CJEU backs automatic exclusion of tenderers that had relied on no longer qualified third parties (C-223/16)

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In its Judgment of 14 September 2017 in Casertana Construzioni, C-223/16, EU:C:2017:685, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has confirmed the legality of the automatic exclusion of an economic operator that had relied on the capacities of an auxiliary undertaking, where the latter lost the required qualifications after the submission of the tender. The CJEU has ruled that the relevant provisions of Directive 2004/18/EC (Arts 47(2) and 48(3)) did not preclude such automatic exclusion, and that they did not require offering the concerned tenderer the possibility to replace the now not-qualifying auxiliary undertaking.

In doing so, the CJEU has followed the Opinion of Advocate General Wahl (criticised here), and created a precedent that is at odds with the new rules in Directive 2014/24/EU (Art 63) and that raises new interpretive difficulties. This post will first rehearse the main reasons why AG Wahl's and now the CJEU's approach is criticisable. It will then look into the interpretive difficulties that can carry through to the interpretation of Article 63 of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Not necessarily a proportionate or pro-competitive approach

In a nutshell, the reasons given by the CJEU to accept the automatic exclusion of a tenderer that relied on the capacities of an auxiliary undertaking that disappear once the offer has been submitted are the same as those of AG Wahl, and are summarised by the CJEU as follows:

as the Advocate General observed ..., the possibility afforded, unpredictably, exclusively to a consortium of undertakings to replace a third-party undertaking which belongs to that consortium and has lost a qualification that is required in order not to be excluded would amount to a substantial change of the tender and the very identity of the consortium. Indeed, such a change of the tender would compel the contracting authority to carry out new checks whilst at the same time granting a competitive advantage to that consortium which might attempt to optimise its tender in order to deal better with its competitors’ tenders in the procurement procedure at issue.

Such a situation would be contrary to the principle of equal treatment which requires that tenderers be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their bids and which implies that the bids of all tenderers must be subject to the same conditions, and would amount to a distortion of healthy and effective competition between undertakings participating in a public procurement procedure (C-223/16, paras 39-40, emphasis added).

This encapsulates three reasons: (i) discrimination because one consortium is given the opportunity and other tenderers are not, (ii) discrimination because the beneficiary consortium can substantially alter the terms of its tender, and (iii) additional work for the contracting authority. In my opinion, the first reason is spurious because the opportunity to substitute would only arise where a consortium is affected by the loss of qualification of one of its auxiliary undertakings and, barring a case where two or more competing consortia found themselves in that predicament, there is no discrimination for allowing substitutions on a need basis.

The second reason is equally unpersuasive, in particular because it conflates the strict issue of substitution of the member of a consortium with the separate problem of changes to the content of the tender. As I said in relation to AG Wahl's Opinion, provided that the way in which the contracting authority allowed for the substitution between third entities on which capacity the tenderer relied did not confer a competitive advantage to the tenderer, there can be good reasons to allow it. For example, if the application of the qualitative selection criteria did not involve a ranking, but was rather on a pass / no pass basis, and where the terms of the tender were not altered at all because the new entity simply stepped into the shoes of the no longer capable entity, there seems to be limited scope to consider that the tenderer derives a competitive advantage (for more details, see here). Thus, rather than excluding the possibility altogether, the CJEU could have imposed conditions to establish what is an acceptable substitution of auxiliary undertakings and what is not.

Finally, the point on additional checks being required from the contracting authority is relevant. However, rather than considering it a sufficient reason to prevent the substitution, a proportionality assessment would have seemed more appropriate. Given that the exclusion narrows down competition for the contract, the contracting authority should be able to demonstrate that there are sufficient administrative difficulties to justify proceeding this way.

Thus, in outline, I would have preferred that the CJEU departed from AG Wahl's Opinion and declared that the general principles of EU procurement law, and in particular the principle of proportionality coupled with the principle of competition, oppose the automatic exclusion of tenderers that have relied on the capacities of third parties that later lose them, unless the contracting authority can demonstrate that allowing for the substitution of the third party would either infringe the principles of equal treatment, non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency (eg in a situation where the qualitative selection criteria were not assessed on a pass/no pass basis), or would create a disproportionate administrative burden or delay in the conclusion of the procurement procedure. This could create closer functional compatibility in the case law on reliance on third parties and on subcontracting, which I think are currently at risk of imposing functionally incompatible interpretations of the relevant EU public procurement rules.

In my view, my preferred interpretation is encapsulated in Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU, in particular as read in the light of the principle of competition in Article 18(1) thereof [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) 315-318]. However, the Casertana Judgment may raise some questions around that approach, which requires some closer analysis.

New doubts concerning Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU

In the Casertana Construzioni Judgment, the CJEU follows its previous approach in Partner Apelski Dariusz (paras 82-94, see here) and the Opinion of AG Wahl and rejects both (i) the application of Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU to the case ratione temporis (which is uncontroversial, as the tender took place in 2013) and (ii) the possibility of interpreting the rules of Directive 2004/18/EC in light of Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU. Casertana reiterates the finding in Partner that Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU introduces 'substantial amendments as regards the right of an economic operator to rely on the capacities of other entities in the context of public contracts' (C-223/16, para 26) and is therefore not suitable as an interpretive tool in relation to Directive 2004/18/EC because the latter is not affected by 'problems of interpretation' (C-223/16, para 28). However, the case is not limited to ignore Article 63(1), but rather seems to consolidate a strict interpretation of this provision. Additionally, given the divergence between Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU and the Casertana Judgment, the latter creates a potential difficulty concerning the cut-off point at which the possibility to replace non-qualified third parties ends.

Seemingly too restrictive (implicit) interpretation of Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU

Both the Partner and Casertana cases stress that the new rules foresee that "Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24 now provides that economic operators may ‘only rely on the capacities of other entities where the latter will perform the works or services for which these capacities are required’ ... and that ‘the contracting authority shall require that the economic operator replaces an entity which does not meet a relevant selection criterion, or in respect of which there are compulsory grounds for exclusion’" (C-223/16, para 25). The second part of this statement has been discussed above (and could have been reconciled with the pre-2014 rules by operation of the principle of proportionality). The first part of the statement is problematic. 

Indeed, this incipient consolidation of the rules in Article 63(1) could trigger difficulties because, according to its literal wording, the restriction of reliance on third parties where they will perform the work or services for which the capacities are required solely concern "criteria relating to the educational and professional qualifications as set out in point (f) of Annex XII Part II [ie the educational and professional qualifications of the service provider or contractor or those of the undertaking’s managerial staff, provided that they are not evaluated as an award criterion], or to the relevant professional experience" -- or, in other words, economic operators are allowed to rely on financial, economic and other types of professional qualifications of third parties even if those parties will not directly carry out the works. This comes to allow for consultancy and technical support contracts to back up the tenders of economic operators that may not have all those resources in-house and is generally pro-competitive. By adopting a blanket approach to the requirement of direct involvement in the execution of the contract beyond the limited remit established in Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU, a broad reading of the Casertana and Partner cases could deactivate large parts of the flexibility for the formation of consortia that are inherent to the system.

In the specific case of Casertana, all we know is that 

Casertana participated in the call for tenders within the framework of an ad hoc tendering consortium under formation, as lead company, and declared that it relied, as regards the qualifications required by [the applicable Italian rules], on those of two auxiliary undertakings, one being Consorzio Stabile GAP. 

In the course of the procedure and after the end of the stage of admission to the call for tenders, that auxiliary undertaking [is Consorzio Stabile GAP] lost qualification for the required category of services, thus becoming qualified for a lower category of services only (C-223/16, paras 11-12).

