Why call it essential national interest when you mean control? Thoughts on the converging exceptions to the EU procurement rules a propos the Austrian passports case (C-187/16)


In its Judgment of 20 March 2018 in Commission v Austria (Imprimerie d'État), C-187/16, EU:C:2018:194, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) assessed the extent to which Austria could rely on claims of national security interest and/or essential national interest to justify the direct award of several contracts for the printing of passports and other secure documents to the former Austrian national printing office (ÖS). In rejecting this possibility, the CJEU followed AG Kokott’s strict approach to the interpretation of derogations of the EU public procurement rules (as discussed here) and, crucially, determined that ‘a Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must establish that the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure as provided for by’ the relevant EU public procurement rules (para 79).

The case is interesting, but hardly novel, in the narrow approach taken by the CJEU in the interpretation of exceptions from competitive tendering under the EU procurement rules (paras 69-96), as well as in relation to the standard of proof required to justify the existence of a ‘certain cross-border interest’ in the tendering of contracts not covered by the EU rules (paras 103-111, which largely follow the recent case of Tecnoedi, see here). However, I think that the case is also interesting for the ‘forward continuity’ and systemic convergence it shows amongst the different exceptions to the EU public procurement rules, which requires an appreciation of the case in the context of the evolution of EU public procurement law. I explore this idea in this post.

It is worth stressing that the case was decided in relation to the third and fourth generation of EU procurement rules, as Directives 92/50/EEC and 2004/18/EC were applicable to the case ratione temporis. Differently from the current Directive 2014/24/EU, both the 1992 and the 2004 version of the EU procurement rules preceded the adoption of Directive 2009/81/EC on defence and security procurement, as well as the development (Dir 92/50) and consolidation (Dir 2004/18) of the in-house providing and public-public cooperation exemptions (as Teckal dates back to 1999 and Commission v Germany (Hamburg waste) dates back to 2009). This is relevant in the interpretation of their exemptions based on security or essential national interests.

‘Forward continuity’ in the treatment of security or essential interest-based exemptions

Dir 92/50 foresaw the possibility for Member States to exempt the direct (or less than fully competitive) award of contracts for the provision of ‘services which are declared secret or the execution of which must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned or when the protection of the basic interests of that State’s security so requires’ (Art 4(2), emphasis added). Similarly, Dir 2004/18 contained an equivalent exemption for ‘public contracts when they are declared to be secret, when their performance must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned, or when the protection of the essential interests of that Member State so requires’ (Art 14, emphasis added).

This functionally-equivalent exemption under the 1992 and 2004 versions of the EU public procurement rules could have been used, for example, to justify the direct award of a contract to an entity controlled (or heavily influenced/supervised?) by the contracting authority in order to protect the relevant essential / security national interest through an organic governance relationship rather than through contract. In fact, this seems to be the thrust of the justifications put forward by Austria in the case now decided by the CJEU, given that most of the arguments are (rather implicitly based) on the ‘special relationship’ that Austria has established with ÖS (or rather, kept after ÖS’ privatisation). These exemptions would, in the end, possibly be seen as simple clarification that the existence of the EU public procurement rules did not require the contractualisation (and prior award) of the management of this type of services—provided that the existence of the security/essential national interest existed and the exemption from EU procurement rules passed muster under a (strict) proportionality assessment—although this approach to exemption based on the relationship between the contracting authority and the service provider seems to now be clearly within the functional realm of the in-house and public-public collaboration exemptions, rather than that of defence-related exemptions (see below).

Since its regulation in Dir 92/50 (and to a large extent, Dir 2004/18), the possibility to avoid contractualising (and tendering) the entrustment of the provision of services involving security or essential interests (through contracts or other types of ‘written agreements’, of which domestic administrative law regulates a garden variety) and/or the tendering of such public contracts has since evolved in two meaningful ways. First, Dir 2009/81 has come to establish a clearer instrument for the regulation of procurement involving defence and security interests and I argue that the subjection of a contract not covered by that specific instrument to the general rules of Dir 2014/24 will be largely dependent on a strict analysis similar to that carried out by the CJEU in the case against Austria, as Art 15(2) Dir 2014/24 echoes the wording of the Judgment. This will ensure ‘forward continuity’ in the assessment of these matters under EU procurement law.

