteriorating rather quickly in recent years.

There are some limitations of the statistical information that need to be stressed from the outset. First, as with previous editions of the judicial activity report (see previous comments of the 2012 and 2014 reports), having had more information on the status of pending cases would have helped gain a better understanding of the situation, particularly at ECJ level. It is still hard to understand why the GC explicitly reports on pending cases, while the ECJ does not. Second, not all cases are exactly comparable. While the activity at GC level is limited to challenges to procurement procedures carried out by the EU Institutions, the activity of the ECJ includes a mix of preliminary references (the vast majority of new cases) and appeals against GC decisions. In 2015, of the 26 new cases before the ECJ, 22 were preliminary references and 4 were appeals. This makes the assessment of the overall evolution of public procurement activity not very meaningful. Thus, I will rather discuss the evolution at the GC and ECJ level separately.

Evolution of procurement cases at GC level--what are the implications in terms of the effectiveness of remedies for eu institutions' procurement?

The GC has been managing to slightly reduce its backlog of pending cases in the last 5 years and the trend seemed to roughly remain stationary in 2015, when it opened 23 new cases and completed another 22. Provided that no cases are "left at the bottom of the pile", it would thus seem that the GC is in a position to manage and cope with its public procurement docket.

However, this should not be too surprising, given the low pressure that being the review court for all the procurement activities developed by the EU Institutions creates. According to the recent Special Report No 17/2016 of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on EU institutional procurement (see here), the EU Institutions carried out procurement for a value of €4.2 bn in 2014. According to ECA: "In the 6‑year period from 2009 to 2014 the General Court completed 3,419 cases of which 106 dealt with public procurement by the EU institutions (3.1 %), or on average 17.6 cases per year. The 106 cases relating to public procurement gave rise to a total of 123 decisions: 66 judgments and 57 orders" (p. 44).

The Commission generally estimates that it awards more than 9,000 contracts per year. However, on average, there are less than 20 challenges of those procurement decisions per year. This would roughly indicate that less than 0.25% of procurement decisions of the EU Institutions get challenged before the GC. This is a very low caseload for a court in charge of reviewing procurement activity of a value of €4.2 bn. Searching for valid comparators is difficult because each jurisdiction organises procurement remedies in different ways and there are important cultural and practical factors that can determine very different litigation rates (going from the possible extreme of high litigation in Italy, where around 40% of the cases in the administrative courts are public procurement cases, to the UK, where there is only a handful of public procurement cases every year).

However, one gets the sense that 20 cases per year is a very low litigation rate by taking into consideration that EU Member States with similar or lower estimated procurement expenditure show more intense litigation. For example, based on the Commission's data, Bulgaria has over 1,000 cases per year (estimated procurement covered by the EU rules of €2.83 bn), Latvia has over 200 cases (€3.55 bn), Luxembourg has over 50 cases (€0.56 bn), and the Slovak Republic has over 1,000 cases (€3.98 bn). If we calculate the incidence of litigation by volume of (estimated) expenditure (covered by the EU rules), we would get the (very, very) rough measure of cases by billion Euro of expenditure. Using the information available (which is far from ideal), we can construct the table on the left-handside column.

This information should be taken with immense caution, and none of the specific figures for any of the countries of the list should be used as an indication of the actual intensity of litigation in that jurisdiction. However, I think that his serves to make the broader point that the level of litigation of procurement decisions adopted by the EU Institutions is indeed very low, at least by an order of magnitude.

The implication of this insight in terms of a potential review of the remedies mechanisms available to challenge procurement decisions by the EU Institutions--which has been advocated by ECA and should be strongly supported (see here)--is that the GC (in its current configuration and without a significant expansion of resources) is probably incapable of digesting any relevant increase of procurement litigation to a level in line with the jurisdictions of the Member States, except those with a lower intensity of procurement litigation. 

In my view, thus, it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency in charge of the oversight of the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, in case the provision of additional resources to this entity was considered preferable than a more substantial reform of the remedies system.

Evolution of procurement cases at ECJ level--will a new wave of preliminary references flood the court and dampen the papers?

The ECJ has been accumulating a significant backlog of procurement cases over the last 5 years (no earlier statistics are available). What seems worrying is that, for the last 3 years, the backlog has been increasing at a pace of approximately 10 cases per year, and the total backlog at the end of 2015 trebled the level in 2010.

In view of the expiry of deadline for the transposition of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in 2016 (and even if a significant number of Member States are delayed), it seems reasonable to expect a new wave of preliminary references for the interpretation of the ever so complex new rules and their coordination with the previous case law in this area of EU economic law. Thus, it would seem reasonable to expect the ECJ to consider strategies to cope not only with the existing backlog, but also with the likely increase in referrals in the period between now and, say, 2020.

Of course, it is difficult to develop a strategy that prioritises public procurement over other areas of judicial activity, and there may be good reasons to consider other types of cases (including within EU economic law, such as tax avoidance cases) equally or more relevant or urgent. However, the advantage of procurement is that, it being a very specialistic and relatively self-contained area, it would not be too difficult to create a task force to deal with procurement cases in a swift manner. This would require an investment in human capital for a temporary period.

The European Commission did this in the wake of the financial crisis in order to deal with the increased volume of State aid cases [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement, forthcoming]. The possibility of introducing similar flexibility at ECJ level could help boost the effectiveness of EU law (and public procurement law in particular) through a swifter process for the clarification of new rules that, otherwise, may remain in legal limbo for quite some time.

In terms of looking for resource to do so, of course, the elephant in the room is the issue of the cost of language management (as in translation and interpretation) at the CJEU. This is probably heretical, but I think that a reduction of the resource dedicated to language management would be the easiest and quickest way of boosting the ability of the CJEU to deal with a larger docket of legal issues. The Management Report in the 2015 Annual Report makes this overwhelmingly clear. To my mind, the fact that 37.4% of the posts at the CJEU are judicial (including Cabinets, Registries, Research and Documentation, Library, Protocol, Communication and Publications), while 51.0% of the posts are languages positions (including Translation and Interpretation), is troubling. Basically, because this heaviness of language management has the combined effect of: a) draining resource that could be put to a different use and, b) delaying the functioning of the CJEU.

Overall conclusion

It is probably not surprising that a look at the statistical information on judicial activity shows that the CJEU is not prepared for the likely developments in litigation in the area of public procurement law. It may well be overwhelmed by developments at the EU level that triggered a higher intensity of procurement litigation--should the remedies system for EU Institutional procurement be developed along the lines proposed by the European Court of Auditors; and it is most certainly in a bad position to absorb any significant increase in the number of questions referred for a preliminary ruling that results from the Member States application of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in a systematic manner.

In my opinion, the CJEU (and the EU Institutions more generally) should look for creative ways of preparing for these changes. Otherwise, the effectiveness of the EU public procurement rules may be jeopardised and/or significantly delayed, particularly concerning the interpretation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, which is certainly not without legal controversy.