Put simply, it is not known why Consorzio Stabile GAP saw its qualification reduced for a lower category of services. If the reasons were not linked to the educational and professional qualifications of its managerial staff or the relevant professional experience of the undertaking, then an acritical application of the decision of the CJEU to the case would imply an unnecessary (and illegal) restriction of the flexibility foreseen in Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Unresolved timing issues -- when does Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU stop applying?

In Casertana, the CJEU simply indicated that there is no requirement to give the tenderer an opportunity to substitute auxiliary undertakings that have lost the required qualifications after the tender has been submitted because that would amount to allowing for a substantial change of the tender (see above). It also indicated that tenderers could not claim force majeure (or, more generally, the unpredictability of the loss of qualification by the auxiliary undertaking) to gain such an opportunity to substitute them because, although the procurement rules enable "a tenderer to rely on the capacities of one or more third party entities in addition to its own capacities in order to fulfil the criteria set by a contracting authority, that tenderer remains responsible, in its capacity as the lead undertaking in a consortium of undertakings, for the compliance of those undertakings with the obligations and conditions for participation in the call for tenders laid down by the contracting authority in the documents relating to the procurement procedure at issue" (C-223/16, para 41). A question arises on how to interpret these two issues in situations where Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU is applicable.

Taking the second aspect first, it seems clear that under Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU, the responsibility for ensuring compliance with the selection criteria included in the call for tenders is shared between the lead undertaking and the contracting authority. In that regard, it is worth emphasising that the provision foresees that

The contracting authority shall ...verify whether the entities on whose capacity the economic operator intends to rely fulfil the relevant selection criteria and whether there are grounds for exclusion ... The contracting authority shall require that the economic operator replaces an entity which does not meet a relevant selection criterion, or in respect of which there are compulsory grounds for exclusion. The contracting authority may require or may be required by the Member State to require that the economic operator substitutes an entity in respect of which there are non-compulsory grounds for exclusion.

Given this wording, and in case the contracting authority issues a favourable opinion on the qualifications held by a given auxiliary undertaking (or fails to check them, as was the case in Casertana, where the loss of qualification was only raised in the context of a counter-claim against Casertana's challenge to the award of the contract to a different consortium), issues will arise concerning legitimate expectations, in particular concerning the ability to replace no loner qualifying third parties at any point of the procurement process, all the way through to award (including any litigation concerning findings of loss of compliance with selection criteria at tender evaluation stage). However, this would be in stark contrast with the first aspect of the Casertana Judgment, which considers a substitution of auxiliary undertaking an impermissible tender modification. Therefore, the question will arise whether Article 63(1) is applicable throughout the procurement procedure, or only up to the point of submission of tenders.

In my view, the answer to the question cannot be all-or-nothing (as has been the case in AG Wahl's Opinion and in the Judgment), but rather require an analysis of the terms of the substitution (if the new auxiliary undertaking simply assumes all obligations of the previous undertaking in the exact same conditions, where is the advantage?), as well as a proportionality assessment of any new verification work required from the contracting authority as a result of the substitution (in the Casertana case, the issue revolved around qualifications administered by a third party [ie a Certification Body], so it would have seemed rather easy to substitute auxiliary undertakings without requiring much from the contracting authority). Failing that, there is a risk of limiting Article 63(1) to a one-shot remedial opportunity restricted to the contracting authority's first assessment of the tenderer's (and its auxiliary's) compliance with exclusion and qualitative selection rules. Even if this would be an improvement over the 2004 system (in particular as interpreted in Casertana), it would fall short from the flexibility that can be derived from a broader and more dynamic reading of Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

AG Wahl issues excessively formalistic Opinion on 'crumbling' reliance on third party capacities (C-223/16)

In his Opinion of 11 May 2017 in Casertana Costruzioni, C-223/16, EU:C:2017:365, AG Wahl has analysed the compatibility with the 2004 EU public procurement rules (Dir 2004/18/EC, Arts 47(2) and 48(3)) of national legislation providing for the automatic exclusion from the tendering procedure of a tenderer that relies on the capacities of another entity which, during that procedure, ceases to have the required capacities--without allowing for the the possibility of replacing that entity for another third party with the appropriate capacity. 

AG Wahl follows a functional approach close to that of AG Bobek in Esaprojekt, and submits that the rule on automatic exclusion is compatible with EU public procurement law. His reasoning deserves close scrutiny, in particular concerning the automaticity of the exclusion, which I am not convinced necessarily derives from his interpretation of previous case law.

At this stage, it is important to stress that AG Wahl follows the approach of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Partner Apelski Dariusz to the effect of excluding the possibility of resorting to Directive 2014/24/EU (Art 63) in search for interpretive criteria to be applied to the 2004 rules. In AG Wahl's view, "[i]n permitting economic operators to replace entities which are to be excluded or which do not meet the relevant criteria, Article 63(1) of Directive 2014/24 manifestly introduces new elements as compared to the rules laid down in Article 47(2) and Article 48(3) of Directive 2004/18" (para 36). Therefore, it seems clear that, whether the ECJ follows AG Wahl's Opinion or not in the Casertana Costruzioni Judgment, this will have limited practical effect because, under Directive 2014/24/EU, the automatic exclusion of a tenderer on the basis that its reliance on third party capacities has crumbled is no longer compatible with EU law.  

Referring back to procurement subjected to the 2004 rules, it is important to stress that AG Wahl conceptualises the core legal issue as concerning whether EU law requires Member States to permit the substitution of the entity that has lost the required capacity with one which possesses the required capacity. He rightly points out that this cannot be assessed in abstract terms, but rather needs to be linked to the relevant phase of the procurement procedure. In that regard, he distinguishes three situations, depending on whether the loss of capacity by the third party takes place (i) before the time limit for receipt of the bids expires, (ii) after the expiry of the time limit for receipt of the bids, but before the public authority makes the final award or (iii) after the award of the contract (see paras 18-25).

In AG Wahl's view, substitution of the third party cannot be allowed in situation (i) because in cases where the loss of capacity by the third party happens before the expiry of the time limit for the submission of bids, tenderers are free to withdraw the offer that is no longer compliant with the tender documentation and submit a new offer where they rely on the capacities of a different third party. AG Wahl does not express a view on situation (iii)--and, therefore, skips the opportunity to offer some clarification on the rules concerning the substitution of consortium members [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) 339-340].

Most of AG Wahl's analysis thus concerns situation (ii), where the loss of capacity by the third party takes place during the evaluation stage of the award procedure (strictly, after the deadline for the submission of offers--although I would submit that the same approach should be followed in borderline situations between (i) and (ii), where the bidder only discovers the loss of capacity by the third party after the deadline for submission of tenders, or without sufficient time to submit a fresh offer). He clearly submits that the ECJ should declare that no EU rule or general principle of law requires national authorities to permit tenderers, in that situation, to replace the third party that has lost the required capacity. I am not convinced that this is the case.

Concerning explicit rules, AG Wahl is clear in emphasising that "Directive 2004/18 does not contain any provision which expressly requires Member States to allow tenderers to replace economic entities on whose capabilities they have relied, when those entities are to be excluded or do not meet the relevant criteria. Nor is there any provision, in that directive, that could be read as implicitly containing such a rule or principle"; and, consequently, due to the minimum harmonisation nature of the procurement Directive, "which leaves some regulatory discretion to the Member States for what is not expressly regulated therein", "the possible replacement of third parties on which a tenderer has relied ... is an aspect which is, in principle, for the Member States to regulate" (paras 41 and 42).

