Could the Finn Frogne case law get any weirder? The strange case of the partial termination of a parking concession (Conseil d’État, N°s 409728, 409799)

 © Erwin Wurm

© Erwin Wurm

In its Decision of 15 November 2017 in the case of the Commune d'Aix-en-Provence and the Societe d'économie mixte d'équipement du Pays d'Aix (SEMEPA) (N°s 409728, 409799, the ‘SEMEPA Decision’), the Conseil d’État applied the new French rules on the modification of concession contracts that transpose Art 43 of the Concessions Directive (Dir 2014/23/EU). In the SEMEPA Decision, the Conseil d’État followed an approach that resembles very closely that of the Court of Justice of the European Union in its Judgment 7 September 2016 in Finn Frogne, C-549/14, EU:C:2016:634 (see here, which the Conseil d’État does however not mention), and decided that the partial termination of a concession contract for the exploitation of street and underground parking sites in Aix-en-Provence in a way that changed the overall nature of the contract was illegal. The SEMEPA Decision leaves an important factual element unexplored—ie the potential existence of an in-house relationship between the contracting authority and the concessionaire—which raises some questions as to the scope and limits of the applicability of the modification and termination rules derived from the 2014 Public Procurement Package to in-house providing structures.

Regardless of that, in itself, the Decision of the Conseil d’État is remarkable (and puzzling) for the extreme brevity of the justification given for the conclusion that the partial termination of the concession contract was illegal. In my view, the only plausible explanation for this extremely brief justification by the Conseil d’État is the even weirder background of the dispute, which involves a rebellious rejection by the municipality of Aix-en-Provence of a legal reform that transfers the competence for the management of (certain types of) parking sites to a higher level of regional administration (the ‘métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence’). In this post, I briefly address these two aspects of a truly interesting case that Prof François Lichère brought to my attention—for which I am grateful.

The illegality of the partial termination of the concession contract

In the case at hand, the municipality of Aix-en-Provence had entered into a series of concession contracts with SEMEPA for the exploitation of street and underground parking sites in that city—the oldest of which dated back from 29 December 1986. SEMEPA is a mixed economy company in which the municipality holds a controlling stake and appoints the majority of the board of directors (ie a body governed by public law and, prima facie, an in-house entity). On 9 June 2016, the municipality decided to partially terminate one of the concession agreements, and this decision was brought under judicial review. On this specific point, the Decision of the Conseil d’État establishes that

Considering, in the first place, that under the terms of Article 55 of the Ordinance of 29 January 2016 on concession contracts, applicable by virtue of Article 78 thereof to the modification of concession contracts in force prior to the entry into force of the Ordinance: ‘the conditions in which a concession contract can be modified during its term without a new concession award procedure are established by implementing regulation. Such modifications cannot change the overall nature of the concession contract. / Where the execution of the concession contract cannot be carried out without a modification contrary to the terms of this Ordinance, the concession contract can be terminated by the conceding authority’; under the terms of Article of the Decree of 1 February 2016 which sets implementing rules for the application of this Ordinance: ‘A concession contract can be modified in the following cases: (…) 5 Where the modifications, of whichever value, are not substantial. / A modification is considered substantial where it changes the global nature of the concession contract. In any case, a modification is substantial where any of the following conditions is met: / a) it introduces conditions which, had they been part of the initial concession award procedure, would have attracted additional participants in the concession award procedure, or allowed for the admission of candidates or tenderers other than those initially admitted, or for the acceptance of a tender other than that originally accepted. b) it changes the economic balance of the concession in favour of the concessionaire in a manner which was not provided for in the initial concession (…);

