Before the summer recess, the General Court adopted two interesting decisions on public procurement carried by the EU Institutions. One concerns the debarment of tenderers that have been found to breach EU procurement rules and negatively affect the financial interests of the Union (T-151/16). The other concerns the obligation to state reasons in the context of allegations that a tender is abnormally low (T-392/15). This blog discusses the first case, while a subsequent post comments on the second.
Judgment of 27 June 2017, NC v Commission, T-151/16, EU:T:2017:437, is concerned with the registration in the Early Warning and Detection System database (ie the registry of tenderers and contractors debarred from EU Institutional procurement, currently relabelled as Early Detection and Exclusion System, EDES) of tenderers that have been found to have committed serious breaches of contractual obligations--in this case, as established by OLAF, the simulation of procurement procedures for the acquisition of equipment ultimately funded by the EU. The case is affected by the additional difficulty that the rules controlling EU Institutional procurement (ie the Financial Regulation and its Rules of Application) were modified in the period between the irregularities were committed (2008 and 2009) and the time of the imposition of the sanction of debarment by the Commission (which crossed over between 2015 and 2016). This triggered two legal complications in terms of retroactivity of most favourable/lenient substantive rules: first, the effect that needed to be given to a reduction in the maximum period of debarment from 5 to 3 years; second, the possibility to neutralise a ground for exclusion on the basis that the affect undertaking had taken sufficient remedial measures demonstrating its reliability (ie had self-cleaned). On top of that, there were procedural complications due to the revised procedures leading to registration in EDES, which currently require a panel opinion that was not part of the pre-2016 procedure for the registration in the Early Warning and Detection System database.
On the procedural point, which the GC examines first, the dispute hinges on the fact that the debarment decision was adopted on 28 January 2016 (which would have required an involvement of the EDES panel, active from 1 January 2016; see para 32), but the Commission considered the administrative procedure 'completed' on 17 December 2015 (thus subjecting it to the 'no-panel' procedure in force until 31 December 2015; see para 34). This ground is ultimately dismissed by the GC on the basis that there is no reason to establish the retroactive application of the procedural rules to investigations started before 1 January 2016, which would 'imply recommencing the preliminary procedure completed properly before that date, in particular having regard to compliance with the adversarial principle' (para 43).
This decision goes against the general principle that new procedural rules that do not contain specific transitional provisions accompanying the fixing of their general application date also apply to on-going/pending procedures (see para 36). The decision is based on an exception to such created in the Judgment of 8 November 2007, Andreasen v Commission, F-40/05, EU:F:2007:189, whereby that rule can be excluded to avoid 'the retroactive annulment of procedures or procedural steps which complied with the rule in force when they were completed' (para 38; see also para 43 of T-151/16).
What I find interesting, though, is that the GC considers that such assessment is not altered '[e]ven if the introduction of that panel was intended to strengthen the rights of the defence of parties contracting with the Union who may be subject to a penalty under the Financial Regulation' (ibid). In my view, this is a very ad hoc finding, which the GC reaches only because it considers the pre-2016 rules already sufficiently protective of individual rights of the affected undertaking, and to have been adequately followed in the specific instance. Had this not been the case (eg, had the previous procedure been seen to fall short of complying with the adversarial principle), the decision by the GC may well have been the opposite. Thus, on this point, the decision of the GC seems difficult to extrapolate to other contexts and the exception that seems to derive from Andreasen and now NC needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
On the substantive points, first concerning the retroactivity of a more lenient rule allowing for self-cleaning, the GC takes the view that the possibility to self-clean and thus exclude debarment makes the new rules clearly more favourable (para 57). On that basis, the GC takes issue with the fact that the Commission took into account remedial measures for the purpose of setting the duration of the exclusion below the maximum exclusion period (initially at 2 years, later reduced to 18 months) but did not assess it with a view to completely exclude the debarment on the basis of satisfactory self-cleaning. As the GC put it: 'Although the contested decision shows that the remedial measures taken by the applicant were taken into account to determine the duration of the exclusion imposed, no reason is given in that decision as to why those measures were insufficient to satisfy the conditions' for an operator that has taken certain remedial measures demonstrating its reliability not to be excluded from the contracts and grants of the Union (para 58). Second, and along the same lines, on the assessment of the implications of a reduction the maximum debarment period from 5 to 3 years, the GC considers that the new spread of debarment times should have been explicitly taken into account by the Commission (paras 59-60). This eventually leads to an annulment of the debarment decision (para 63).
In my view, this strict approach adopted by the GC on the basis of the guarantees enshrined in Article 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and interpretive case law (paras 53-55) comes to strengthen the procedural guarantees involved in the adoption of debarment decisions. Extrapolating this to procedures not covered by the rules on EU Institutional procurement, but rather by the 2014 Public Procurement Package and its transposition at domestic level by the Member States, it seems clearer than ever to me that there is a need for the revision of the remedies directive in order to ensure the effectiveness of the same level of protection--as discussed, over a year ago, in A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' (August 11, 2016), to be published in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (forthc). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2821828.