He then moves on to assess the situation in relation with the general principles of EU public procurement law, which could constrain Member States' legislative discretion. In that regard, he is also clear in establishing that "allowing a tenderer to replace an entity on whose capabilities it sought to rely cannot be regarded either as a clarification of, or as the correction of clerical errors in, its tender. In point of fact, such a change appears to constitute an amendment of an important element of the tender which is, therefore, in principle not permissible" (para 47, emphasis added), which he considers contrary to the requirements of the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency (para 45).

AG Wahl refers to AG Bobek's Opinion in Esaprojekt to indicate that

such a change may lead to the contracting authority being required to carry out additional checks and could even affect the choice of candidates being invited to present an offer. Furthermore, [Bobek] noted that giving a tenderer a second chance to decide on which entities’ capabilities it wishes to rely, ‘could certainly procure it an advantage that would be at odds with the requirement of equal treatment’.
I agree. I would also add that upholding Casertana Costruzioni’s argument would essentially amount to creating a judge-made rule that grants the possibility of amending bids at a late stage, a possibility which, in the light of the applicable national and EU rules, was not foreseeable by the other tenderers. As mentioned, that would hardly be reconcilable with the principle of equal treatment. Nor would it be compatible with the obligation of transparency incumbent upon the public authorities. Indeed, neither the Italian nor the EU rules in force at the material time provided for such a possibility. Nor was a specific provision on this point included in the invitation to tender (paras 49-50, footnotes omitted). 

On their facts, I am not sure that the comparison with the Esaprojekt case is helpful. Esaprojekt concerns a situation (i) in terms of AG Wahl's classification, in the sense that the third entity in which the tenderer relied (in that case, a consortium of which the tenderer itself formed part) did not meet the requirements of the tender documentation when the offer was submitted. Thus, this situation can be distinguished from the analysis in Casertana Construzioni in relation with situation (ii) scenarios. In the latter case, therefore, the issue does not seem to be framed in the most useful terms because it can be argued that, having taken place after the submission of the offer (which AG assumes to be the case, see para 24), the loss of capacity of the third party was not foreseeable by the tenderer either, which deactivates part of the reasoning bases on potential discrimination.

Moreover, provided that the way in which the contracting authority allowed for the substitution between third entities on which capacity the tenderer relied did not confer a competitive advantage to the tenderer, there can be good reasons to allow it. For example, if the application of the qualitative selection criteria did not involve a ranking, but was rather on a pass / no pass basis, and where the terms of the tender were not altered at all because the new entity simply stepped into the shoes of the no longer capable entity, there seems to be limited scope to consider that the tenderer derives a competitive advantage.

AG Wahl seems to take the opposite view on the basis of the reasoning underlying the ECJ's analysis of a prohibition to change subcontractors in Wall (which AG Wahl discusses in paras 53-56), in relation to which he stresses that it "could be considered [that the substitution of subcontractor] ‘[altered] an essential term of the concession and [thus necessitated] a new tender procedure’ because, in particular, ‘the concession-holder [had] relied on the reputation and technical expertise of the subcontractor when submitting its tender’." However, this is also conceptually problematic because it refers to a situation (iii), and the prohibition of the substitution of subcontractor can have more to do with the ECJ's requirement that contracting authorities are in a position to verify the standing of any subcontractors (as generally discussed by AG Sharpston in her Opinion in Borta, discussed here).

Ultimately, the difficulty with the assessment carried out by AG Wahl in Casertana Construzioni derives from the fact that he considers that "the capabilities of a third party which allow a tenderer to participate in a tender procedure can hardly be regarded as a non-essential element of a bid. The conclusion might have been different, obviously, if the tenderer had itself the required capabilities or if it had relied, for the same requirement, on more than one entity having those capabilities" (para 58, emphasis added). In my view, this is excessively formalistic and a more nuanced analysis would be required. In the specific case, and on the basis of the limited information about the factual situation, it seems that reliance on the third party capacity primarily (or exclusively) served the purpose of ticking the box of holding a formal classification via registration in the relevant classification system (see para 11). If that is the case, then it seems difficult to justify that this constitutes an essential element of the bid, as it could hardly affect its terms or the execution of the works. More generally, it is not clear that any aspect of reliance on third party capacity can be considered an essential element of a bid by definition, and a more detailed assessment seems necessary (along the lines established by the ECJ in Borta, see here).

From that perspective, the analysis based on discrimination and equal treatment does not seem the most relevant to me, and a focus on proportionality between the administrative burden linked to the substitution of third parties and the preservation of competition for the contract would be much more relevant--in which AG Wahl refuses to engage (see paras 62-65). In my view, this is the biggest flaw of the Opinion in this case. I would suggest that, contrary to what AG Wahl considers, the principle of proportionality should have provided the key legal test in this case.

Thus, I would rather have the ECJ depart from his Opinion and declare that the general principles of EU procurement law, and in particular the principle of proportionality coupled with the principle of competition, oppose the automatic exclusion of tenderers that have relied on the capacities of third parties that later lose them, unless the contracting authority can demonstrate that allowing for the substitution of the third party would either infringe the principles of equal treatment, non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency (eg in a situation where the qualitative selection criteria were not assessed on a pass/no pass basis), or would create a disproportionate administrative burden or delay in the conclusion of the procurement procedure. This could create closer functional compatibility in the case law on reliance on third parties and on subcontracting, which I think are currently at risk of imposing functionally incompatible interpretations of the relevant EU public procurement rules.

 

Can a requirement to furnish financial guarantees (performance bonds) be considered a selection criterion based on economic and financial standing (C-76/16)?

In his Opinion of 21 March 2017 in INGSTEEL and Metrostav, C-76/16, EU:C:2017:226, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona addressed the compatibility of tender requirements aimed at ensuring the (future) provision of performance guarantees related to the execution of a works contract with the rules of the 2004 EU public procurement directive (Dir 2004/18). He submitted to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that such requirements are compatible with EU law and, in particular, with the rules on selection criteria based on the economic and financial standing of economic operators seeking to be awarded public contracts under Art 47 Dir 2004/18. In doing so, he rejected the European Commission’s submission that such requirements, inasmuch as they affected the phase of execution of the contract, ought to be assessed in accordance with the rules on the setting of conditions for the performance of contracts under Art 26 Dir 2004/18.

AG Campos also addressed a point on the time-sensitivity of remedies’ availability (ie whether challenges by disappointed tenderers are barred where the performance of the contract by the awardee is almost complete) under the EU Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665 as amended by Dir 2007/66). He considered that, as interpreted in connection with Art 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the procedural rights created by the Remedies Directive do not lapse simply due to the fact that the successful tenderer has almost completed performance of the contract at the time the disappointed tenderer launches its challenge, or the review authority or court is to issue its ruling.

While I fully agree with AG Campos concerning the procedural aspects of his Opinion (which I would have thought both clear and uncontroversial), I think that his analysis of the substantive issues improperly characterises the requirement for the (future) provision of a performance guarantee as a valid selection criterion based on the economic operator’s economic and financial standing. On that point, I consider the analytical framework proposed by the European Commission (partially) preferable. This post develops the reasons why I think the ECJ should not follow AG Campos on the substantive points of his INGSTEEL and Metrostav Opinion.

