Tecnoedi: An overlooked distortion of the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of cross-border interest for public contracts? (C-318/15)

In its Judgment of 6 October 2015 in Tecnoedi Construzioni, C-318/15, EU:C:2016:747, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared inadmissible a request for a preliminary reference sent by the Piedmont Regional Administrative Court, Italy. The case concerned the (in)compatibility with Arts 49 and 56 TFEU of an Italian public procurement rule applicable to (well) below-threshold contracts (ie tenders for works of a value below €1M), which allowed for the automatic rejection of tenders that exceeded an ‘anomaly threshold’ set by the contracting authority, without inter partes procedure.

The case offered the ECJ an opportunity to revisit very close issues to those decided in SECAP and Santorso, C-147/06 and C-148/06, EU:C:2008:277 -- which could also, conversely, have given it the opportunity of determining that the question was unnecessary and that the first principles of that decision stood. However, the ECJ decided to reject the receivability of the case for other reasons. By rejecting the request for a preliminary ruling, the ECJ did not take the opportunity to clarify (or rather, develop) the law in this area. So far, so good.

Given that it does not advance our understanding of the constraints that general EU free movement rules (or possibly general principles of EU public procurement law) impose on the treatment of apparently abnormally low tenders, the Tecnoedi case may easily fall under the radar of both practitioners (with some exceptions, see here and here) and academics (save for readers of the PPLR, which featured a comment by A Brown, 'The requirement for "certain cross-border interest" before EU Treaty obligations apply to below-threshold contacts: the EU Court of Justice ruling in case C-318/15 Tecnoedi', 2017 (1) PPLR NA14) —or, at least, that is the excuse I have given myself to seek justification for having overlooked this case for almost six months... However, not paying attention to Tecnoedi may lead us to miss a potential distortion in the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of the existence of cross-border interest for public (works) contracts.

This is an area where the ECJ’s approach is far from consistent, to say the least. The proper way of determining the (in)existence of cross-border interest for a contract remains elusive and the ECJ has not hammered down an unequivocal or clear test. In one of its most flexible and functional approximations (which I favour), the ECJ accepted that a (concession) contract of very limited financial value (due to the inclusion of a prohibition on profit-making activity) could still be of cross-border interest for business strategy reasons, such as an undertaking's goal to 'establish itself on the market of that State and to make itself known there with a view to preparing its future expansion' [see Comune di Ancona, C-388/12, EU:C:2013:734, para [51] ,discussed here].

Even if that is seen as a relative outlier, or contextualised in the line of case law aimed at establishing basic principles for the tender of services concessions prior to their subjection to the 2014 Concessions Directive, the ECJ’s more general approximation to the existence of cross-border interest for a public contract can be understood, as the referring court put it in Tecnoedi, as establishing that:

In accordance with the Court’s case-law, a contract (sic, tender) may have a certain cross-border interest not only as a result of the financial value of the contract to which it relates, but also as a result of the technical characteristics of the work and the place where the work is to be carried out (para 15).

Furthermore, in accordance with the Court’s case-law, there may be certain cross-border interest, without its (sic) being necessary that an economic operator has actually manifested its interest (judgment of 14 November 2013, Belgacom, C-221/12, EU:C:2013:736, paragraph 31 and case-law cited) (para 16).

This (seemingly) creates the need to carry out a case by case analysis based on rather open-ended indicators and aimed at demonstrating (or excluding) the scope for potential (ex ante) rather than evidenced or actual (ex post) cross border interest for the tendered contract [for discussion, see C Risvig Hansen, Contracts Not Covered or Not Fully Covered by the Public Sector Directive (DJØF, 2012) 121-160].

In the case at hand, the referring court understood that there was potential for cross-border interest for the contract because

… notwithstanding the fact that the works contract at issue … is for an estimated value of EUR 1,158,899.97, it cannot be ruled out that the contract does not have certain cross-border interest as Fossano [the place of execution of the works] is located within 200 km of the border between France and Italy and several of the tenderers admitted to the tender procedure are Italian companies which are established in regions which are not neighbouring, such as … at a distance of approximately [between 600 and 800 km] from Fossano (para 16, emphasis added).

In my view, a reasonable application of the ECJ’s previous approach/test would have waved through the case as (potentially) having cross-border interest. However, in Tecnoedi, this would have required the ECJ to deal with a very complex question and, more importantly, to keep developing non-statutory EU public procurement law on the basis of general internal market freedoms (or possibly general principles of EU public procurement law). Thus, in my view in order to avoid this difficult issue and (likely) criticisms for its judicial activism, the ECJ took a very strict approach to the assessment of potential cross-border interest in this case.

The ECJ first proceeded to recast its test for the assessment of potential cross-border interest as follows:

As regards the objective criteria which may indicate certain cross-border interest, the Court has previously held that such criteria may be, in particular, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out or the technical characteristics of the contract and the specific characteristics of the products concerned (para 20, emphasis added).

This can in itself be seen as a significant deviation -- if not an outright partial reading -- of previous case law and, in particular of SECAP and Santorso, C-147/06 and C-148/06, EU:C:2008:277, paragraph 31, on which the ECJ relies expressly in Tecnoedi. In fact, in that very paragraph, the ECJ indicated that

It is permissible ... for legislation to lay down objective criteria ... indicating that there is certain cross-border interest. Such criteria could be, inter alia, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out. The possibility of such an interest may also be excluded in a case, for example, where the economic interest at stake in the contract in question is very modest (see, to that effect, Case C‑231/03 Coname [2005] ECR I‑7287, paragraph 20). However, in certain cases, account must be taken of the fact that the borders straddle conurbations which are situated in the territory of different Member States and that, in those circumstances, even low-value contracts may be of certain cross-border interest (SECAP, para 31, emphasis added).

Thus, the ECJ seemed in Tecnoedi rather open to a certain conflation of value and cross-border interest (a move that can ow be traced back to Enterprise Focused Solutions, C-278/14, EU:C:2015:228, para 20, on which the ECJ also relies in Tecnoedi), which did not seem to follow from the previous case on which it relied. On this basis, and taking into account the arguments of the referring court on Fossano’s proximity to France and the evidence that domestic tenderers located further away decided to participate, the ECJ then established that

… a conclusion that there is certain cross-border interest cannot be inferred hypothetically from certain factors which, considered in the abstract, could constitute evidence to that effect, but must be the positive outcome of a specific assessment of the circumstances of the contract at issue. More particularly, the referring court may not merely submit to the Court of Justice evidence showing that certain cross-border interest cannot be ruled out but must, on the contrary[,] provide information capable of proving that it exists. …

… it may not be argued that a works contract … for an amount which does not equate even to a quarter of the threshold laid down by EU law and whose place of performance is located 200 km away from the border with another Member State can be of certain cross-border interest solely because a certain number of tenders were submitted by undertakings established in the Member State in question, which are located at a considerable distance from the place where the work at issue is to be carried out.

That evidence is clearly insufficient having regard to the circumstances of the case …, and, in any event, cannot be the only evidence which must be taken into account, in so far as potential tenderers from other Member States may face additional constraints and burdens relating, inter alia, to the obligation to adapt to the legal and administrative framework of the Member State where the work is to be carried out, as well as to language requirements [Tecnoedi, paras 22-25, emphases added].

This assessment by the ECJ is bound to create perplexity, not least because it adopts an anti-integrative logic that comes to say: “since there are clear regulatory and language barriers to the functioning of the internal market for public contracts, let’s not even bother to consider the extent to which fundamental market freedoms have a role in bringing them down”.

It also seems to encapsulate an approach that could limit the relevance of its case law on the application of general principles of EU public procurement law to contracts that are sufficiently close to the thresholds triggering the application of the substantive directives. This triggers questions such as how close must the value be to the directive’s thresholds for cross-border interest to be likely? If very close, then what is the purpose of this line of case law anyway, and would it not have been better to stick (strictly) to the value thresholds as redlines for EU competence (including that of the ECJ)? If not very close, then how many shades of grey do we have in this area, and how can a contracting authority (or review tribunal or court) reasonably establish the (likelihood of) applicability of general principles and fundamental internal market freedoms?

To me, these defects alone are sufficient to consider Tecnoedi a troubling distortion of the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of cross-border interest for public contract—fundamentally because it creates a crack in (if not smashes) the normative and functional logic of previous case law and, on the whole, creates a risk of significant restriction of application of the general principles of EU public procurement law going forward.

Moreover, and at a lower level of generality, I also harbour the strong suspicion that the ECJ sees this as a relatively safe or unobjectionable assessment because it concerns a rule on the treatment of (automatically identified) abnormally low tenders that may be (improperly) considered not to create a barrier to free movement because it applies at evaluation rather than selection stage—and also because the request for the preliminary ruling was clearly defective in its lack of clarity of both the content of the Italian rule and its application to the specific case (which seems not to be possible on the basis of the limited information provided in the ECJ’s judgment). Thus, the ECJ probably may have seen this approach to the assessment of cross-border interest as an easy way to return the hot potato to the referring court without burning its hands.

However, in my opinion, this approach is clearly unsafe and objectionable when put in a different (broader perspective). Let’s imagine that the challenge had been directed at a rule on selection or exclusion (eg a rule restricting participation in tenders for this type of works contracts to undertakings located in the relevant Italian region, in this case Piedmont). In that case, the ECJ may (would) have been more willing to accept that the (same) test of (potential) cross-border interest based on the exact same indicia of economic irrelevance of a 200 km distance lent itself the opposite conclusion, and thus resulted in jurisdiction of the ECJ to interpret the relevant Italian (regional) rule against Arts 49 and 56 TFEU – or, even further, in its jurisdiction to (uphold) an Art 258 TFEU decision of the European Commission finding Italy in breach of EU law for such blatantly discriminatory rule, ultimately based on the tenderers’ nationality (which could easily dwarf the ECJ’s qualms about accepting the existence of potential cross-border interest in cases such as this).

Overall, for these reasons, I consider the Tecnoedi judgment very troubling. I can only hope that it will not go unnoticed and that the ECJ will backtrack from this rigid approach to the existence of (potential) cross-border interest in a tender for a public (works) contract.