Indeed, in relation to the pre-2014 rules, the CJEU has found that a ‘Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must show that such derogation is necessary in order to protect its essential security interests’ (para 78) and that ‘the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure’ (para 79), which assessment needs to take into account that ‘the requirement to impose an obligation of confidentiality does not in itself prevent the use of a competitive tendering procedure for the award of a contract’ (para 89) and that this is compatible with ‘the confidential nature of data can be protected by a duty of secrecy, without it being necessary to contravene public procurement procedures’ (para 90). Moreover, the exemption of a direct award needs to overcome a strict proportionality based on the absence of less intrusive measures, such as the possibility of establishing effective control mechanisms (para 86) and screening the trustworthiness of potential service providers based in a different Member State (para 87).

This is mirrored by the 2014 Directive’s requirement that it ‘shall not apply to public contracts and design contests … to the extent that the protection of the essential security interests of a Member State cannot be guaranteed by less intrusive measures, for instance by imposing requirements aimed at protecting the confidential nature of information which the contracting authority makes available in a contract award procedure as provided for in this Directive’ (Art 15(2) emphases added). This basically comes to ‘consolidate’ or sum up the requirements set by the CJEU in the Judgment in Commission v Austria, which is thus fully aligned with the rules in Dir 2014/24. In that regard, there will be a clear continuity in the analysis of these situations despite the approval of Dir 2009/18 in the intervening period.

Convergence with exemptions based on control of the service provider

Second, and maybe less self-evidently, the interpretation of the exemptions in Dir 92/50 and Dir 2004/18 need to be coordinated with the consolidation of the in-house and public-public cooperation exemptions in the case law of the CJEU to date—which may however experience further transformation in the future, as the rules in Dir 2014/24 start being interpreted by the CJEU.

It seems clear that, as a result of the Teckal and Hamburg doctrines, and even before their ‘recast’ in Art 12 of Dir 2014/24, Member States could have exempted the direct award of contracts for the printing of passports—or any other contracts involving security/essential national interests—not on those grounds, but on the basis of the ‘special’ relationship between the contracting authority and the provider of those ‘sensitive’ services. Where the relationship was one of ‘administrative mutualism’, the direct award could be exempted under the public-public exemption. Where the relationship was one of ‘similar control’ by the contracting authority, the exemption could be justified on the in-house providing doctrine.

In either of the cases, the relationship underlying the exemption requires a certain element of intuitu personae (to put it that way) between the entities participating in the non-tendered (contractual) arrangement. The existence of that ‘special nexus’ would justify a conceptualisation of the decision to award the contract as subjected to organic relationships and administrative governance, rather than contractualised mechanisms based on market-based governance and competition-based checks and balances. Conversely, where the contracting authority decided to contractualise the management of the relationship, and in the absence of special links with the arm’s length provider of the services, the contracting authority had to comply with the EU procurement rules.

The Commission v Austria case is interesting in that, underlying the reasoning of the Court (as well as the analysis of AG Kokott in her Opinion, see here) is an element of dismissiveness of the ‘special relationship’ created between Austria and ÖS. To put it in rather simple and tentative terms, my reading of the Judgment is that the CJEU is reluctant to recognise the exemption of a direct award where the mechanisms set up by the Member State to administer the security/essential national interest implicit in the provision of the services are fungible, in the sense that they could be easily recreated in relation to an alternative provider (or providers).

This is clear in the same paragraphs where the CJEU demonstrates the lack of proportionality of the direct award of the contract for the printing of passports (mainly, paras 80-94), where the Court repeatedly stresses the possibility for the Austrian authorities to have created adequate safeguards through contractual mechanisms aimed at: (i) ensuring the centralised execution of the contract (paras 81-83), (ii) the establishment of effective administrative supervision mechanisms (paras 84-86), (iii) guarantee of supply (para 87), (iv) the screening of the trustworthiness of the provider and confidentiality of sensitive information (paras 88-94).

This is compatible with the fact that, under the in-house and public-public cooperation doctrines, the entrustment of the provision of services to entities lacking that intuitu personae or special nexus—ie those governed by contract rather organic relationships—must comply with EU public procurement rules. This excludes the exemptability of direct awards such as that attempted by Austria, which is implicitly what the CJEU has established here by stressing the replicability with a suitable alternative provider of the ‘control’ or influence/oversight mechanisms that Austria has over ÖS—which would then fail to justify both (or either) exemption under the defence/essential interest doctrine and the in-house/public-public cooperation approach.

In my view, this is welcome as it reflects internal functional convergence across exemptions from compliance with EU public procurement rules on the basis of a distinction between the governance of relationships based on organic/administrative relationships and those based on markets and a competition logic. I think that this is a perspective worthy of further consideration, and it will be interesting to see of the CJEU makes this more explicit in future judgments.