Discretion in public procurement—notes of a very energising workshop


I have the great privilege and pleasure of participating in a research project on ‘Discretion in public procurement’ funded by the Swedish Competition Authority and led by Profs Groussot, Hettne and Bogojević of the Universities of Lund and Oxford. In the context of the project, a workshop was held at Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford) on 3 November. The discussions brought together leading general EU law, environmental law and public procurement law academics, and this created a very open-minded atmosphere conducive to very productive discussions.

The results of the research project will be published in due course by Hart, as part of the series Studies of the Oxford Institute of European and Comparative Law (IECL). For now, I am happy to share my notes of the seminar. Needless to say, all valuable insights should be attributed to relevant colleagues, and any errors or misunderstandings are my own responsibility. I hope these notes serve to promote further debate.

Public Procurement and Internal Market

Prof Phil Syrpis used his previous discussion of the two constitutional visions on the interaction between primary and secondary EU law (see P Syrpis, ‘The relationship between primary and secondary law in the EU’ (2015) 52(2) Common Market Law Review 461) to assess the extent to which such primary-secondary interaction shapes the spaces for the exercise in the field of public procurement (see P Syrpis, ‘RegioPost—A Constitutional Perspective’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 2).

In particular, he discussed RegioPost (C-115/14, EU:C:2015:760), and how the interaction of Art 56 TFEU, the Posted Workers Directive and the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC shaped the space for the exercise of discretion concerning the imposition of minimum wage requirements in the execution of public contracts—emphasising that this is an area of non-exhaustive EU harmonisation, thus triggering EU primary law analysis. Phil criticised the conflation of primary law (Art 56 TFEU) and secondary law (Posted Workers Directive), and the ‘horizontal interaction’ between directives in which the RegioPost case resulted (where the interpretation of the procurement rules hinged on the interpretation of the Posted Workers Directive), as muddling the constitutional position on the value of the sources.

The discussion raised issues concerning the blurry lines around exhaustive/non-exhaustive harmonisation areas, and whether there is displacement or rather procedural juxtaposition of primary and secondary law. Whether a hierarchical approach already contains the seeds of heteronormative interpretation of EU primary law was also considered—in particular in view of the open textured and permeable nature of EU Treaty provisions, and the tendency of the CJEU to consider secondary law as a source of inspiration for the interpretation of primary law, sub silentio. The discussion also raised issues of the potential impact of Art 4(2) TEU (respect for national identities) on the scope for discretion at national level.

Prof Stephen Weatherill used the image of public procurement law as ‘internal market law made better’ and discussed the way in which EU internal market law has generally been developed to constrain the exercise of discretion of (public and private) national actors, and compared the situation in the field of procurement with general internal market law—thus reaching the conclusion that procurement law is more developed and perfected (in constraining national discretion more tightly), and in particular in the area of remedies, which creates a significantly different enforcement scenario and possibly more effectiveness of procurement law compared to general internal market rules (which is jeopardised by the procedural obstinacy of the Member States). He also reflected on the contradiction between the existence of that dense legal framework regulating public procurement in the internal market, and the enduring fragmentation of that market along uncompetitive national lines.

The discussion concentrated on issues surrounding the difficulties in bringing together the analysis in the area of free movement of goods and services, in particular services of general economic interest, the wiggle room for the CJEU to shy away or not from addressing specific cases by using jurisdictional criteria (cfr Comune di Ancona (C-388/12, EU:C:2013:734) and Tecnoedi Costruzioni (C-318/15, EU:C:2016:747)), as well as issues concerning the extent to which the 2014 Public Procurement Package, by creating more discretion or flexibility, may have eroded the component of ‘internal market law made better’ and potentially make public procurement move back to the median (effectiveness) of EU internal market law.

Prof Jörgen Hettne discussed public procurement and technical standards, and whether the specific rules constituted mechanisms to limit discretion or rather a democratic threat. He discussed the multi-faceted nature of technical standards as potential technical barriers, or rather trade facilitators or trade promoters—and focussed on the latter under the new approach to EU standards (CE mark) and the presumption of compliance embedded in the rules on technical specifications in the 2014 Public Procurement Package. He also concentrated on the quasi-binding nature that technical standards are acquiring (eg Nordiska Dental (C-288/08, EU:C:2009:718), James Elliot Construction (C-613/14, EU:C:2016:821)—and see also Medipac - Kazantzidis (C-6/05, EU:C:2007:337), and Commission v Greece (C-489/06, EU:C:2009:165)).

