ECJ creates randomness in right to challenge procurement decisions by excluded tenderers (C-355/15)

In its Judgment of 21 December 2016 in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, C-355/15, EU:C:2016:988, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) offered additional interpretation of the rules on active standing to challenge public procurement decisions under the Remedies Directive (RD) and, in particular, its Article 1(3), according to which 'Member States shall ensure that the review procedures are available, under detailed rules which the Member States may establish, at least to any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement'.

This provision had been interpreted in broad terms ('favor revisionis') in Fastweb (C‑100/12, EU:C:2013:448, see here), where the ECJ strengthened the right of non-compliant tenderers to challenge procurement decisions. It is in comparison to Fastweb that Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich raises some tricky issues--and, once more, it is surprising that this ECJ judgment was adopted without an Advocate General opinion.

In the case at hand, and given the wording of the Austrian transposition of Art 1(3) RD granting active standing to 'An[y] undertaking which had an interest in the conclusion of a contract...', the legal question for the ECJ concerned a new aspect of the concept of 'any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract', as it relates to economic operators that have participated in the tender, but are no longer under active consideration by the contracting authority.

The interpretive difficulty stemmed in part from the contrast between the open wording of Art 1(3) RD and the seemingly more limited concept that could be extracted from Art 2a(2) RD, when it establishes a standstill obligation in relation only to concerned tenderers, which are defined as those who 'have not yet been definitively excluded. An exclusion is definitive if it has been notified to the tenderers concerned and has either been considered lawful by an independent review body or can no longer be subject to a review procedure'. Given that Art 2a(1) RD establishes that 'Member States shall ensure that the persons referred to in Article 1(3) have sufficient time for effective review of the contract award decisions taken by contracting authorities, by adopting the necessary provisions respecting the minimum conditions set out in paragraph 2 of this Article', the link between the general rule on active standing in Art 1(3) RD and the more limited rule on standstill in Art 2a(2) that aims to make that active standing effective does raise some complex issues.

In Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, the question arose from the fact that the challenger of the procurement decision had been excluded from the procedure by a decision of the contracting authority that had become final (after two appeals) at the time of the challenge. The Austrian review courts considered that the finality of the exclusion extinguished the right to challenge the award decision because 'the rights of a tenderer whose bid has been properly excluded cannot be infringed by illegalities relating to the procedure followed to select another bid for the purposes of awarding the contract' (C-355/15, para 16).

In order to determine the compatibility of this position with EU law, the ECJ broke down the issue in two parts. It first distinguished the current case from Fastweb. It then proceeded to clarify the purpose of the challenge rights provided by Art 1(3) RD. While each of the two parts of the reasoning make some sense independently, their lack of coordination can create difficult cases under spurious circumstances.

In distinguishing the cases, the ECJ indicated that

29 ...  the judgment of ... Fastweb ... gave concrete expression to the requirements of the third subparagraph of Article 1(1) and Article 1(3) of Directive 89/665 in a situation in which, following a public procurement procedure, two tenderers bring an action for review, each seeking the exclusion of the other. In such a situation, both of the tenderers have an interest in obtaining a particular contract.
30      However, the situation at issue in the main proceedings is very clearly distinguishable from the situations at issue in the two cases giving rise to the judgments of ... Fastweb and ... PFE (C‑689/13, EU:C:2016:199).
31      First, the bids of the tenderers concerned in [Fastweb and PFE] had not been the subject of an exclusion decision of the contracting authority, unlike the bid submitted by the consortium in the main proceedings in the present case.
32      Secondly, it was in the course of the same, single set of review proceedings relating to the award decision that, in both cases, each tenderer challenged the validity of the other tenderer’s bid, each competitor having a legitimate interest in the exclusion of the bid submitted by the other, which may lead to a finding that the contracting authority is unable to select a lawful bid ... In the main proceedings in the present case, by contrast, the consortium brought an action, first, against the exclusion decision adopted in respect of it and, secondly, against the award decision, and it is in the course of that second set of proceedings that it contends that the successful tenderer’s bid is unlawful.
33      It follows that the principle of case-law stemming from the judgments of [Fastweb and PFE] does not apply to the procedure and litigation at issue in the main proceedings (C-355/15, paras 29-33, references omitted).

Despite being very formalistic and relying on procedural aspects of the litigation rather than on the material situation (ie, tenders with only two bidders in which each holds an interest in the exclusion of the other so that, in case of dual exclusion, the contracting authority is obliged to re-run the procedure and, thus, each has a fresh opportunity to participate), this is not an unreasonable approach and the ECJ seems clear in establishing an implicit condition for active standing that requires the contracting authority itself to not have excluded the tenderer (or its offer) at the time where the challenge of the award decision takes place. This is however a restriction of the (potential) widest interpretation of Art 1(3) RD. And this restriction brings complications in light of the second part of the analysis carried out by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich.

Indeed, in addressing the specific issue of the finality of exclusion decisions that exclude the right to challenge under Art 1(3) RD, the ECJ considered that

34 ... as is apparent from Article 1(3) and Article 2a of Directive 89/665, that directive ensures effective review of unlawful decisions adopted in the context of a public procurement procedure, by enabling any excluded tenderer to challenge not only the exclusion decision, but also, as long as that challenge has not been resolved, the subsequent decisions which would harm it if its exclusion were annulled.
35 In those circumstances, Article 1(3) of that directive cannot be interpreted as precluding a tenderer such as the consortium from being refused access to the review of the award decision, provided that it must be considered a definitively excluded tenderer within the meaning of the second subparagraph of Article 2a(2) of that directive (C-355/15, paras 29-33, emphases added).

In my view, this interpretation is criticisable both in own terms, and due to the effects it creates. The ECJ has adopted an interpretation of Art 1(3) that is conditioned by Art 2a(2)--that is, a sort of systemic interpretation where the special rule may be seen to exclude or restrict the general rule--without first addressing the possible coordination of both provisions without the second altering the scope of application of the first one--ie, in a true systemic interpretation.

This excludes an alternative, broader interpretation of the rules on active standing in the Remedies Directive that I would have much rather preferred, which would have determined that all economic operators having had an interest in the award of the contract (included definitely excluded ones) have the right to challenge the award decision under Art 1(3) RD, even if only those that are concerned tenderers or candidates benefit from the facilitative procedural measures derived from standstill under Art 2a(2) RD [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 439-441]. This would have respected the fact that, in the revision of the RD in 2007 (when Art 2a(2) was introduced), the wording of the relevant part of Art 1(3) was not amended. It would also not diminished or altered the effectiveness of Art 2a(2) RD, as the standstill period would in any case not benefited excluded tenderers ro candidates, who would have to overcome the additional burden of following the tender procedure very closely when they intended to challenge the final award decision.

Additionally, the position adopted by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich creates an element of randomness derived from the uncertainty around decision times for challenges, appeals (and further appeals) of exclusion decisions. Thus, in swift jurisdictions where exclusion decisions can very quickly become final, the rights to challenge award decisions by tenderers excluded by the contracting authority can be effectively suppressed. In contrast, in slower jurisdictions where finality of exclusion decisions takes longer to reach, tenderers excluded by the contracting authority will still have the opportunity to challenge award decisions. In either case, there is no requirement for a coordination of both procedures, so it could well be that the challenge brought by an excluded tenderer is decided before an eventual confirmation of the exclusion decision, which seems to create an undesirable situation under the logic of the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich. Overall, this Judgment creates this element of randomness in the recognition or not of active standing to challenge award decisions to tenderers excluded by the contracting authority, which is undesirable.

More generally, this case indicates once more the shortcomings of the system created by the Remedies Directive, which is patchy and incomplete, and requires a fundamental revision [see A Sanchez-Graells, "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts", S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming]. If nothing else, to clarify whether this is solely about justiciability of review rights of economic operators that can have an interest in being awarded that specific contract under the conditions in which it is tendered (a narrow interpretation), or whether it serves broader purposes of control and review of procurement activity, as a substitute for faltering public oversight of this important public sector function (a broad interpretation). There are arguments both ways, but not having this very basic and foundational aspect clear does create problems as the case law of the ECJ continues shaping the system one preliminary reference at a time...