CJEU clarifies scope of application of concessions directive and services directive, and confirms their mutual exclusivity (C-458/14)

In its Judgment of 14 July 2016 in Promoimpresa, C-458/14, EU:C:2016:558, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued a ruling concerned with the interaction between the EU public procurement rules and the Services Directive (Dir 2006/123/EC) In particular, Promoimpresa is concerned with the potential interaction between the EU public procurement and the rules of the Services Directive (Art 12) for the allocation of authorisations to carry out a given economic activity when only a limited number of authorisations is available due to the scarcity of available natural resources or technical capacity.

The case touches upon similar issues as the ongoing litigation on whether the EU procurement rules area applicable to the granting of betting licences (see Politano’, C-225/15, here), which are however excluded from the scope of the Services Directive (Art 2).

Thus, the Promoimpresa Judgment is relevant in the area of services concessions, broadly and loosely understood [on this, for background, see GS Ølykke, 'Is the granting of special and exclusive rights subject to the principles applicable to the award of concessions? Recent developments in case law and their implications for one of the last sanctuaries of protectionism' (2014) 23(1) Public Procurement Law Review 1; and CJ Wolswinkel, 'From public contracts to limited authorisations and vice versa: Exploring the EU Court’s corollary approach on award procedures, Public Procurement Law Review' (2015) 24(5) Public Procurement Law Review 137].

In Promoimpresa, the legal dispute arose from Italian decisions not to renew a pre-existing "concession" (rectius, exclusive right or authorisation) for the occupancy and management of State-owned land, and to subject the award of lakeside "concessions" (idem) to a comparative selection procedure (C-458/14, para 2). Thus, the case concerns 'concessions granted by public authorities of State-owned maritime and lakeside property relating to the exploitation of State land for tourist and leisure-oriented business activities' (para 40). The use of the term "concession" to refer to this type of authorisations could be problematic in theory, as it could give rise to doubts as to the applicability of the Services Directive, the Concessions Directive (Dir 2014/23/EU), or both to their award. Luckily, though, this is an issue of coordination of the scope of application of these legal instruments that both address explicitly.

Recital 57 of the Services Directive states that ‘The provisions of this Directive relating to authorisation schemes should concern cases where the access to or exercise of a service activity by operators requires a decision by a competent authority. This concerns neither decisions by competent authorities to set up a public or private entity for the provision of a particular service nor the conclusion of contracts by competent authorities for the provision of a particular service which is governed by rules on public procurement, since this Directive does not deal with rules on public procurement’ (emphasis added).

From a complementary perspective, Recital 15 of Concessions Directive is also clear in stating that ‘… Certain agreements having as their object the right of an economic operator to exploit certain public domains or resources under private or public law, such as land or any public property, in particular in the maritime, inland ports or airports sector, whereby the State or contracting authority or contracting entity establishes only general conditions for their use without procuring specific works or services, should not qualify as concessions within the meaning of this Directive. This is normally the case with public domain or land lease contracts which generally contain terms concerning entry into possession by the tenant, the use to which the property is to be put, the obligations of the landlord and tenant regarding the maintenance of the property, the duration of the lease and the giving up of possession to the landlord, the rent and the incidental charges to be paid by the tenant’ (emphasis added).

In the Promoimpresa Judgment, in a ruling that should come as no surprise, the CJEU confirmed the mutual exclusivity of the Services Directive and the Concessions Directive in the following terms:

45 ... the provisions of [the Services Directive] relating to authorisation schemes cannot apply to concessions of public services capable, inter alia, of falling within the scope of [the Concessions Directive].
46      ... a services concession is characterised, inter alia, by a situation in which the right to operate a particular service is transferred by the contracting authority to the concessionaire and that the latter enjoys, in the framework of the contract which has been concluded, a certain economic freedom to determine the conditions under which that right is exercised and, in addition, is, to a large extent, exposed to the risks of operating the service (see, to that effect, judgment of 11 June 2009 in Hans & Christophorus Oymanns, C‑300/07, EU:C:2009:358, paragraph 71).
47      However, in the cases in the main proceedings ... the concessions do not concern the provision of a particular service by the contracting entity, but an authorisation to exercise an economic activity on State-owned land. It follows that the concessions at issue in the main proceedings do not fall within the category of service concessions (see, by analogy, judgment of 14 November 2013 in Belgacom, C‑221/12, EU:C:2013:736, paragraphs 26 to 28) (C-458/14, paras 45-47).

To be sure, the wording of some parts of the Promoimpresa Judgment could be clearer--e.g., paragraph [47], where it seems to imply that contracting authorities provide services under a services concession, while the whole point of those concessions is for the concessionaire to provide and manage those services on behalf of, or upon the entrustment of the contracting authority [see definition of services concession in Art 5(1)(b) of the Concessions Directive]. However, the functional criterion of mutual exclusivity of the Services Directive and the Concessions Directive seems now clear enough and it can be welcome that this is now the explicit interpretation of the CJEU, rather than merely indicative considerations in the recitals of both directives.