In the case at hand, “the contract notice required a ‘statement by the bank (loan agreement or credit facility agreement) recording the bank’s undertaking to the effect that the tenderer, in the event of acceptance of its tender, will be in a position to provide a guarantee of EUR 3,000,000 to ensure performance of the contract. The evidence must show that the funds will be available to the tenderer after conclusion of the contract. The evidence must be certified by a person authorised by the bank for that purpose.’” (para 15, emphasis added).

It is hard to make sense of the requirement (which may be a translation issue), but this seems to concern the need to provide a stand-by financial guarantee to the benefit of the contracting authority, which the issuing bank commits to firm up upon award of the contract.

Be it as it may, the disappointed tenderer did not provide such a bank statement, but rather proof of the opening of a current-account credit facility for an amount exceeding EUR 5,000,000 and a sworn statement that, if awarded the contract, they would keep a minimum of EUR 3,000,000 for the duration of the contract (para 17). It is not clear from the factual description in the Opinion whether there was any commitment to provide a guarantee using those funds as collateral, but it does not seem to be the case.

The contracting authority did not accept these documents as evidence of the economic and financial standing of the tenderer and thus excluded it from further participation. The rejection was eventually challenged before the Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic, and the preliminary reference to the ECJ derives from a procedure mainly aimed at assessing (i) whether the contracting authority could introduce this requirement in compliance with the rules on economic and financial standing (Art 47(1)(a) and (4) Dir 2004/18); and (ii) whether the contracting authority should have accepted the documentation as alternative to the specified bank certificate (Art 47(5) Dir 2004/18). Only the first point deserves analysis.

It is important to note here that the European Commission has challenged the legal subsumption of the material facts under Art 47 Dir 2004/18 and submitted that “Article 47 of Directive 2004/18 relates to the economic and financial standing of the tenderer at the time of award of the contract. However, the tenderer’s economic and financial standing during performance of the contract is governed by Article 26 of that directive, concerning conditions for performance of the contract. At all events, in the light of the wording of the question, the Commission suggests that the condition imposed on the tenderer should be examined under both Article 26 and Article 47 of Directive 2004/18” (para 28).

Further, the Commission indicated that “Article 26 of Directive 2004/18 provides that the conditions for performance must appear in the contract notice, a requirement fulfilled in this case, and must be compatible with EU law. Citing the case-law of the Court, the Commission argues that, as Directive 2004/18 does not exhaustively govern the special conditions for performance, those conditions may be assessed in accordance with primary EU law” (para 29, emphasis added).

AG Campos disagreed with the Commission and considered that the approach of assessing the requirement as a performance clause was incorrect. He emphasised that Art 26 Dir 2004/18 is concerned with other issues “and applies, in particular, to social and environmental objectives” (para 43). More importantly, he considered that “in requiring certain minimum levels of economic and financial standing, the presumption in Articles 44 and 47 of Directive 2004/18 is that the proof of that standing must refer to the period of performance of the contract. It would not be reasonable to require economic and financial standing only at the time of award of the contract and for the contracting authority not to have the right to request guarantees that the future successful contractor will retain its economic and financial standing during the period of performance of the contract” (para 44 emphasis added).

Furthermore, after creating an analogy with the case law concerned with reliance on third party capacities, he gave significant weight to the functional criterion that “[w]hen financial or economic resources are concerned, it is reasonable that these should not be ephemeral but should last until the contractual obligations have been performed” (para 48). In any case, AG Campos explicitly saved the requirement due to the fact that the value (EUR 3,000,000) “was related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract” and that the duration of the financial guarantee “was the same as the period of performance of the contract” (para 50). However, he did not provide any reasons for the finding that a 12% financial guarantee is proportionate (the estimated value of the contract was just above EUR 25,000,000), or why a duration of 48 moths without a reduction in the value of the guarantee did not need to be assessed in relation to the potential evolution (ie reduction) of risk as the completion of the contract progressed.

In my view, even if the outcome of the analysis may be seen as defensible (of which I am not convinced), the analysis itself is technically flawed. Put simply, the EU public procurement directives (both the 2004, as well as the 2014 generation) do not regulate the possibility for contracting authorities to demand financial guarantees from economic operators participating in tender procedures – neither tender/participation guarantees, nor performance/completion guarantees [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 326-7 & 425-6]. This not regulated as part of the assessment of the economic operator’s economic and financial standing for selection purposes – which is designed as an information-based screening process, not as a phase where the contracting authority can secure financial rights for itself –and this is also not related to the conditions for the performance of the contract. Moreover, a reinterpretation of the selection rules on economic and financial standing (but also on professional or technical standing) that made them forward looking would create significant distortions in the system created by EU public procurement law, as well as potentially make it impossible to assess.

In the absence of rules on financial guarantees in the relevant EU public procurement directives (ie Dir 2004/18), the analysis of requirements for economic operators to furnish them to the contracting authority should be analysed in accordance with primary EU law – as the Commission rightly stressed, although on the basis of the applicability of Art 26 Dir 2004/18, with which I disagree. In that context, the AG (and in the immediate future, the ECJ) should have assessed whether the requirement of providing a 12% financial guarantee for a duration of 48 months is a barrier to free movement – which I think it is – and whether it can be justified – which I am not sure it can be, as both (i) the public interest in reducing the financial exposure of contracting authorities engaging in public contracts is questionable, and (ii) it may well be (strictly) disproportionate due to the impact it can have on SME access to procurement.

Therefore, the analysis of proportionality need not be intra-tender or confined to the terms of the contract (which could already make it fail), but rather of a higher level of generality, concerning the policy of demanding financial guarantees and its justification from a public interest perspective. Given its detrimental effects for competition, I would not think that demanding these guarantees is necessarily exemptable under free movement rules, at least in relation with contracts that do not raise specific or extraordinary risks.

From that perspective, the proportionality assessment carried out by AG Campos in INGSTEEL and Metrostav almost obiter may not necessarily cover all bases, as it is carried out from the perspective of the link of the requirement to the subject matter of the contract, rather than the perspective of seeking to justify a restriction of a fundamental internal market freedom. But, even if the same result was to be achieved, the analytical path would still be important—ie the limited scope of the exercise of assessing economic operators’ economic and financial standing should not be unduly extended.

This can have major relevance, not least because of the change that the consolidation of the principle of competition in Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24 has brought about. In the future (ie, where Dir 2014/24 is applicable to the case), in my opinion, the inclusion of requirements to provide financial guarantees should be subjected to assessment from the perspective of a potential artificial narrowing of competition. If, in a case such as INGSTEEL and Metrostav, the contracting authority excludes a tenderer on the basis of some (seemingly) formal deviation of the way in which it proposes to provide financial assurance to the contracting authority, this is bound to infringe the requirements of the competition principle. Surely, this analysis could be carried out even if the requirement was considered to pertain to the assessment of the economic operator’s economic and financial standing, but the consolidated recognition of the contracting authorities’ discretion to set those requirements in the first place may muddy the analysis. It seems conceptually preferable to consider it an independent issue, and thus subject to general principles.

Therefore, I would urge the ECJ not to follow AG Campos’ Opinion in INGSTEEL and Metrostav and rather determine that the requirement of financial guarantees was not covered by the 2004 EU public procurement rules and must thus be subjected to a standard assessment under primary EU law (and a strict proportionality test). I would also submit that, under those rules, the requirement was contrary to EU law.

Separate operational units within a contracting authority and the scope of Directive 2014/24

One of the reforms of EU public procurement rules in 2014 that may well have slipped under the radar concerns the treatment of procurement carried out by separate operational units within a contracting authority. For the purposes of calculating the estimated value of procurement to determine the applicability of the EU rules, Art 5(2) Dir 2014/24 now establishes that "Where a contracting authority is comprised of separate operational units, account shall be taken of the total estimated value for all the individual operational units. Notwithstanding [that] where a separate operational unit is independently responsible for its procurement or certain categories thereof, the values may be estimated at the level of the unit in question."

