Do EU procurement & State aid rules conflict on possibility for consortium members to 'go it alone'? (C-127/16 P)

In its Judgment of 7 March 2018 in SNCF Mobilités v Commission, C-127/16 P, EU:C:2018:165, in the context of the analysis of a measure of State aid for restructuring and recapitalisation involving a bidding process, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) indicated that it is not acceptable for the assets to be transferred to a bidder that had initially participated in the process as a member of a consortium but subsequently decided to 'go it alone' and submitted a solo bid for the assets. In establishing this principle, the CJEU seems to have taken a position that can potentially be functionally incompatible with its previous case law in the area of public procurement and, in particular, in its Judgment of 24 May 2016 in MT Højgaard and Züblin, C-396/14, EU:C:2016:347 (see here). This blog post discusses this potential functional contradiction in the case law of the Court.


SNCF Mobilités v Commission

In simple terms, this dispute concerned France's obligation to recover State aid given to SNCF (its national state-owned railway company) that was declared incompatible with EU law (Art 107 TFEU) by the European Commission. One of the possibilities that France had was to sell all assets of the relevant company within the SNCF group (Sernam) 'en bloc ... at market price through a transparent and open procedure to a company that has no legal link with SNCF' (C-127/16 P, para 7). The process for the sale of Sernam's assets en bloc was rather complicated, but the relevant part of the mechanism was as follows:

... Sernam’s economic situation failed to elicit any proposals based on a positive valuation in the call for tenders conducted on SNCF’s behalf by a bank. All the offers submitted under that procedure concluded that the value was very negative. As no firm offer had been submitted, the decision was taken to continue the discussions solely with the consortium established by candidate 5 who was associated with Sernam’s management team. On 15 June 2005, candidate 5 ultimately informed SNCF orally that it was not in a position to submit a takeover offer — not even a conditional one — before 30 June 2005. On 30 June 2005, SNCF took the decision to conclude the sale with Financière Sernam, which was wholly owned by Sernam’s management team (C-127/16 P, paras 8-9).

In the context of the dispute whether France met the requirements of the previous Commission decision requiring recovery of the State aid, one of the legal issues triggered by the French authorities' decision to enter into a sale agreement with Sernam's management team (through Financière Sernam) is whether it met the requirements for the transfer to result from 'a transparent and open procedure'. The Commission took the view that this was not the case. Before the CJEU considered this issue on appeal, the General Court (GC) had assessed the situation in its Judgment of 17 December 2015 in SNCF v Commission, T-242/12, EU:T:2015:1003.

In the relevant part of the Judgment (T-242/12, paras 162 and ff), the GC explains how, in the context of the procedure aimed at finding a buyer Sernam's assets en bloc, a final round of negotiations resulted in two offers. In simple terms, there was an offer by candidate 4 that valued the assets at - €65.2mn and an offer by a consortium composed of candidate 5 and Sernam's management team that valued the assets at -€56.4mn. In view of this, it was agreed to solely continue discussions with candidate 5 and Sernam’s management (para 164). During these discussions, as mentioned above, candidate 5 withdrew from the process and the management team submitted a solo offer that valued the assets at -€95.5mn (para 167). The acceptance of this offer by SNCF triggered two main issues.

First, given their significant divergence in the valuation of Sernam's assets, whether the solo offer submitted by Sernam's management team was comparable to the prior indicative offer of the consortium with candidate 5. The GC considered that 'the Commission was correct in not considering equivalent in terms of credibility and soundness the offer from a financial investor, candidate 5, who, moreover, was proposing to inject a significant amount of capital into Sernam, and the offer from 84 management and director employees financing a low amount, being EUR 2 million of the price, from their own resources' (T-242/12, para 168). Second, and more relevant for our discussion, there were concerns about the transparency and openness of the procedure for the sale of the assets en bloc. In that regard, the GC established that

... [SNCF] and the French Republic observe that the requirement that a procedure be transparent and open does not cease once the best bidder has been selected and the other candidates have, by definition, been rejected, and that the discussions continue with the ‘last interested party’.

The ‘last interested person’ in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4 ... the management team’s firm offer, for EUR ‑95.5 million, was also less attractive for the vendor than the preliminary second-round offer from candidate 4, with its negative price of EUR ‑65.2 million ... As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round.

The offer from the management team cannot be considered that of the ‘last interested party’, since it did not participate independently in the transparent and open procedure.

