ECJ backs up tough Italian approach to exclusion of non-payers of social security contributions -- will this carry on under Directive 2014/24? (C-199/15)

In its Judgment of 10 November 2016 in Ciclat, C-199/15, EU:C:2016:853 (only in FR and IT), the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has issued a preliminary ruling concerning the compatibility with the pre-2014 EU public procurement rules (Dir 2004/18) of a set of Italian rules that mandates the exclusion of undertakings that have been found to have gravely failed to meet all their social security obligations at the time of the tender, and irrespective of any subsequent regularisation of the situation prior to the award of the contract, or even prior to the assessment of that situation by the contracting authority.

According to the relevant Italian rules, contracting authorities must exclude undertakings that have been definitively found to have committed serious offences regarding the payment of social security contributions in accordance with Italian legislation or that of the State in which they are established (C-199/15, para 8, own translation from French). The only tolerance against this ground of mandatory exclusion is that an offence against the social security will not be considered grave where the difference between the sums owed and those paid does not exceed EUR 100 and is less than 5% of the sums owed (C-199/15, para 11, own translation from French). 

The Ciclat case can be seen as a twin of the previous Judgment of 10 July 2014 in Consorzio Stabile Libor Lavori Pubblici (C-358/12, EU:C:2014:2063) where the ECJ assessed the compatibility with EU law of the same Italian rules for the exclusion of undertakings that have committed serious offences against the social security of their country of establishment, but in the context of the procurement of contracts below the EU thresholds. In that case, the ECJ considered that the Italian rule was compatible with Articles 49 TFEU and 56 TFEU and the principle of proportionality. Equally and unsurprisingly, in Ciclat, the ECJ has determined that

Article 45 of Directive 2004/18 ... does not preclude national legislation ... which obliges contracting authorities to consider as grounds for exclusion an offense in relation to the payment of social security contributions, which is established in a certificate automatically requested by the contracting authority and issued by the social security institutions, where such infringement existed at the date of participation in a tender, even if it no longer existed on the date of the award of the contract or that of the automatic control by the contracting authority (C-199/15, para 40, own translation from French). 

Despite not advancing EU public procurement law in any relevant way, the Ciclat Judgment can be criticised on two accounts.

First, because the ECJ ducked a relevant question of reverse discrimination due to the different documentary rules applicable to Italian companies (which were subject to the stringent system of automatic certification by the social security administration that gave rise to the case), whereas non-Italian EU tenderers could benefit from the greater flexibility of self-certification (see C-199/15, paras 38-39). At some point, the ECJ will have to stop avoiding problematic issues of reverse discrimination and start constructing a better line of case law that is more attuned to the needs of undertakings competing in an internal market.

Second, the Ciclat Judgment can be criticised for its excessive rigidity. Not only due to the lack of consideration of the very low threshold amounts of tolerance for unpaid social security contributions (or taxes)--which was already the position after Consorzio Stabile Libor Lavori Pubblici--but also due to the irrelevance given to an effective remediation of the infringement by the tenderer, which goes against trends aimed at facilitating substantial compliance and corporate (voluntary) self-cleaning. 

However, this second criticism may seem as not really relevant from a practical perspective in view of the greater flexibility that Article 57(2) Dir 2014/24 has introduced if compared with Art 45 Dir 2004/18 (see discussion here). Indeed, under the 2014 rules, exclusion on the basis of an infringement of social security law (or tax law), even if the infringement has been established by a judicial or administrative decision having final and binding effect in accordance with the legal provisions of the country in which it is established, this exclusion ground will cease to apply where "the economic operator has fulfilled its obligations by paying or entering into a binding arrangement with a view to paying the taxes or social security contributions due, including, where applicable, any interest accrued or fines."

But a close consideration of this provision shows that the moment in which consideration must be paid by the contracting authority to the remedial action taken by the tenderer that was initially found to infringe social security (or tax) law is not specified, and therefore left to the national implementing conditions adopted in each Member State on the basis of Art 57(7) Dir 2014/24. Thus, a possible reading of Ciclat would be to consider that it is compatible with EU procurement law to establish the last date for the submission of tenders as the cut-off date for the assessment of compliance with (or remedy of an infringement of) social security (and tax) law--to the exclusion of any remedial action taken before the contracting authority evaluates the tenders, or even before the contracting authority actually assesses compliance with exclusion and selection criteria. In my view, that would deprive the new rules in Art 57(2) [and, for the same reasons, in Art 57(6) on self-cleaning] of practical effect.

Consequently, the Ciclat Judgment keeps adding reasons to the need to establish a special inter partes procedure where the contracting authority gives a chance to the undertaking to clarify its current situation of compliance or not with social security (and tax) requirements [but, more generally, in relation to any exclusion ground the contracting authority aims to enforce] before proceeding to its effective exclusion. This is not only a practical need, but a requirement derived from the general principles in the EU public procurement Directives and, more generally, the duty of good administration of Art 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Fur further discussion of this important issue, see A Sanchez-Graells, "If it Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It’? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts", to be published in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming.