AG suggests CJEU should declare fines for clarification or supplementation of procurement documents as contrary to EU law only if disproportionate (C-523/16)


In his Opinion of 15 November 2017 in case MA.T.I. SUD, C-523/16, EU:C:2017:868, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has considered whether, in a situation where a tenderer for a public contract has submitted incomplete information, national rules subjecting the possibility of supplementing that documentation to the payment of a fine are compatible with EU public procurement law.

The dispute concerned a 2014 reform of the Italian law transposing 'Article 51 of Directive 2004/18/EC in a manner which enabled tenderers for public contracts to remedy any irregularities in their tenders, but at the same time imposed on them a financial penalty proportional to the value of the contract' (para 1)--of between 0.1% and 1% of the value of the contract, with a maximum ceiling of €50,000 (para 5, by reference to Art 38(2a) of the Italian Legislative Decree No 163 of 2006). Interestingly, the rule also foresaw that '[i]n the case of non-substantial irregularities, that is, any non-essential absence or incompleteness of declarations, the contracting authority shall not require the remedying thereof or impose any penalty' (idem).

AG Campos has submitted that Art 51 Dir 2004/18 did not prohibit the imposition of such fines, 'provided that [the national legislation] ensures compliance with the principles of transparency and equal treatment, that the remedying of those irregularities does not make possible the submission of what, in reality, would be a new tender and that the burden is proportionate to the objectives justifying it' (para 80), but that, under the circumstances of the case, a fine of between 0.1% and 1% with a maximum of €50,000 was not allowable (para 80). The AG Opinion and the future Judgment of the Court of Justice will be relevant for the interpretation of Articles 56 and 59 of Directive 2014/24/EU, but I am not sure that the reasoning can be simply carried forward to a regulatory setting that indicates more clearly the conditions for the request of clarifications. In this post, I pick on a few elements of the analysis of AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona in his MA.T.I. SUD Opinion, and reflect on the applicability of the reasoning to the post-2014 setting.

Some preliminary normative thoughts

As a preliminary point, though, I think it worth stressing that the functioning of a system allowing for ‘remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ is probably better understood as a system allowing 'avoiding exclusion for payment', in the sense that an undertaking that has submitted incomplete or unclear documentation is given a chance to avoid exclusion from the procurement procedure under the double condition that (a) it is able to submit a clarification or supplementary documentation that does not materially alter its tender, and (b) it is able (and willing) to pay the financial sanction. While (a) is relevant to the goals of the procurement 'triage' process because the contracting authority has a structural interest in attracting as many (in open procedures) or the best (in restricted and different variations of negotiated procedures) qualified tenderers, (b) is irrelevant unless and except in the case in which the inability to pay the fine signals financial difficulties or bankruptcy--which should in any case be captured by discretionary exclusion grounds based on that specific circumstance. Therefore, (b) comes to create a functional distortion of the procurement procedure and, in particular, of the aims of the qualitative selection phase. 

While sanctions in this setting may be seen as an incentive for undertakings to submit full and accurate documentation, this can also be the type of provision that creates a disincentive to participate, and one that seeks to displace part of the costs of the administrative procedure from the contracting authority unto the tenderers (for, statistically, there will be errors and this type of cost should thus be seen as part of the ordinary costs of running procurement processes). While the financial impact of the 'fine-based remedial system' will then largely be borne by the tenderers, the benefits will also fall on the contracting authority (at least in those cases where the 'paying, sloppy undertaking' ends up being awarded the contract for having submitted the most advantageous tender). This creates a strange trade-off between private costs and private and public benefits, which can be further complicated where the imposition of the fine has a discretionary element to it (eg the possibility to waive the fine for non-essential defects, where the determination of the threshold of 'essentiality' is far from clear-cut and objective).

At first sight, then, this seems like the type of rule that can create perverse incentives--in particular in terms of SME access to procurement procedures, or their ability to continue in the race when they commit mistakes--which comes to raise the threshold of 'professionalism' needed to participate in procurement processes without risking significant financial consequences. On the whole, then, from a normative perspective, I think that this is the kind of rule that seeks to reduce the administrative cost of procurement at the expense of reduced (potential) competition for public contracts, in particular from SMEs. The same way I argue against charging potentially interested tenderers for access to the tender documentation, I would also take the normative position that imposing fines for the remediation of documentation shortcomings is undesirable, and would propose their eradication de lege ferenda (by analogy, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 280-281).