This seemingly simple rule raises an important number of issues and, most importantly, requires a determination of what is a "separate operational unit" for the purposes of Art 5(2) Dir 2014/24 and the associated anti-circumvention rule. These issues are the focus of the comparative report "Characteristics of Separate Operational Units – A Study on Aggregation Rules under Public Procurement Law", commissioned to Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen by the Swedish Competition Authority.  

The study includes a comparative overview that is interesting in itself and, of more practical relevance, it also formulates a test for the assessment of whether units within a contracting authority meet the requirements for being considered operationally separate and, thus, able to trigger a differentiated calculation of value thresholds triggering (or most likely, not) the application of EU public procurement rules in Dir 2014/24. The test is presented as follows:

"In order to facilitate the evaluation of a unit’s status, this study identifies six key elements which can be of importance when determining, whether the contract value can be estimated at the level of a separate unit or, whether all purchases of units within the same contracting authority should be aggregated: 

  1. The unit has a separate budget line which is managed by the unit itself and from which the procured items are paid from
  2. The unit runs the tender procedure independently
  3. Competence to make buying decisions and to conclude contracts on behalf of the contracting authority
  4. Is any other part of contracting authority interfering or affecting the contract between the unit and its contractor?
  5. Will other units of the same contracting authority purchase through the contract awarded by the unit?
  6. Obligation to purchase through centralized framework agreements or contracts"

I find the test (which is further detailed in the study) well thought-through and the only addition I would suggest would concern a dimension of supply-side analysis, mainly to assess whether the seemingly separate operational units are supplied by different suppliers / under different terms. That would allow for a final check to be added in order to capture situations where looking only at the demand side (ie at the units within a contracting authority) may mask issues concerning the bigger picture of the procurement/supply relationship between specific suppliers and the contracting authority as a whole.

The report is well worth reading, in particular in countries where the existence of separate operational units has been taken for granted in the past (such as in Spain). This is an area where future empirical research could usefully provide good insights on the way in which the creation of the new rule in Art 5(2) Dir 2014/24 may result in different levels of stringency in the application of EU public procurement rules at domestic level--depending on the extent to which Member States adapt the internal organisation of their contracting authorities to maximise, minimise (or ignore) the new possibilities.

Cross-border joint public procurement: some reflections on the puzzling Art 39(2) Dir 2014/24

I gave a seminar on "The emergence of trans-EU public law: public procurement as a case study" yesterday at UEA Law School. My presentation (below) was largely based on this earlier paper of mine, where I discuss the new rules on centralised, joint and cross-border procurement in Directive 2014/24/EU (Arts 37-39). It also aimed to go beyond the technical aspects of the paper in exploring how these new mechanisms of cross-border cooperation between public buyers can help us identify the emergence of trans-EU public law, either of a substantive or 'conflict of laws' type.

The discussion eventually turned on Art 39(1)II Dir 2014/24, which states: "Contracting authorities shall not use the means provided in this Article [ie mechanisms of cross-border collaborative procurement] for the purpose of avoiding the application of mandatory public law provisions in conformity with Union law to which they are subject in their Member State."

This can be seen as an anti-circumvention clause aimed at ensuring that contracting authorities do not seek to disapply mandatory domestic rules by 'escaping' their jurisdiction through international collaboration--and, consequently, as a rule aimed at preserving the competential split between Member States and the EU in an area that arguably exceeds the procurement remit and goes to the core of the principle of national procedural and organisational autonomy.

However, participants in the seminar raised the point that it can also be seen as a 'Trojan horse' indicating further legal integration (and further regulation of these mechanisms in a future 6th iteration or generation of EU public procurement Directives) through the test of 'EU compatibility' of domestic mandatory public law provisions. I find this a very interesting thought, which is worth exploring in more depth. For now, I can only offer a few initial reflections.

From that perspective of 'EU law tests creeping into mandatory domestic public law requirements', and taking the example of free movement of goods, the question would be whether Art 39(1)II Dir 2014/24 does no more than recreate the mechanism of Art 36 TFEU--ie bring to the area of public procurement a 'public policy' (+ proportionality) test that mandatory public law requirements need to meet in order to justify the restriction on free movement that derives from preventing contracting authorities from resorting to enabling provisions for collaborative cross-border procurement. Or, on the contrary, whether it creates a separate test of 'EU law compatibility' that can actually go beyond what could be defended by Member States from a free movement of goods perspective by forcing an interpretation based on the effet utile of the rules in Dir 2014/24 itself--which would, almost by definition, result in more limited scope for absolute restrictions on the possibility to engage in collaborative cross-border joint procurement.

Either way, and having in mind recent cases on 'public policy' justifications for restrictions on free movement of goods, such as the DocMorris 2 case, it seems plausible that Art 39(1)II Dir 2014/24 may effectively be used in the future to demolish traditional public law requirements applicable to public procurement (such as subjection to domestic public contract law, language requirements, etc) on the basis that they disproportionately (or absolutely) restrict the possibility to engage in collaborative cross-border procurement.

For the purposes of the emergence of trans-EU public law, this would be a clear lever for the transformation of Member States' domestic public law requirements applicable to procurement activities, not least because internal market-type analysis would start being applied to public purchasing arrangements and their regulation in a different and possibly more stringent fashion.

So this is an area where I plan to keep an eye in the future and where I would appreciate input concerning any cases that may be developing at domestic level in the Member States. Either now or in the future.

UK issues guidance on social and environmental aspects of procurement, but it is not very useful

The UK's Crown Commercial Service has issued Guidance on social and environmental aspects of public procurement carried out under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (see full commentary here), which transposed Directive 2014/24/EU into UK law. The Guidance on S&E aspects includes an overview of the use of procurement to further environmental and social considerations, stresses key points to consider, offers a list of measures that a contracting authority can implement in order to ensure compliance with environmental and social aspects (although it boils down to making sure that it obtains the right information from the contractor), has a list of FAQs and includes suggested contract clauses in its appendix B.

Overall, though, the Guidance on S&E aspects does not go much beyond the text of the relevant rules and, when it provides specific examples, it does not work out the limits derived from general principles of procurement and, most importantly, the requirement for a link to the subject matter of the contract and the implicit proportionality analysis [on that, see A Semple, 'The Link to the Subject-Matter: A Glass Ceiling for Sustainable Public Contracts?']. Thus, in my opinion, the Guidance on S&E aspects is bound to not to be of much practical assistance to contracting authorities.

In uncontroversial terms, the Guidance on S&E aspects stresses that the new Directives "have clarified that contracting authorities may consider incorporating social, ethical and environmental aspects into specifications, contract conditions and award criteria. In addition specific rules have been included for handling abnormally low tenders, and on the exclusion of suppliers who have violated certain social, labour and environmental laws." It also stresses the new light touch regime for social and special services (on which it has also published guidance), as well as the possibility to reserve contracts for sheltered workshops as tools for the inclusion of social aspects in procurement. 