He wondered whether the obligation to respect the CE mark in the context of public procurement is problematic due to its requirement of ‘blind trust’ in the harmonisation system, and whether this is a democratic threat—in particular due to the way in which broad participation is (not) working in the context of standard-setting. He also discussed the constraints in an alternative approach based on the flexibility around the use of functional requirements embedded in Art 44(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Public Procurement Discretion: Limits and Opportunities

Prof Chris Bovis reflected on the drivers and boundaries of discretion in the award of public contracts. He discussed the evolution of the regulatory space left to discretion throughout the five generations of EU procurement directives, and raised issues concerning the scale or structural dimension of discretion, in particular due to the different nature of the issues left to the discretion of the Member States (system-level issues) or the contracting authorities (procurement/procedure-level issues). His reflections also prompted discussion on the dynamics and interaction between exposure to competition, accelerating market dynamics (eg regarding innovation) and exercise of (administrative) discretion.

Dr Dieter Klaus explored the lessons that can be learnt from an analysis of the constraints on discretion in the public procurement setting, as a case study of broader issues concerning the regulation of discretion under EU law. He started with conceptual remarks on ‘discretion’ and the general approach to discretion (deplorable exception or rather a valuable instrument?) and the tension between different pulls and levers in EU law (flexibility, subsidiarity, harmonisation, compliance and potential over-regulation risks). He also stressed the risks and difficulties in EU level concept-building around (eponymous) notions that carry specific connotations in the context of national legal systems, which triggers risks of possible misunderstandings—as well as the interaction between spheres of discretion and intensity of judicial review of (discretion-based) executive decisions.

He used examples that compared case law on gambling (eg Politanò (C-225/15, EU:C:2016:645), Unibet International (C-49/16, EU:C:2017:491) or Vereniging Hoekschewaards Landschap (C-281/16, EU:C:2017:774)) and case law on public procurement (TNS Dimarso (C-6/15, EU:C:2016:555), LitSpecMet (C-567/15, EU:C:2017:736) or Borta (C-298/15, EU:C:2017:266)), with a particular emphasis on the intensity of judicial scrutiny for the justifications backing up discretionary decisions by the Member States. In concluding his reflections, he wondered whether there is something that makes procurement law special within the framework of EU internal market rules—which he thought probably not, in particular if one considers the fact that discretion works in different ways in different areas of EU internal market law, and that EU public procurement law displays the whole range of scenarios where discretion is subjected to different constraints.

The discussion raised the issues of whether the discretion under analysis (in the case law) is only that exercised by the contracting authority in executive decisions, or whether macro/systemic issues are subjected to the same issues and constraints. It also raised issues on the interaction between incompleteness of the regulatory system and (unforeseen) sources of discretion. The discussion also raised the point of whether Art 18 Dir 2014/24 is the natural ‘home’ of discretion within the system (as a horizontal issue), or whether the Directives somehow operate on the basis of a more undercover position for discretion.

In my presentation, I discussed the extent to which the general principles in Article 18(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU set out the relevant constraints on the exercise of executive discretion in the context of procurement and, in particular, the role that the prohibition for contracting authorities to artificially narrow down competition can be used to create effective substantive and/or procedural tests to control the exercise of such discretion.

Following up on my previous proposals (mainly, in Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) ch 5) I suggested that Article 18(1)II Dir 2014/24/EU provides the basis for a competition-orientated or competition driven adaptation of a general proportionality test. I suggested that the existing case law of the CJEU, in particular concerning anti-circumvention rules, can form the basis for a substantive test oriented towards the consideration of the counterfactual decision adopted by a diligent contracting authority. I acknowledged that such a test may be difficult to craft in a way that does not create risks of ex post facto reassessment of decisions that would have originally not been seen as restrictive of competition.

I also suggested that a procedural test may be preferable, in the sense of creating a presumption of conformity with the requirements of the Directive where the contracting authority can provide an adequate paper trail (ex Art 84(2) Dir 2014/24) demonstrating having given due consideration to competition impacts of the decisions taken along the procurement design and implementation phase. My preliminary idea is that the procedural test would create a rebuttable presumption of conformity and that, in case of indicia to the contrary, the substantive test would then be applied.

The ensuing discussion concerned challenges on my claim about the competition-orientatedness of the regime in Directive 2014/24/EU and the 2014 Public Procurement Package more generally, discussion of the different concepts of competition (either as a mechanism or as a benchmark demanding economic efficiency in absolute terms) and the links that could be drawn before the substantive test I propose and the more general test of abuse of EU internal market law.

