How far can Member States push formal requirements in self-certifications? Will the CJEU give Member States a wake up call? (a propos AG Wathelet in C-46/15 )

In his Opinion of 3 March 2016 in Ambisig, C-46/15, EU:C:2016:137, Advocate General Wathelet explored the limits of the formal requirements that Member States can impose on self-certifications provided by tenderers in public procurement procedures. The case discusses the limits under the 2004 rules of EU public procurement, where the use of self-certification was certainly exceptional. However, it is interesting to consider this case as an opportunity for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) to give Member States a wake up call in the roll-out of the 2014 EU public procurement rules, where self-certification has pretty much become the rule rather than the exception. Not least, because AG Wathelet has invited the CJEU by engaging in arguments regarding the future rules.

Why will this ruling be relevant in the future?

Under the 2004 rules [specifically, Art 48(2)(a) of Dir 2004/18], economic operators taking part in public procurement procedures were allowed to furnish evidence of their technical abilities by one or more specified means of proof, which included a list of the principal deliveries effected or the main services provided in the past three years. If the contracting authority indicated that it wishes to receive such a list [Art 48(6) Dir 2004/18], evidence of delivery and services provided had to be be given in the form of certificates issued or countersigned by the competent authority that received the services or deliveries or, 'where the recipient was a private purchaser, by the purchaser’s certification or, failing this, simply by a declaration by the economic operator' [Art 48(2)(a)(ii) of Dir 2004/18, emphasis added]. Thus, the use of such self-declaration of private sector experience was foreseen as a mechanism of last resort or escape clause.  This has now been significantly amended in the 2014 rules.

On the one hand, the system now relies in the self-declarations underlying the European Single Procurement Document [ESPD, Art 59 Dir 2014/24 and , see Part IV, Section B, para (1a), fn 40], which allows economic operators to simply declare that they meet the the relevant selection criteria that have been set out by the contracting authority. Only at the request of the contracting authority, and ideally only if they are chosen for the award of the contract, must economic operators furnish certificates and means of proof backing up their self-declaration [Art 59(4) Dir 2014/24]. There is no doubt, then, that the system is one where self-declarations are now the norm.

Moreover, on the other hand, it should be taken into account that '[c]ontracting authorities shall indicate the required conditions of participation ... together with the appropriate means of proof, in the contract notice or in the invitation to confirm interest' [Art 58(5) Dir 2014/24]. Their choice of means of proof is however limited. Contracting authorities shall not require means of proof other than those referred to in Article 60 Dir 2014/24. For our purposes, according to the relevant provision, the requirement remains that evidence of the economic operators’ technical abilities may be provided by one or more of several specified means of proof, which include a list of the principal deliveries effected or the main services provided over at the most the past three years (Part II of Annex XII Dir 2014/24). However, there is no specific reference of the way in which these lists need to be backed up by economic operators. Thus, the rule disputed in Ambisig that where the recipient was a private purchaser, the economic operator must back-up the relevant entry in its experience list 'by the purchaser’s certification or, failing this, simply by a declaration by the economic operator ' is gone.

The question remains, though, how will Member States (or contracting authorities) deal with self-certifications of experience under the new rules at a practical level. It does not seem too far-fetched to assume that they will carry on as usual and require the same types of supporting (self)certifications that they are used to handle under the 2004 rules. Thus, an analysis of the Opinion of AG Wathelet in Ambisig is relevant, not only in relation to the already phasing out 2004 rules, but also for the proper roll-out of the 2014 rules.

The issues surrounding formalities in Ambisig under the 2004 rules

The dispute in Ambisig was multi-dimensional, particularly because the Portuguese interpretation of Art 48(2)(a)(ii) of Dir 2004/18 was rather complex (or rather, exceedingly formalistic) when it came to the possibility of accepting certifications from private purchasers, which was expressed in the following stylised terms in the contract notice of the procurement in dispute: In order to be selected, the candidates must submit the following application documents: ... a declaration by the client on headed, stamped paper confirming ... in accordance with the model declaration in Annex ... to this contract notice. The declaration must bear a signature certified by a notary, lawyer or other competent entity, specifying the capacity of the person signing.

This raises many issues, particularly in relation with the impossibility to provide a mere self-declaration by the economic operator itself (which is no longer a legal issue under the 2014 rules). However, for the purposes of assessing the relevance of this case for the future, the relevant question before the CJEU, and towards which AG Wathelet's Opinion provides an interesting answer is as follows:

Must Article 48(2)(a)(ii), second indent, of Directive 2004/18 be interpreted to the effect that it precludes the application of rules laid down by the contracting authority, which, on pain of exclusion, require the private purchaser’s certification to contain authentication of the signature by a notary, lawyer or other competent entity?