This should be kept in mind when reading the remainder of this post, as this line of normative argumentation was used by the parties. In particular, in the clear formulation of the European Commission, which stressed that 'the contrast between paying a fine for a minor irregularity and the uncertainty of being awarded a contract may cause tenderers, especially small and medium-sized undertakings, not to participate in tenders or, where applicable, to withdraw their participation after the tenders have been submitted' (para 38, although the Commission goes on to note that the payment would be allowable despite its dissuasive effects, 'provided that it pursues a legitimate objective of general interest. Such objectives may include both the aim of making undertakings behave responsibly (encouraging them to act seriously and promptly when supplying the documentation for their tenders) and that of financially compensating the contracting authority for the work involved in the more complicated and extended procedure of remedying procedural shortcomings', para 39, which is not completely aligned with my normative position).

‘Remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ under the pre-2014 EU public procurement rules

In the pre-Slovensko (C-599/10, EU:C:2012:191), pre-Manova (C-336/12, EU:C:2013:647) setting, where some doubts could be harboured as to the possibility for contracting authorities to seek clarifications of the tender documentation, and its limits, the only guidance the then current EU rules provided was to be found in the sparse Article 51 Dir 2004/18/EC, which foresaw that 'The contracting authority may invite economic operators to supplement or clarify the certificates and documents submitted pursuant to Articles 45 to 50'--that is, clarifications or supplements to the certificates and documents concerning (i) the personal situation of the candidate or tenderer (art 45); (ii) its suitability to pursue the professional activity (art 46); (iii) its economic and financial standing (art 47); (iv) its technical and/or professional ability (art 48); (v) its quality assurance standards (art 49); and (vi) its environmental management standards (art 50).

However, Slovensko and Manova came to clarify the possibility for clarifications to be sought (which in my view can result in a duty to seek clarifications under certain conditions, see here), and this seemed to prompt a legislative reaction in Italy. Given the need to allow for clarifications and modifications of the tender documentation in certain cases, Italian procurement law was modified from a system of strict disqualification for formal shortcomings, to as system allowing for 'remedying procedural shortcomings for payment' [see M Comba, 'Qualification, Selection and Exclusion of Economic Operators (Tenderers and Candidates) in Italy', in M Burgi, M Trybus & S Treumer (eds), Qualification, Selection and Exclusion in EU Procurement (DJØF Publishing, 2016) 85, 97-100]. However, this modification of the rules and the increased procedural flexibility were subjected to the payment of an administrative fine by the undertakings that had presented incomplete or unclear documentation (see above).

AG Campos assesses the compatibility of this approach to financially-conditional clarification or supplementation of documents under the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC (as Directive 2014/24/EU was not applicable ratione temporis, see paras 50-52 of his Opinion). In his view, there is 'nothing in [the case-law of the Court on Directive 2004/18] which might preclude the Member States from providing for contracting authorities to charge a certain amount (in this case, as a penalty) to tenderers who have placed themselves in that situation' (para 56, reference omitted). Further, he considers that there is no objection in principle and that any EU-law derived restriction on this possibility would be a matter for a proportionality assessment. In his words,

... national legislation may ... authorise the remedying of formal shortcomings in the tenders, while imposing on the tenderers a certain economic burden in order to encourage them to submit their tenders correctly and to pass on to them the additional cost (if any) arising from the procedure for remedying shortcomings. However, national legislation of that kind, which, owing to the magnitude of that burden, constitutes a not easily surmountable obstacle to the participation of undertakings (in particular, small and medium-sized ones) in public procurement procedures, would run counter to Directive 2014/18 and to the principles underlying it; moreover, this would also undermine the competition to be desired in respect of those procedures (para 58, references omitted and emphasis added).

This leads him to stress that he does 'not consider ... that objections of principle can be raised to a mechanism which makes the correction of shortcomings in the submission of a tender subject to a payment by the person responsible for those shortcomings and required to remedy them' (para 59, emphasis in the original).

AG Campos then proceeds to assess whether such non-negligible restriction to participation is created by the Italian rule at stake. He also addresses the issue whether the Italian provision may be in breach with the Court of Justice's case law on the limits to the allowable modifications and clarifications to tender documentation (paras 60-65). However, this concerns a literal interpretation of the Italian rule (which foresees the possibility of remedying '[a]ny absence, incompleteness or any other substantial irregularity in the information'). However, even if part of the rule should be quashed for exceeding the relevant case law, the possibility would have remained to require payment for the remediation of a 'Manova-like' situation that concerned the absence of (pre-dating) information. Thus, the analysis of the rule remains interesting even in the case of partial incompatibility.

A tricky proportionality assessment

In AG Campos' view, the relevant point is thus to establish whether the financial burden derived from the 'remedy for payment' rule is not an 'easily surmountable obstacle' to participation in procurement procedures, in particular by SMEs. In the second part of his Opinion, he deals with this point and considers two sets of issues. First, he carries out a strict proportionality assessment. Second, he goes back to points of principle despite his previous position that no objections of principle could be raised against the mechanism, which is slightly puzzling.

On the strict proportionality front, the Opinion submits that

The two criticisms of that instrument ... are, on the one hand, that the amount of the penalty is determined a priori, in the contract notice itself, without attempting to assess the magnitude of the irregularities committed or the infringing tenderer’s economic circumstances, and, on the other hand, that the resulting amounts (up to a maximum of EUR 50 000) do not comply with the principle of proportionality. Moreover, the exorbitant amount of the penalty is such as to deter participation in the tendering process, especially by small and medium-sized undertakings, thereby restricting competition.

... the objectives which might justify the imposition of the penalties are not consistent with the minimum and maximum amounts of those penalties...

Of course, the argument of higher administrative costs does not justify such substantial amounts: it should be borne in mind that even the minimum of 0.1 per cent (and a fortiori 1 per cent), in contracts subject to [Union] directives, is in itself high, given the lower thresholds for the application of those directives. That argument is also not consistent with a single amount which is established a priori and consists in a percentage of the amount of the contract, since it would be logical, following that line of thought, to tailor to each individual case to the resulting higher costs.

The disproportionate nature of the penalties is evident in the present two cases, which merely arise from the practical application of the legal provision: an executive’s forgetting to sign and the failure to provide a sworn statement regarding a criminal record result in fines of EUR 35 000 and EUR 50 000 respectively. I find it difficult to accept that the higher cost to the contracting authorities, merely for detecting those two anomalies and for inviting the tenderers to remedy them, corresponds to those amounts, which seem rather to be designed to increase their revenue (paras 71-74, references omitted and emphasis in the original).

This part of the reasoning seems unobjectionable and comes to challenge the possibility of imposing a fine for the remedying of documentation, rather than imposing a duty to cover any additional administrative costs ensuing from the remedial action--which would have been preferable, even if still normatively undesirable (see above). Importantly, this part of the reasoning would have sufficed to quash the Italian provision at stake. However, the Opinion proceeds to assert that

Nor does the aim of ensuring the seriousness of tenders justify such large fines. In the first place, because such fines are imposed (as stated in the tender specifications) regardless of the number of irregularities, that is, regardless of the type of information or document which is missing or must be supplemented and of its greater or lesser significance. The provision treats the offences in a uniform manner and allows their level of complexity to be disregarded.

In the second place, that aim [of ensuring the seriousness of tenders] must be weighed against that of promoting the widest possible participation of tenderers, resulting in greater competition and, in general, the best service to public interests. An excessive penalty will probably deter undertakings with smaller financial resources from participating in calls for tenders for high-value contracts, given the percentage limits stated above. They might also be deterred from participating in future calls for tenders which include the same penalty provision.

Moreover, such a burden will be even more of a deterrent to ‘tenderers established in other Member States, inasmuch as their level of knowledge of national law and the interpretation thereof and of the practice of the national authorities cannot be compared to that of national tenderers’.

In short, a provision the purpose of which was, precisely, to help to remedy formal errors made by tenderers (by amending the previous national rule) and, thereby, to increase their chances of successfully participating in public procurement procedures ultimately deters such participation by imposing financial burdens which are disproportionate to its objective (paras 75-78, references omitted and emphasis added).

In this second part, AG Campos seems to adopt a half-way approach to the objection in principle to the establishment of dissuasive barriers to participation, but only through disproportionate or excessive penalties. I find this problematic because it is very difficult establish at which level the dissuasive effect will kick-in, regardless of what can be considered excessive or disproportionate for the purposes of finding an infringement of EU internal market law. Thus, as mentioned above, I think that there are good reasons to oppose the creation of these mechanisms out of principle (the principle of maximising competition for public contracts, to be precise) and, from that perspective, I find the Opinion in MA.T.I. SUD unnecessarily shy or insufficiently ambitious. This does not affect the outcome of the specific case, but perpetuates the problem in view of the 2016 reform of the controversial Italian law, as discussed below.