Environmental and Social Clauses

Dr Marta Andrecka discussed limits of contracting authority discretion in the pursuit of sustainability, and drew from previous analysis on her recently edited monographic issue of the European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review (2017) 12:3. Her reflections concerned the balance between the flexibility created to support sustainability goals in procurement through the ‘toolbox approach’ in the 2014 Public Procurement Package and ensuing Commission guidance, on the one hand, and the necessary checks and balances, on the other—in particular by reference to the interpretation of Art 18(2) of Directive 2014/24/EU and difficulties to fit different understandings of ‘public interest’ at EU and national level in this context. She gave significant weight to the addition of sustainability as a strategic goal of procurement under the new rules, very much in line with the European Commission’s approach in the October 2017 Communication on ‘Making public procurement work in and for Europe’. She also mapped out emerging obligations to include sustainability considerations in the context of other (horizontal) EU policies with an impact on procurement—such as the current proposal for a European Accessibility Act.

The ensuing discussion concerned the boundaries of the concepts of public interest and public policy within the context of EU internal market law, and the extent to which that is directly applicable and/or transferable to the interpretation and enforcement of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. It also concerned the link between the increasing sophistication and complications derived from sustainability-orientated procurement and emerginginitiatives on professionalization and capacity building as part of the broader procurement strategy.

Dr Sanja Bogojević mapped environmental contestation points in EU procurement law and policy, as a way of bringing attention to problems and opportunities for the pursuit of environmental policies in the context of public procurement. She recreated the discourse on green procurement through the case law of the CJEU after Concordia Bus Finland (C-513/99, EU:C:2002:495) and EVN and Wienstrom (C-448/01, EU:C:2003:651), and compared it to the discourse in broader internal market case law, to finally arrive to the current expressions of green public procurement aims and goals in policy documents, such as the 7th Environmental Action Plan or the Europe 2020 Strategy. Concentrating on Directive 2014/24/EU, her discussion considered the way green procurement is presented in relation to technical standards, labels and life-cycle costing rules.

Once the mapping was complete, she identified 5 points of contestation: (1) role of sustainable development and the risk it creates of squeezing environmental protection act; (2) reviewability of environmental models used in life-cycle costing (eg as exemplified in the litigation leading to R (ClientEarth) [2016] EWHC 2740); (3) what is the nature of the obligation in Art 11 TFEU (‘environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union policies and activities’ – is this solely a procedural minimum?); (4) discretionary climate change policy and ways in which policy can be used to create obligations (eg along the lines of the Dutch Urgenda case); and (5) the role of EU public procurement law in non-EU countries looking to access the EU (eg Serbia) or on the way out (UK). Ultimately, she made a compelling case for more interdisciplinary work and efforts of legal imagination to try to find workable legal solutions to global challenges.

Dr Jeremias Prassl discussed means, ends and conflicts in attempting to carry out social procurement. He introduced the clash between labour rights and internal market rules and restrictions (ie a clash of the economic vs the social)—which underlies calls for broad exemptions from internal market law from scholars such as Prof Alan Bogg ('Viking and Laval: The International Labour Law Perspective', in M R Freedland & J Prassl (eds), Viking, Laval and Beyond (Hart, 2016) ch 3)—and considered whether public procurement is more sensitive or atuned to labour law considerations than general internal market. He also reflected on whether the relevant clash was not one between economic and social rights, but rather between social rights of different collectives. He then developed each of the different narratives to see how they have shaped law and policy in the context of EU social and procurement law—in particular around the Posted Workers Directive.

His discussion provided insights on how the application of the internal market logic and its broader normativity comes to water down labour law’s protective effects (building on the analysis of L Rodgers, ‘The Operation of Labour Law as the Exception: The Case of Public Procurement’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 8). He assessed these issues of normativity and exception from Viking (C-438/05, EU:C:2007:772) and Laval (C-341/05, EU:C:2007:809) to the more recent cases of Bundesdruckerei (C-549/13, EU:C:2014:2235) and RegioPost. He also relied on Prof Weatherill’s approach ('Viking and Laval: The EU Internal Market Perspective', in M R Freedland & J Prassl (eds), Viking, Laval and Beyond (Hart, 2016) ch 2; see also S Weatherill, The Internal Market as a Legal Concept (OUP, 2017)) to criticising the insensitivity of internal market case law to legitimate and democratically expressed national priorities—which Jeremias considers is currently softening, as the CJEU approach in RegioPost indicates.

He also critically reflected on whether the seeming growing scope for labour policies in the context of procurement is likely to generate the maximum practical effects that would be desirable. In closing his paper, he wondered whether the heterogeneity of workers and the conflicts between different groups of workers (insiders vs outsiders) would provide a better narrative and analytical perspective to reassess this topic. In doing that, he drew on Prof Catherine Barnard’s contrast between the equal treatment logic of the procurement rules and the differentiation logic of the traditional rules on posting of workers, which is now being tamed in the revision of the Posted Workers Directive (see C Barnard, ‘Fair’s Fair: Public Procurement, Posting and Pay’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 10).

