Competition lawyers, please, please, please be aware of public procurement rules: A comment on Bornico & Walden (2011)

I have just read L Bornico & I Walden, 'Ensuring Competition in the Clouds: The Role of Competition Law?' (2011) 12(2) ERA Forum 265-85 (part of the largest QMUL Cloud Legal Project) and have been, once more, surprised at the complete oversight of the public procurement rules that would have been relevant to the competition law analysis.

The paper engages in an exploratory analysis of the role of EU competition law could have in keeping the cloud computing industry competitive and, if possible at all, free from (potential) abuses of dominance by its main players. The paper has the good intuition to suggest that public procurement decisions by governments may play a key role in either the promotion of undistorted competition (if they opt for transparent standards based on interoperability) or, on the contrary, the creation of a very concentrated and potentially monopolistic market structure (if they unduly impose specific technological solutions). This is a very important point, and one that public procurement economists and commentators have been stressing for a long time.

However, when the paper moves on to suggest how to legally prevent and control those issues, it is completely oblivious to the existence of EU public procurement rules. Indeed, Bornico & Walden indicate that, where the contracting authority imposes a given (propietary) technological solution
... harmed competitors may challenge the choice of the public administration alleging that their specifications fit best the requirements ... or may challenge the behaviour of the firm whose specifications were chosen, but only if the firm can be considered dominant. More importantly competitors may challenge the choice of the public administration under Article 107 TFEU if the outcome of public procurement distorts competition.  The choice of formal specifications may soon be a source of disputes in the EU market, along the lines of the Google dispute in the US [by reference to  Google Inc. and Onix Networking Corporation v. The United States and Softchoice Corporation (United States Court of Federal Claims 2011)]; although it is too early to tell how technological choices made by public administrations will be dealt with by competition authorities in the EU. (p. 27, emphasis added).
There are three important points to stress here. Firstly, this is nothing new, but State aid litigation based on public procurement decisions is very limited, generally unsuccessful, and likely to be 'phagocytised' by 'pure' procurement litigation [for an extended discussion, see A Sanchez Graells, 'Enforcement of State Aid Rules for Services of General Economic Interest before Public Procurement Review Bodies and Courts' (2014) 10(1) Competition Law Review 3-34]. 

Secondly, aggrieved competitors would have a much better shot under the applicable rules on the design of technical specifications. Indeed, it has long been the position of the ECJ, now consolidated in the applicable Directives 2004/18 (and/or 2014/24, where transposed), that '[u]nless justified by the subject-matter of the contract, technical specifications shall not refer to a specific make or source, or a particular process, or to trade marks, patents, types or a specific origin or production with the effect of favouring or eliminating certain undertakings or certain products. Such reference shall be permitted on an exceptional basis, where a sufficiently precise and intelligible description of the subject-matter of the contract ... is not possible; such reference shall be accompanied by the words "or equivalent".' (emphasis added) [art 23(8) dir 2004/18, and now art 42(4) dir 2014/24; for discussion, see S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement. Regulation in the EU and UK, 3rd edn, vol. 1 (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2014) 254-55 and 1068 ; and A Sanchez Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 271-72]. Consequently, specific technological choices that excluded equivalent solutions would immediately be in breach of EU public procurement rules.

Thirdly, a breach of those rules gives aggrieved bidders and other interested economic operators a ground to challenge the procurement procedure before domestic courts or procurement complaints boards, under the provisions of Directives 89/665 and 92/13 (as amended by dir 2007/66). This is a much clearer litigation path and one that would yield much better results to disappointed bidders and competing (technological) firms.

Consequently, in this specific area, competition law is not the best tool to achieve pro-competitive results in the public procurement setting. Public procurement law is. So, competition lawyers, please familiarise yourselves with public procurement rules. In the end, they are two sides of the same coin [C Munro, ‘Competition Law and Public Procurement: Two Sides of the Same Coin?’ (2006) 15 Public Procurement Law Review 352; and A Sanchez Graells, 'Competition Law Against Public Restraints in the Public Procurement Field: Importing Competition Considerations into the EU Public Procurement Directives' (2010)].