‘Remedying procedural shortcomings in return for payment’ under the post-2014 EU public procurement rules

Interestingly, the case comprises a dynamic element that remains unresolved. It is worth noting that the Italian rule at stake in MA.T.I. SUD has been amended, and a 2016 reform relaxed 'the conditions for requiring the fine (imposing it only if rectification is required) and reduced its maximum ceiling (from EUR 50 000 to EUR 5 000)' (para 8). Additionally, any substantive assessment of the revised rule will now have to take place within the setting of the rules in Directive 2014/24/EU, where it can be argued that contracting authorities are under a duty to seek clarifications [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 321-323]. In my view, in this setting, the analysis should not rely on a matter of proportionality, but on a more sophisticated understanding of the functions and balance of interests involved in the qualitative selection phase of each procurement procedure, which very much opposes the levying of financial penalties for clarifications sought by the contracting authority, regardless of their amount.

My view seems to run contrary to that of AG Campos and the European Commission, which both seem to have hinted at the fact that the new maximum amount of €5,000 for necessary rectifications saves the mechanism. This is seen with favour by both the European Commission in its submissions ('a maximum ceiling of EUR 5 000, such as that adopted by the new Public Contracts Code, is more reasonable', para 41) and, in less clear terms, by the AG ('Perhaps that reform, by significantly reducing the absolute maximum ceiling to EUR 5 000, was a response to the national legislature’s belief that that ceiling had been excessive, as the referring court implies', para 72).

If this represented the position the European Commission would defend in a future case involving the revised Italian rule, and/or the position taken in an Advocate General Opinion, I would strongly disagree because I do not consider helpful the view that €5,000 per rectification is 'more reasonable' or 'less excessive' than €50,000 per error (unless waived due to its non-essential character). Going back to the principles behind the creation of this type of mechanisms, important questions remain as to whether the goals it seeks to achieve are either justified in the public interest, or not already sought by other aspects of the procurement rules.

As submitted by the Italian Government and the Commission, the double legitimate goal of the measure would be 'first, to make the tenderer responsible for acting diligently when producing the documentation which will accompany his tender and, second, to compensate the contracting authority for the additional work involved in administering a procurement procedure which allows for the possibility of remedying those irregularities' (para 70).

On the second point, I am not sure that there is a clear public interest in seeking to recover part or all of the administrative costs involved in rectifying qualitative selection decisions in the view of supplemented or clarified information, in particular because this recovery of costs comes at the expense of an immeasurable potential reduction of competition (and, if one is to adopt AG Campos' reasoning, particularly acute in the case of undertakings from other jurisdictions, see para 77--although I am not sure this part of the argument is persuasive). On the first point, the argument that the financial penalty will ensure that undertakings participating in tender procedures will act diligently seems moot. The main incentive for undertakings to act diligently in the preparation of their tenders is the economic incentive derived from being awarded the contract. Thus, creating a negative incentive that works in the same direction that the main economic incentive (ie to prompt undertakings to submit their best possible tender) makes no economic sense because it creates a double-whammy on less diligent tenderers, whereas it adds no incentive for diligent tenderers.

By isolating the qualitative selection phase and thinking that tenderers have an interest in acting in less than diligent terms (within their abilities) seems to me to miss the point. While the frustration at the administrative burden of carrying out several (or at least two) iterations of inspection of documents where there have been mistakes is understandable, that should not lead to the creation of financial penalty mechanism that is bound to both be ineffective in what it tries to achieve and to create a likely high shadow cost in terms of lost potential competition for public contracts. In that regard, I would have preferred for the Italian mechanism to be quashed as a matter of principle on this occasion. But, even if this does not happen and the Court of Justice follows the intermediate approach of AG Campos' Opinion, I would still hope that a fresh consideration of the revised Italian rule under the setting of Directive 2014/24/EU delivered that result.

Postscript [16 Nov 2017, 9am]

After publishing this post, it was brought to my attention that I had missed the additional information in fn 5 of AG Campos' Opinion, where he explains that the Italian fees for remediation of documentation shortcomings has been abolished. Indeed, the fn says:

Although it can have no bearing on the consideration of the questions referred ... a further, more radical amendment of the Code ... occurred in 2017. In fact, Legislative Decree No 56/2017 of 19 April issued a new draft of Article 89(3) which definitively removed the requirement to pay for the remedying of shortcomings upon its entry into force (20 May 2017). Since then, economic operators have been able to rectify the absence of any formal element from their proposals (except those relating to the economic and technical aspects of the tender) without incurring any kind of penalty or other similar charge.

Thus, the issue will remain unresolved, unless similar charges or financial penalties exist in other jurisdictions.