The ensuing discussion concentrated on how attempts to integrate social and environmental considerations in a public procurement regime that already tried to address other goals—mainly, economic and internal market-orientated—triggers issues around the extent to which social and environmental considerations should be a more intrinsic element of internal market law generally, as a sort of ‘softer market’, rather than an issue to be addressed sectorially.

Prof Xavier Groussot and Ms Angelica Ericsson wrapped up the discussions with a reflection on the tension between discretion and proportionality in the use of social clauses in procurement. They discussed (i) the elements of discretion, (ii) the application of procedural proportionality to control discretion—and in particular from the perspective of transparency—and (iii) whether recent case law seemingly deviating from the principle of proportionality creates a problem, mainly in light of the application of covert proportionality through consistency in RegioPost (contra P Bogdanowicz, ‘Article 56 TFEU and the Principle of Proportionality: Why, When and How Should They be Applied After RegioPost?,’ in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 3). In the first part of the discussion, they explored the connections between the application of discretion under EU law and under ECHR law, and how that comparison can be best assessed using a variation of the framework set out by Tridimas (‘Proportionality in Community Law. Searching for the Appropriate Standard of Scrutiny’, in E Ellis (ed), The Principle of Proportionality in the Laws of Europe (Hart, 1999) 65 ff), and the additional issue of harmonisation raised by Thym (‘The Constitutional Dimension of Public Policy Justification’, in P Koutrakos, N Nic Shuibhne, & P Syrpis, Exceptions from EU Free Movement Law: Derogation, Justification and Proportionality (Hart, 2016) ch 9): (1) the interest, (2) the proceeding, and (3) the level of harmonization (cfr Opinion of AG Cruz-Villalon in dos Santos Palhota and Others (C-515/08, EU:C:2010:589)).

In the second part, they discussed discretion and procedural proportionality, and reflected about ‘what would a high level of discretion mean for a proportionality assessment’ both in theory and in practice. They stressed that the level of discretion and the intensity of proportionality review should theoretically be inversely proportionate (much along the lines presented by Dr Kraus earlier in the day, but with inverted causality), and that this is demonstrated in practice in the area of public procurement (such as in Politanò), where the CJEU shows more deference to administrative discretion (ie a lighter-touch proportionality analysis) where a higher level of discretion exists ex ante. Specifically in the context of procedural proportionality (eg Beentjes v State of the Netherlands (C-31/87, EU:C:1988:422)), and in the context of transparency obligations, they suggested that procurement is a good testing ground for the correlation between higher discretion and more limited proportionality scrutiny by the CJEU (eg in RegioPost, where regulatory transparency may have saved the social clause). They concluded that (i) high level policy discretion for Member States must not translate into unfettered discretionary/arbitrary decision-making by contracting authorities, (ii) procedural scrutiny is spreading beyond public procurement (R Caranta, ‘Public Procurement Law: Limitations, Opportunities and Paradoxes’ in U Neergaard, C Jacqueson & GS Ølykke (eds), XXVI FIDE Congress in Copenhagen, vol 3 (DJØF, 2014), where he claims principles of procurement becoming general principles of EU administrative law more generally), (iii) EU law principles (eg transparency) may be fuelled by different justifications than (eponymous) national ones.

Finally, in the third part, and drawing from French administrative law, they explored the possibilities of developing a taxonomy of CJEU case law that would distinguish between a procedural approach (controle minimum), substantive approach (controle normal) and a balancing approach (controle maximum).

The discussion concentrated mostly on the boundaries of the procedural proportionality approach and the categories that could most usefully be used to create a taxonomy of approaches by the CJEU. This was linked to the discussion to the standard of review of decisions in other areas of EU law—eg competition law, where the connection between EU and ECHR standards has been questioned (eg Menarini, as discussed in extenso in A Sanchez-Graells, ‘The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?’, in Kosta, Skoutaris & Tzevelekos (eds), The Accession of the EU to the ECHR (Hart, 2014) 255-70).

Alternative Procurement Models

Dr Ohad Graber-Soudry presented the procurement rules of European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERICs) under the specific regulatory framework of Council Regulation 723/2009/EC, which creates significant space for each ERIC to adopt its own procurement rules. His presentation concentrated on the uncertainties derived from the treatment of ERICs as international organisations and the impact these have on ERICs’ discretion to develop their own procurement rules, as well as the treatment of discretion within those (self-developed) rules.

The ensuing discussion mainly concerned the limits and effects of Art 7(3) of Regulation 723/2009, whereby ‘[a]n ERIC is an international organisation within the meaning of Article 15(c) of Directive 2004/18/EC’, which now corresponds to Article 9(1)(b) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Closing the workshop, Prof Ulf Bernitz discussed the peculiarities of the Swedish system, and stressed the particular use and weight of transparency obligations in that jurisdiction.