It then goes on to list the rules it considers relevant for the design of social or environmentally-oriented public tenders and goes on to discuss the flexibility they create, including all stages of the procurement process. It includes some useful guidance on the context within which checks of compliance with labour standards need to be carried out by indicating that "It is the law of the country where the work or services are taking place that is relevant. If services are provided at a distance, for example call centres, then it is where the call centre is located and the employees’ work that is key rather than the country to which the services are directed. Consequently a tenderer may only be excluded from a tender for non-compliance with labour law if that labour law is the law of the EU Member State in which the employees are working". This is correct and in line with the recent case law of the ECJ in Bundesdruckerei and in RegioPost. However, it does not provide guidance on the next step of practical difficulty, which concerns the ways in which a UK-based contracting authority can (or not) check compliance with, for example, Spanish employment law and labour standards. 

Moreover, in key aspects such as the use of labels, the use of award criteria, the requirements linked to fair trade certification or life cycle costing methodologies, the Guidance on S&E aspects simply summarises the rules in the PCR2015 and Dir 2014/24, and offers very generic or too open-ended examples. 

For example, it indicates that "Fair trade requirements related to the contract subject matter may be included as a contract award criterion, including the requirement to pay a minimum price and price premium to producers, provided they meet the principles [of proportionality, non-discrimination and transparency]". Or that "Award criteria may include environmental and / or social aspects that relate to any respect and any stage of a life-cycle of the requirements as long as they relate to the subject matter of the contract, namely the works, supplies or services provided under the contract. For example, requesting confirmation that the production of an item did not include toxic materials, or services were and are performed using energy efficient machines, resource efficiency and waste minimization".

This limited level of detail in the examples does not provide very effective guidance. Some of these issues could have been addressed at the level of setting technical specifications and the Guidance on S&E aspects does not include any suggestion of how should contracting authorities decide to go down one or the other route. It could, for example, have stressed that the use as technical specifications (particularly if linked to labels) will imply a pass/no pass assessment, whereas the use as award criteria will allow for a more nuanced approach that allows the contracting authority to balance those considerations with other aspects of the offer (and, very clearly, its price). Moreover, both examples given in terms of life-cycle requirements could be challenged on grounds of proportionality and/or lack of specificity. Thus, the Guidance on S&E aspects may end up creating more uncertainties than intended.

The Guidance on S&E aspects is also confusing because it further indicates that contracting authorities "could, for example, include Fair Trade requirements as contract performance conditions where they are linked to the subject matter of the contract. (See [above] for more details on how fair trade, can be taken into account at an earlier stages)". Reading all this together makes one wonder what additional fair trade requirements could be included as contract compliance requirements that were not already either product specifications (either via labels or as self-standing requirements) or award criteria. They would seem to be linked to employment or labour standards during the execution of the contract, but then this is not necessarily consistent with the part of the guidance mentioned above that clearly stresses that an analysis of those issues is dependent on the jurisdiction where the work is being performed. It also does not address whether this is dependent on that jurisdiction being in the EU, a country covered by the WTO GPA, or otherwise. This does not contribute in any meaningful way to reduce the uncertainties in this area.

It is also worth stressing that the Guidance on S&E aspects also contain some controversial issues regarding the inclusion of social considerations in procurement. That is the case of the reference to the additional guidance on Steel procurement in major projects, which I do not necessarily consider as leading to practices 100% compatible with EU law (see also Pedro Telles' criticism here). The stress put in that additional Steel guidance on issues such as transportation costs and effects on employment and health and safety can clearly be interpreted and used as measures equivalent to non-tariff barriers to trade (in steel), which were coincidentally adopted at the time when the British steel industry was under great international pressure due to its loss of competitiveness. The significant drop in the value of the British pound that has followed Brexit may now have made this redundant, but the fact remains that the (soft) Buy British Steel policy created by that additional guidance had clear protectionist elements.

Further, there are "clarifications" that can lead to the creation of the wrong incentives for tenderers. A case in point is the answer to the following question: "Why is it mandatory to reject an abnormally low tender when it has been proved that costs are low because the tenderer has not complied with environmental, social or labour laws (regulation 69(5)), but only optional to decide not to award a contract when it is proved that the tender does not comply with environmental, social and labour laws (regulation 56(2))?". This is actually a legitimate concern and, in my view, indicates that jurisdictions that want to be serious about smart or sustainable procurement should have made the discretionary exclusion ground mandatory for contracting authorities, as Directive 2014/24 permits. What I find puzzling is CCS' answer to this question in the Guidance on S&E aspects, where it indicates that:

These two are similar in that they both breach the requirement to comply with the applicable environmental, social and labour laws, however, the difference lies in the effects of this non-observance: normal pricing in one case and abnormally low in the other (sic). Tenders that are abnormally low because they are not observing environmental, social and labour laws can lead to ‘social dumping’ and therefore they must be rejected. Where the pricing is normal, the risk of ‘social dumping’ is reduced and the contracting authority has the option to award the contract if it considers the non-compliance is tolerable, or if it works with the supplier to ensure compliance going forward (sic). The UK Government’s policy is that contracting authorities must take appropriate measures to ensure compliance throughout the procurement process. Contracting authorities have flexibility to determine those measures on a case-by-case basis. CCS strongly recommends that when contracting authorities are exercising their option whether or not to award a contract to a tenderer that does not comply with environmental, social and labour laws, that the contracting authority takes note of overarching procurement policy and statutory requirements and carefully considers the potential damage to the environment and society before accepting such a contract (footnotes omitted and emphasis added).  

I find at least two aspects of this answer problematic. First, I do not understand the link that CCS creates between non-compliance and 'normal'/abnormal pricing. If the company infringing labour, social or environmental standards has the right information (and transparency in procurement will generally facilitate that), it will be able to engage in limit pricing so as to avoid an investigation of abnormality of its tender while still undercutting compliant companies. By not rejecting tenders that appear to have 'normal' prices where there is evidence of infringement of the relevant rules, the contracting authority is actually encouraging this doubly-damaging behaviour of legal non-compliance and artificial creation of financial margins to cover for the effects of non-compliance (and/or to extract additional rents derived from non-compliance). Thus, this does not seem to me to make any economic sense.

Second, because the contracting authority cannot "work with the supplier to ensure compliance going forward", or at least not in all cases, because this would potentially imply substantive modifications of the tender and the contract, which can fall foul of a number of additional requirements in the PCR2015 and Dir 2014/24/EU, not least the principle of transparency and equal treatment. Overall, then, I think that the Guidance on S&E aspects offers a wrong and dangerous answer to this question and I would rather see it modified to ensure that contracting authorities do not create perverse financial incentives and do not breach basic procurement guarantees, even if they are acting on the good intention of promoting compliance with otherwise breached social, labour and environmental standards.

Finally, it is worth focusing on the suggested contract clauses for social and environmental issues included in Appendix B. There are clauses concerned with sub-contracting, but those create the same shortcomings as the general clauses, so it is worth focusing on the clause  giving the Authority the right to terminate if the Contractor fails to comply with social, environmental or labour law obligations. It has two options:

Option 1 (free-standing) The Authority may terminate this Agreement [with x months’ notice] if the Contractor fails to comply in the performance of the Services with legal obligations in the fields of environmental, social or labour law.
Option 2 (where there is a defined Supplier Termination Event giving the Authority the right to terminate) Add to definition of Supplier Termination Event - (..) a failure by the Supplier to comply in the performance of the Services with legal obligations in the fields of environmental, social or labour law.
NOTE: in either case the consequences of termination must be considered in the light of the other provisions in the contract.