... the applicant submits that it is not relevant to compare the management team’s firm offer with the non-binding offer from the consortium of which it was a part, as only the firm offer is valid, even if it is not the best bid.

That argument must be rejected, since the question here is whether the management team’s firm offer was the result of the tendering procedure, which necessarily involves an examination of the non-binding offers submitted during the tendering procedure.

Therefore, the argument aimed at establishing that the management team participated from the beginning of the tendering procedure must be rejected because it did not participate independently and did not submit alone the offer it had initially submitted with candidate 5. Its offer cannot therefore be considered to result from a transparent and open procedure (T-242/12, paras 169-174, emphases added).

Regardless of the issue of equivalence of the offers, the argumentation constructed by the GC in these passages (implicitly) relies on the principle that members of a consortium cannot be seen as participating both within the consortium and in their own name, which establishes an insurmountable impossibility against any decision to 'go it alone' if the other member(s) of the consortium withdraw.

This principle was directly challenged in the appeal before the CJEU. In short, the challenge was that '... candidate 5 and Sernam’s management team had, within a consortium, been associated with the tendering procedure from the start of that procedure and had proposed the least negative value for the assets en bloc. It was only after candidate 5 withdrew that Sernam’s management team decided to pursue the process and submit on their own the takeover offer initially put forward by the consortium. The applicant thus takes the view that such circumstances meet the requirements of an open and transparent tendering procedure as reflected in the Commission’s decision-making practice and the Court’s case-law' (C-127/16 P, para 62).

Remarkably, SNCF argued that 'it is possible to accept that the principles of openness and transparency in public procurement may be applicable by analogy to procedures involving transfers of assets. It is apparent from Directive 2014/24/EU ... and from Directive 2014/23/EU ... that EU law allows for awarding such a contract to an economic operator without prior advertising or competition following an unsuccessful first tendering procedure, including when the operator did not participate in that first procedure, without that constituting an infringement of the principles of openness and transparency. Those principles should a fortiori be deemed to have been observed where the assets have been transferred to the last interested party, the only one to have made a firm offer, when it has participated in the process in its entirety, initially as part of a consortium from which the other party withdrew in the course of the procedure' (C-127/16 P, para 64).

On this point, the CJEU reasoned as follows:

First of all, without it being necessary to rule on a potential analogy between the tendering procedure relevant to the present case and the principles that are applicable in public procurement ... it should be noted that the applicant’s argument concerning that potential analogy is based on the fact that, at the end of the tendering procedure, no bid or no appropriate bid had been submitted. That kind of argument can be successful only if it challenges the General Court’s findings of fact in paragraph 170 of the judgment under appeal, to the effect that ‘[t]he “last interested person” in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4. … As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round’. That argument, which asks the Court of Justice to substitute its analysis for the one carried out by the General Court as part of its sovereign assessment of the facts and evidence, is therefore inadmissible and must be rejected.

Next, the practice followed by the Commission in its decisions or its guidelines, even if that practice were to support the applicant’s argument cannot, in any event, bind the Court in its interpretation of the EU rules ...

In any event ... according the Court’s case-law, the question whether a tendering procedure has been open and transparent is determined on the basis of a body of indicia specific to the circumstances of each case ...

Accordingly, in the light of the facts of the present case, and having held in paragraphs 170 and 171 of the judgment under appeal, that the successful bid did not originate from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure, the General Court was correct in holding, in paragraph 174 of that judgment, that the requirement of an open and transparent procedure had not been observed (C-127/16 P, paras 66-69, references omitted).

Accordingly, the CJEU SNCF Mobilités Judgment explicitly upholds the fact that for a tenderer to be awarded the contract for the sale of assets en bloc as a result of an 'open and transparent procedure', it is an absolute requirement that the 'successful bid ... originate[s] from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure'. This is in functional conflict with the previous Judgment in MT Højgaard and Züblin, as discussed below.

MT Højgaard and Züblin

In this public procurement case based on the 2004 EU utilities procurement rules (Dir 2004/17/EC), the CJEU ruled on whether the principle of equal treatment of economic operators must be interpreted as precluding a contracting entity from allowing an economic operator that is a member of a group of two undertakings which was pre-selected and which submitted the first tender in a negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, to continue to take part in that procedure in its own name, after the dissolution of that group due to the bankruptcy of the other partner.

In that case, the contracting authority had indicated that it wanted to proceed to negotiations with between four and six candidates. It received expressions of interest from five candidates, which included interest by a consortium consisting of Per Aarsleff and E. Pihl og Søn A/S (‘the Aarsleff and Pihl group’). The contracting authority pre-selected all five candidates and invited them to submit tenders. One of the pre-selected candidates subsequently withdrew from the procedure. 