Considering that it is proven that the agreement concluded on 29 December 1986 between the municipality of Aix-en-Provence and SEMEPA, which had as its object the concession of the management of a public service of off-street parking and a public service of on-street parking, constituted, in fact and notably from the characteristics of its financial equilibrium, a single agreement; that, even if the municipality of Aix-en-Provence and SEMEPA declared to have proceeded to the ‘partial termination’ of that agreement, the agreement of 9 June 2016 had as its object a modification of the initial concession contract; that this modification needs to be view, in regard to its extension [ie the fact that it covered a large number of the parking sites initially covered], as changing the global nature of the initial contract; that it [the modification] introduced, in addition, conditions which, had they been part of the initial concession award procedure, could have attracted additional participants, or allowed for the admission of candidates or tenderers other than those initially admitted, or for the acceptance of a tender other than that originally accepted; that, consequently, [the challenge] based on the fact that this modification of the agreement of 29 December 1986 was adopted in breach of the rules for the modification of concession contracts is such as to create serious doubts as to its validity (paras 19-20, own translation from French).

As mentioned above, the Decision of the Conseil d’État in SEMEPA seems aligned with the Finn Frogne Judgment of the Court of Justice in the sense that it considers that a material reduction of the scope of the concession contract is able to change its nature and thus determine the illegality of the modification. However, in Finn Frogne the change in the nature of the contract derived (at least partially) from the fact that the partial termination resulted in a supply (and installation?) contract, rather than a concession. This is not the case in SEMEPA and it is hard to disentangle the two reasons given by the Conseil d’État in the same para (20): that the material reduction was such as to alter the global nature of the contract AND one that, had it been part of the initial award procedure, would have created different competition conditions and possibly led to a different award decision. From that perspective, the SEMEPA Decision does not make much to contribute to a proper understanding of the several grounds prohibiting different types of illegal (concession) contract modifications.

Additionally, given that SEMEPA is an in-house entity (or at least that is what seems to derive from the discussion in the next paragraph of the Decision, see below), the Conseil d’État missed an opportunity to clarify whether the applicability of the rules on contract modification in this specific case result solely from an (expansive) interpretation of the domestic law, or rather derive from the rules in the Concession Directive and/or general principles of EU public procurement law—which is, however, a tricky issue best saved for another time.

Procurement law to the rescue? Background to the partial termination of the concession

Going back to the SEMEPA Decision, and as also mentioned above, the only plausible explanation I can find for the extremely shallow and formalistic analysis and the brief justification given by the Conseil d’État for the finding of illegal modification is the even weirder background of the dispute, which is described in the following terms:

Considering, in the second place, that in a communication of 20 June 2016, published on the [Aix-en-Provence] municipality’s website, it indicated that the City Council had sold eight ‘off-street’ parking sites to SEMEPA, which had until then been exploiting them in the framework of a public service delegation, that this sale would allow the municipality to ‘avoid the obligation of gratuitously transmitting its parking sites to the [métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence], which the law required’, that ‘such parking sites constitute an estate, which the municipality has created, that its inhabitants have paid for, et [which] it would have been abnormall to have to donate them [to the métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence]’, and that ‘to those who doubt that this sale contributes to take the parking policy from the elected, to transfer it to the non-elected, without any guarantee that such policy will be preserved, it will be put that the exact opposite will happen: SEMEPA is a mixed economy company managed by a board of directors in which the elected from the municipality are the majority. The tariffs will continue to be controlled by the municipality; this will form part of the contract between both partners. In addition, SEMEPA’s annual activity report is presented annually to the City Council’; … proceeding to the … modification of the [concession] contract of 29 December 1986, and to the transfer of the off-street parking sites to SEMEPA, the Municipality and SEMEPA had as the sole goal to prevent the exercise, by the métropole d’Aix-Marseille-Provence of the power to regulate parking sites which it is given with effect from 1 January 2018the [challenge] based on the fact that the [modification] of 9 June 2016 had an illicit object and had to be considered an ‘abuse of power’ is such as to create serious doubts as to its validity  (paras 21, own translation from French).

Now, that explains everything! Except the need to use public procurement law at all in a situation of such clear fraudulent use of contractual mechanisms to avoid mandatory public law duties …