I find these suggested contract clauses of very limited use. First, because they fail to determine which obligations in the fields of environmental, social or labour law are those that can trigger termination, as well as which evidence of infringement will be required. Second, because it is not clear whether the breaches refer to the execution of the specific contract (in which case there is a closer link to the subject matter) or the general activities of the contractor (in which case there could be issues around the proportionality of the requirement, in particular if the "legal obligations in the fields of environmental, social or labour law" are some that could not have been included in the contract as specific contract compliance requirements, for example). And third because there is no attempt to establish links to other necessary mechanisms to give effectiveness to these clauses, such as information obligations or potential certification by third parties.

Overall, I find the Guidance on S&E aspects rather poor and I would think that contracting authorities will be better off by relying on the European Commission's guidance on buying green and buying social which, despite its own shortcomings and need for an updated in the case of social aspects, have a more practical orientation.

CJEU opens door to manipulation of evaluations and fails to provide useful guidance on the use of 'soft quality metrics' in the award of public contracts (C-6/15)

In its Judgment of 14 July 2016 in TNS Dimarso, C-6/15, EU:C:2016:555, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued some important clarifications on the requirements applicable to the disclosure of evaluation methods under the EU public procurement rules. However, it also turned down the opportunity of clarifying what are the limits of the discretion that contracting authorities enjoy when deciding which evaluation methods to use and, more importantly, it failed to address the important and quite specific concerns about the use of 'soft quality metrics' that AG Mengozzi had raised in his Opinion in this case (as discussed here, where background to the case is offered).

The case broadly raised two main legal issues. First, whether in addition to the disclosure of the award criteria and their weighting (as required by Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18 and now Art 67(5) Dir 2014/24), contracting authorities must also disclose in the tender documentation, or at some point prior to the review of the offers, the evaluation methods they plan to use in the assessment of the tenders. Second, whether having disclosed a numerical weighting applicable to the quality and price criteria (50/100 each), the contracting authority was right to assess the quality criterion in accordance with a soft qualitative ‘high — satisfactory — low’ scale, not referred to in the contract documents.

no obligation to disclose (or indeed establish) evaluation rules prior to the review of the tenders

Regarding the first issue, after reiterating its case law on the purpose of the rules on disclosure of award criteria and their weighting, and stressing their relevance in ensuring equality of treatment between tenderers both when they formulate their tenders and when those tenders are being assessed by the contracting authority (para 22), the CJEU adopted a position that I find surprising. The CJEU stressed that

it is possible for a contracting authority to determine, after expiry of the time limit for submitting tenders, weighting factors for the sub-criteria which correspond in essence to the criteria previously brought to the tenderers’ attention, provided that three conditions are met, namely that that subsequent determination, first, does not alter the criteria for the award of the contract set out in the tender specifications or contract notice; secondly, does not contain elements which, if they had been known at the time the tenders were prepared, could have affected their preparation; and, thirdly, was not adopted on the basis of matters likely to give rise to discrimination against one of the tenderers (see judgment of 21 July 2011 in Evropaïki Dynamiki v EMSA, C‑252/10 P, not published, EU:C:2011:512, paragraph 33 and the case-law cited) (C-6/15, para 26). 

However, it did not apply this reasoning by analogy to evaluation methods as could have been expected. On the contrary, the CJEU adopted a very lenient approach and, after confirming that neither the rules in the Directive nor the previous case law referred to an obligation to disclose evaluation methods, it went on to establish that

29 ... an evaluation committee must be able to have some leeway in carrying out its task and, thus, it may, without amending the contract award criteria set out in the tender specifications or the contract notice, structure its own work of examining and analysing the submitted tenders (see judgment of 21 July 2011 in Evropaïki Dynamiki v EMSA, C‑252/10 P, not published, EU:C:2011:512, paragraph 35).
30 That leeway is also justified by practical considerations. The contracting authority must be able to adapt the method of evaluation that it will apply in order to assess and rank the tenders in accordance with the circumstances of the case.
31 In accordance with the principles governing the award of contracts provided for in Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 and in order to avoid any risk of favouritism, the method of evaluation applied by the contracting authority in order to specifically evaluate and rank the tenders cannot, in principle, be determined after the opening of the tenders by the contracting authority. However, in the event that the determination of that method is not possible for demonstrable reasons before the opening of the tenders, as noted by the Belgian Government, the contracting authority cannot be criticised for having established it only after that authority, or its evaluation committee, reviewed the content of the tenders.
32 In any event, pursuant to the principles governing the award of contracts ... the determination by the contracting authority of the method of evaluation after the publication of the contract notice or the tender specifications cannot have the effect of altering the award criteria or their relative weighting (C-6/15, paras 29-32, emphasis added). 

The reasoning of the CJEU raises two surprising issues, in my view. First, the CJEU seems to conflate the need for the contracting authority to establish an evaluation method that is adapted to the particularities of a given tender (which seems correct, para 30) with the need for the contracting authority to be able to do that at any time (which seems incorrect, para 31). Accepting that the contracting authority can design ad hoc evaluation methods for each of the contracts it tenders does not imply that it can leave this important aspect of the evaluation process for a late stage. Logically, it would seem that setting the award criteria, their weighting and establishing the rules according to which they will be evaluated are different aspects of one same decision: how will the tenders be evaluated so that the contracting authority can decide which one is the most economically advantageous?

It does not seem diligent for the contracting authority to set out the award criteria and their weighting without having determined the way these will be applied in the evaluation. It also seems to create unnecessary uncertainty to tenderers. This is very clear in relation to the use of automatic formulae in electronic auctions, which need to be disclosed to the tenderers prior to their use (Art 54(5) Dir 2004/18 and Art 35(6) Dir 2014/24).  There does not seem to be a good reason for these considerations not to apply to the use of evaluation methods and to require that the contracting authority is diligent in setting them up in a timely manner (ie when it is setting out the award criteria and their weighting).

Second, and more surprisingly, the CJEU fails to extend to the evaluation method the most obvious and minimal guarantee to avoid (impossible to prove) discrimination, ie determining the illegality of establishing (evaluation) criteria relevant for the assessment of the tenders after the evaluation committee has reviewed them (para 31). Before anything else, it must be noted that the CJEU accepts that 'the method of evaluation applied by the contracting authority in order to specifically evaluate and rank the tenders cannot, in principle, be determined after the opening of the tenders by the contracting authority'. The reasoning should not have been as a matter of principle, but as a point of absolute requirement.

However, it is not clear why the CJEU concedes that 'in the event that the determination of that method is not possible for demonstrable reasons before the opening of the tenders, as noted by the Belgian Government, the contracting authority cannot be criticised for having established it only after that authority, or its evaluation committee, reviewed the content of the tenders'. There is no indication whatsoever in the Judgment of which reasons may have been adduced by the Belgian Government to try to justify the impossibility of establishing the evaluation method before having reviewed the tenders. This is amazing because it makes it impossible to understand where the threshold of impossibility lies and, more importantly, because there do not seem to be any good reasons to accept that a diligent evaluation committee can be allowed to decide on the evaluation method after it has already seen the content of the tenders. Whether this is done in a presential meeting or remotely, there is no justification for the assessors not to agree on the evaluation rules first (and document them), and then proceed to the evaluation. In my view, the CJEU has neglected the need to ensure the right to good administration and, in particular, the need to ensure the most basic guarantees that tenderers are treated impartially and fairly, and that relevant matters are dealt with in a timely fashion (as required by Article 41(1) Charted of Fundamental Rights).

