Post-Brexit Procurement: new European Commission (short) guidance, and some broader thoughts

The European Commission has published its 18 January 2018 Notice to stakeholders on 'Withdrawal of the United Kingdom and EU rules in the field of public procurement' (the 'Brexit and procurement notice). This notice is without prejudice to the previously disclosed European Commission position paper on the effects on procurement procedures that are on-going on Brexit day, and of current negotiating efforts to agree on a EU-UK withdrawal agreement. The notice simply sets out the legal implications that would result from a 'cliff-edge' scenario, which the Commission considers necessary in 'view of the considerable uncertainties, in particular concerning the content of a possible withdrawal agreement'.

The Brexit and procurement notice is thus what I would call a 'no deal information sheet'. It sets out the effects that would arise from a UK EU exit without a ratified withdrawal agreement and without an extension of the 2-year period following the Article 50 notification of 29 March 2017. Thus, the Brexit and procurement notice is necessarily limited in its scope and simply lays out the immediate consequences of the UK becoming a third country with no access to the single market. Those effects would result in a significant loss of economic advantages and procedural guarantees in all procurement procedures subject to EU law that started on 30 March 2019 or thereafter.

It is important to stress that those effects would not be mitigated by WTO rules (the general default position in other trade areas) because general WTO rules do not cover public procurement--which is rather covered by a separate multilateral agreement within the context of WTO membership, the  Government Procurement Agreement (WTO GPA). As detailed in a recent article, the UK is not a party to the WTO GPA and it would need to seek fresh accession after Brexit [see P Telles & A Sanchez-Graells, 'Examining Brexit Through the GPA’s Lens: What Next for UK Public Procurement Reform?' (2017) 47(1) Public Contract Law Journal 1-33]. 

Consequently, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement or transition period, as of 30 March 2019, there would be no legal framework ensuring privileged access to the single public procurement market for UK economic operators. This is clearly spelled out in the Commission's Brexit and procurement notice, which highlights the following consequences:

  • UK economic operators will have the status of operators from a third country with which the EU does not have any agreement providing for the opening of the EU procurement market. The consequences of this may not be immediately obvious, but one that I would raise is their potential loss of the right to challenge procurement decisions against their interests in the EU jurisdictions that operate strict reciprocal mechanisms (for a survey and additional analysis, see here). Other consequences would follow from the unwinding of important administrative collaboration mechanisms, which I discuss below.
  • In utilities procurement, covering the areas of water, energy, transport and postal services, tenders offering more than 50% of products originating from the UK may be rejected--given that the Utilities Directive affords this possibility where the third country does not afford comparable and effective access for EU undertakings to its markets, which would be the situation in a 'no-deal' UK EU exit. Even if not subject to outright rejection, tenders including more than 50% UK content would be disadvantaged because the contracting entities shall not award them the contract if there are equivalent offers with less than 50% of the products originating in third countries.
  • In defence procurement, there would also be significant impacts for UK tenderers, as the Defence and Security Procurement Directive allows EU Member States to decide whether or not to allow economic operators from third countries to participate in their defence and security procurement procedures. Equally, even if UK tenderers were allowed to participate, EU Member States would no longer have to accept their UK security clearances on grounds of mutual recognition. As the Commission stresses, this may lead to the exclusion of operators relying on a UK security clearance in EU defence and security public procurement procedures, unless and until they obtained additional ones from the relevant EU Member State.

These may seem minor issues, but I would certainly argue they are not. In particular because those effects would be mirrored in domestic UK procurement, where EU economic operators would face equivalent consequences. In written evidence submitted to a House of Lords enquiry last year, I made some observations that are as relevant now as they were then:

  1. Bilateral UK-EU procurement-related trade can be estimated at around 15% of the total value of procurement, or close to 2.5% of GDP. This includes both direct and indirect cross-border procurement-related trade. The magnitude is larger if access to WTO GPA markets is considered.
  2. The UK’s exposure to public procurement-related trade in services in the EU is particularly relevant; the UK alone accounts for 84 % of the total value procured at EU level in awards of more than 100 million euros (approx. £85 mn).
  3. Losing the possibility of this cross-border trade would clearly be detrimental to the UK public sector, which would be at risk of not obtaining top quality services and/or facing increased prices from reduced competition amongst domestic suppliers. UK businesses would also be negatively affected if they lost the option of direct and indirect trade in services to the EU.
  4. ‘Hard Brexit’, ie no trade agreement of any kind combined with loss of WTO GPA membership, would imply loss of access to EU and worldwide procurement markets, for services but also for goods and works. This would likely have a major impact both on the UK public sector and in its business community, particularly that reliant on cross-border direct and indirect procurement-related trade.

These are serious and very worrying potential implications of the type of scenario covered by the Brexit and procurement notice, which should prompt renewed and continued efforts on both the UK and EU side to at least reach an agreement on withdrawal terms that facilitates continued frictionless procurement-based trade. I say at least because my personal view is that Brexit should be stopped (for a persuasive case, see Prof Syrpis' post). But in the absence of that better solution and in the alternative, there is clearly value to be preserved in finding a better solution to the alternative 'do-deal' scenario.

In that regard, I am honoured to have been invited to speak at the conference 'Trade Relations after Brexit: Impetus for the Negotiation Process'  and have the chance to offer my views on what regulatory challenges arise from the current situation, and to propose some potential solutions. These are my draft slides for the talk, and I probably will post a more detailed account after the conference. As indicated in the slides, some of the areas of immediate worry should concern administrative cooperation and remedies mechanisms. However, as also indicated there, all my analysis (and everyone's) is purely speculative in the absence of an agreed position on the basic elements of the future EU-UK relationship. Thus, everything there needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.