In my view, for the reasons explained above, this will apply mutatis mutandi to any requirements applicable to certificates to be provided as back of an ESPD self-declaration of experience under the 2014 rules.

Interestingly, after engaging in another tripping exercise of law and language where a literal analysis of several language versions of the contested provision are compared and contrasted without reaching any firm position on its proper interpretation (for a recent previous case of such analysis, on that occasion by the General Court, see here), AG Wathelet considers the following:

62. First of all, the Court has consistently held that Article 48 of Directive 2004/18 establishes a closed system which limits the methods of assessment and verification available to contracting authorities and, therefore, limits their opportunities to lay down requirements.
63. The Court has also stated that even within the framework of an open system ... contracting authorities’ freedom is not unlimited and the aspects chosen must be ‘objectively such as to provide information on such standing … without, however, going beyond what is reasonably necessary for that purpose’.
64. The same considerations apply, a fortiori, to the requirements laid down in the closed evidential system under Article 48 of Directive 2004/18. In my opinion, requiring authentication of the signature of a private purchaser attesting to a delivery effected or a service provided by an economic operator who has applied for a contract goes beyond what is necessary to prove the technical ability of the operator in question and is excessively formalistic when compared to the straightforward declaration by the economic operator, which is the subsidiary form of evidence permitted under the second indent of Article 48(2)(a)(ii) of Directive 2004/18.
65. If the contracting authority has concerns about the veracity of the document submitted to it, it may also, in my view, request additional information to demonstrate the authenticity of the certification provided. Indeed, as part of the contextual analysis, it must be recalled that Article 45(2)(g) of Directive 2004/18 makes it possible to exclude from the contract any operator who ‘is guilty of serious misrepresentation in supplying the information required’ (Opinion in C-46/15, paras 62-65, references omitted, emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added).

AG Watheler's glimpse into the future

Remarkably, after carrying out a historical analysis of the way in which the 2004 rules came to have their wording, AG Wathelet uses the 2014 rules as an interpretation tool. Beyond the time-consistency (or not) of such an approach to statutory interpretation, his analysis includes policy arguments around the following considerations:

73. ... Directive 2014/24 ... goes even further in the sense of reducing evidential formalities by removing all references to certification by the purchaser.
74. From now on, Article 60(4) of that directive — which replaces Article 48(2) of Directive 2004/18 — simply provides that ‘evidence of the economic operators’ technical abilities may be provided by one or more of the means listed in Annex XII Part II, in accordance with the nature, quantity or importance, and use of the works, supplies or services’.
75. Under Annex XII Part II(a)(ii) of Directive 2014/24, the means of evidence attesting to economic operators’ technical abilities are ‘a list of the principal deliveries effected or the main services provided over at the most the past three years, with the sums, dates and recipients, whether public or private, involved. Where necessary in order to ensure an adequate level of competition, contracting authorities may indicate that evidence of relevant supplies or services delivered or performed more than three years before will be taken into account’. The need for this list to be accompanied by a certification from the purchaser has therefore disappeared.
76. Even though Directive 2014/24 does not apply to the dispute in the main proceedings, this new directive, which repeals Directive 2004/18, is relevant in that it expresses the current intention of the EU legislature. It may therefore be of assistance in ascertaining the current meaning of an earlier, similar provision, provided, however, that such interpretation is not contra legem.
77.  In the present case, it seems to me that Directives 92/50 and 2014/24 confirm the EU legislature’s continuing intention not to make evidence of the technical ability of an economic operator subject to any specific formality and do so in a way that does not conflict with the wording of the applicable provision.
78. In other words, viewed in its context and from a historical perspective, the second indent of Article 48(2)(a)(ii) of Directive 2004/18 imposes no other requirement than the assurance or confirmation, by the purchaser, that the service on which the economic operator relies with a view to securing the contract was actually provided (Opinion in C-46/15, paras 73-78, references omitted, emphasis added).

I am not sure that AG Wathelet's consideration in para 75 would necessarily be the natural interpretation of Annex XII Part II(a)(ii) of Directive 2014/24, because contracting authorities may well be tempted to consider that the Directive does not actually exclude any mechanisms of certification from the purchaser (it simply just not foresees them) and, in any case, they could be tempted to exercise their prerogative to 'invite economic operators to supplement or clarify the certificates received' [Art 59(4) in fine Dir 2014/24] by requesting similarly formalised (private) purchaser certifications. Thus, his interpretation, which I personally very much share, runs against that possibility and an explicit endorsement by the CJEU would be most welcome.

In any case, what is clear is that, in AG Wathelet (and my) opinion, the 2004 and ad maiorem the 2014 EU public procurement rules preclude 'the application of rules laid down by a contracting authority which, on pain of exclusion, require the private purchaser’s certification to bear a signature certified by a notary, lawyer or other competent entity'. We can just hope that the CJEU will endorse this approach.