For the purposes of our discussion, the relevant fact is that Pihl entered into bankruptcy prior to the submission of the tender, which de facto implied the dissolution of the Aarsleff and Pihl group. Aarsleff decided to 'go it alone' and proceed as a solo tenderer. The contracting authority was thus left with two options: (a) to consider that Aarsleff was not qualified on its own merits (or, in the terms of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment (above) that it had not 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning') and to carry on with the negotiated procedure with 'only' three tenders; or, conversely, (b) to consider that Aarsleff could benefit from the qualification of the group to which it initially belonged and go forward with its desired minimum of four tenders. After some deliberation and information to all remaining candidates, Aarsleff was  allowed to submit a solo tender and, after a further round of best and final offers between the three better placed tenderers, it was awarded the contract.

In reviewing the compatibility of this decision with general principles of EU public procurement law, the CJEU established that, in the absence of specific rules on this subject, 'the question of whether a contracting entity may allow such an alteration must be examined with regard to the general principles of EU law, in particular the principle of equal treatment and the duty of transparency that flows from it, and the objectives of that law in relation to public procurement' (C‑396/14, para 36). In carrying out such analysis, the CJEU determined that

The principle of equal treatment of tenderers, the aim of which is to promote the development of healthy and effective competition between undertakings taking part in a public procurement procedure, requires that all tenderers must be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their tenders, and therefore implies that the tenders of all competitors must be subject to the same conditions ...

...  [the rules on qualitative selection] may be qualified in order to ensure, in a negotiated procedure, adequate competition ...

If, however, an economic operator is to continue to participate in the negotiated procedure in its own name, following the dissolution of the group of which it formed part and which had been pre-selected by the contracting entity, that continued participation must take place in conditions which do not infringe the principle of equal treatment of the tenderers as a whole.

In that regard, a contracting entity is not in breach of that principle where it permits one of two economic operators, who formed part of a group of undertakings that had, as such, been invited to submit tenders by that contracting entity, to take the place of that group following the group’s dissolution, and to take part, in its own name, in the negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, provided that it is established, first, that that economic operator by itself meets the requirements laid down by the contracting entity and, second, that the continuation of its participation in that procedure does not mean that the other tenderers are placed at a competitive disadvantage
(C-396/14, paras 38, 41, 43-44 & 47, references omitted and emphases added). 

As is clear from these passages, in MT Højgaard and Züblin, the CJEU rejected the principle that transparency and equal treatment required that a tenderer had 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning'. It rather established a more nuanced approach that required that the 'going it alone' tenderer was in a position to meet all relevant requirements of previous phases of the procedure (in that case, qualitative selection) and that it gained no competitive advantage--or, conversely, that no other tenderer was placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Overall comments

In my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is problematic for the dogmatic principle that it sets out in terms of an absolute requirement of autonomous participation from the beginning. The MT Højgaard and Züblin Judgment can be criticised on other grounds (see here) but, from that perspective, its more nuanced approach towards tolerating decisions to 'go it alone' may be preferable in contexts where retention of a solo tender by the remaining member of a disbanded consortium can be determinative of the competitive tension within the tender procedure [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 339].

More importantly, in my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment could have reached the same conclusions if it applied the more nuanced approach of MT Højgaard and Züblin. Indeed, it is hard to argue against the view that, by continuing conversations solely with Sernam's management team and accepting an offer that valued the assets at a very significant value below the previous consortium offer as well as the previous offer by candidate 4, SNCF put Sernam's management team at a clear advantage. In view of the withdrawal of candidate 5, SNCF would have been better advised to go back to the immediate previous step of the procedure and compare whichever solo offer Sernam's management team could submit with that of candidate 4. Doing that would also respect the basic principles of stage rounds of negotiations, whereby ceteris paribus the offers presented in each of the rounds should improve upon previous offers.

On the whole, then, I think that the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is a missed opportunity to have created more integration and compatibility between the procedural requirements applicable under EU State aid and public procurement rules. At the same time, given that the CJEU avoided engaging in the 'potential analogy between the tendering procedure [for the sale of assets en bloc] and the principles that are applicable in public procurement', it is to be hoped that the dogmatic approach of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment will not muddy the waters of the case law on modification of the composition of bidding consortia for the strict purposes of EU public procurement law.