The final protection that the CJEU tries to (re)establish in the case by stressing that 'the determination by the contracting authority of the method of evaluation after the publication of the contract notice or the tender specifications cannot have the effect of altering the award criteria or their relative weighting' is inane and insufficient because the possibility of establishing and playing with evaluation rules after having seen the content of the tenders leaves way too much scope to coming up with rules that allow for an ex post rationalisation of the choice of a given winning in tender without necessarily violating the pre-disclosed information on the applicable award criteria and weightings. This deserves stern criticism.

the use of 'soft quality metrics' in the evaluation of tenders

Moving on to the second issue concerning the use of 'soft quality metrics', such as the ‘high — satisfactory — low’ scale in the case at issue, in my opinion, the CJEU also carried out a defective analysis. The shortcomings of the analysis derive from the fact that the CJEU uses the answer to this second aspect to try to compensate for the weakness of its answer to the first question. Indeed, the CJEU premises the analysis of the use of the 'soft quality metrics' on the assessment of whether their use altered the applicable award criteria and their relative weighting. The reasoning of the CJEU is as follows:

35 It appears that that procedure did not make it possible to reflect, when ranking the tenderers in order to identify the most economically advantageous tender, differences in the quality of their tenders relative to their price, while taking account of the relative weighting of the award criteria resulting from the indication ‘(50/100)’. In particular, it appears that that procedure was capable of affecting the price criterion by giving it decisive weight relative to the tenders ranked in the [‘high — satisfactory — low’] scale of quality ... It is for the referring court to ascertain whether the relative weighting of each of the award criteria published in the contract notice was in fact complied with by the contracting authority during the evaluation of the tenders.
36 While the contracting authority may use a scale for the evaluation of one of the award criteria without it being published in the call for tenders or the tender specifications, that scale may not, however ... have the effect of altering the relative weighting of the award criteria published in those documents (C-6/15, paras 35-36, emphasis added). 

I find this problematic because it does not address the core problem of using 'soft quality metrics' at all. Should they have been disclosed to tenderers or, more importantly, should they have been published in the tender documentation together with an explanation of why specific weightings could not be established, the use of this scale would be unobjectionable under the TNS Dimarso test, while still allowing for very subjective and difficult to objectively verify comparisons of the tenders. This leaves the question of which evaluation rules are compatible with the two main requirements in the evaluation of tenders--ie that the award rules, not only the award criteria themselves and their weighting, have to '(i) to be linked to the subject matter of the contract (ie, to be ‘relevant’), and (ii) to allow the contracting authority actually to determine which tender is economically the most advantageous (ie, to be ‘enabling’)' [A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 380]. By failing to clarify that 'soft quality metrics' are not enabling and do not provide sufficient objectivity to the evaluation process so as to make sure that the contracting authority does not overstep the limits of its discretion, in my view, the CJEU has left too much space for manipulation in the assessment of tenders.

This is something I had criticised [A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 388], even if in relation to the award criteria (but the arguments apply equally to evaluation rules meant to assess them] considering the following:

Restrictions Derived from the Inclusion of Non-Quantifiable or Subjective Award Criteria, and the Ensuing Need to Objectify Treatment of Qualitative Criteria. Another way in which the selection and weighting of award criteria could give rise to distortions of competition—and, probably, to discrimination amongst tenderers—would be through the introduction of non-quantifiable criteria, or essentially qualitative or subjective criteria that significantly diminished the possibilities of an overall objective appraisal of the tenders or conferred on contracting authorities unrestricted freedom of choice amongst tenderers. In this regard, even if article 67(2)(a) of Directive 2014/24 allows for the taking into consideration of this type of criterion—referring, in general terms, to criteria such as ‘technical merit’ or ‘aesthetic characteristics’—the requirements of relevance and enabling character of the award criteria (see above, this section), as well as the need to avoid conferring on contracting authorities unrestricted freedom of choice and to ensure that the award criteria make provision for an objective assessment of tenderers, should be taken into particular consideration and constrain the decisions adopted by the public buyer.[1]
As regards the requirement of relevance of such qualitative award criteria, it should be stressed that the circumstances under which considerations such as aesthetic characteristics or technical merit will be relevant and material to the subject-matter of the contract are relatively limited (at least if they are unrelated to performance or functional requirements, which are quantifiable and, hence, do not generate significant difficulties). Moreover, it is submitted that they will generally be associated with tenders that should be ruled by the requirements applicable to design contests—which are specifically regulated and set special rules in this respect (see arts 78 to 82 of dir 2014/24),[2] particularly aimed at ensuring the objectivity and independence of the members of the committee entrusted with the evaluation of qualitative or subjective elements of the proposals. Consequently, aesthetic characteristics or technical merit might be assigned very limited relevance in other types of tendering procedures. The substantial irrelevance of such qualitative or non-quantifiable aspects will, then, require only limited consideration in the majority of the cases, if at all.
Moreover, in order to ensure transparency and impartiality, contracting authorities should (as far as possible) set objective or quantifiable proxies to measure primarily subjective or qualitative characteristics of the tenders; or, at least, set up mechanisms (possibly based on the rules regarding design contests) to ensure an impartial appraisal of subjective or qualitative dimensions of the tenders. If such quantification, or ‘proximisation’ or approximation, is possible, the possibilities for discrimination or distortion of competition will be smaller. Consequently, the adoption of this requirement seems desirable whenever its implementation is feasible.
Therefore, a restrictive approach towards the permissibility of the use of these criteria as the basis for the award of contracts—again, in cases other than design contests—seems appropriate. Consequently, this type of consideration should remain as a secondary criterion, or as a rather marginal complement, to objective and easily quantifiable criteria used to determine the award of the contract to the most economically advantageous tender. Along these lines, and attending to the subject-matter of the contract, contracting authorities should give proper weighting to qualitative or subjective criteria (even if ‘quantified’)—which, in our opinion, should be rather limited and marginal in most instances.
To sum up, it is submitted that contracting authorities are bound to ensure the objective and transparent assessment of tenders, particularly by i) avoiding undue recourse to qualitative or non-quantifiable (subjective) award criteria in procedures other than design contests, and ii) assigning them a proper (limited) weighting; and, in general, they are under a duty to exercise self-restraint in their decisions regarding such criteria, particularly when failure to do so could result in their exercise of unrestricted freedom of choice amongst tenderers and/or generate distortions of competition or discrimination of tenderers.
[1] See: S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement. Regulation in the EU and the UK, Vol. 1, 3rd edn (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2014) 766–71.
[2] See S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement, 2nd edn (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2005) 829–39;  PA Trepte, Public Procurement in the EU: A Practitioner’s Guide, 2nd edn (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007) 232–4; and C Bovis, EC Public Procurement: Case Law and Regulation (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006) 248–51.

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.

UK High Court soon to rule on conflicts of interest under reg.24 PCR2015 (Art 24 Dir 2014/24) (Counted4 CIC v Sunderland City Council)

In its Judgment of 18 December 2015 in Counted4 Community Interest Company v Sunderland City Council [2015] EWHC 3898 (TCC) [*], Justice Carr decided the first request for the lift of the automatic suspension under regs. 95 and 96 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (PCR2015) and decided to keep the suspension of the award until trial--thus departing from the general trend of lifts before the UK Courts. This aspect of the Judgment has been discussed abundantly (for example, see here), and whether it will actually reverse the generous approach of the UK courts to lifting the automatic Alcatel suspension remains unclear.

However, there is a second aspect of the case that I find more interesting. The case concerns the procurement of a services contract for substance misuse treatment and harm reduction services for substance users in Sunderland. Counted4 CIC is the incumbent supplier and has initially lost in its bid to renew the contract to Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW), which was the immediate previous provider before Counted4 CIC.

The primary claim of Counted4 CIC in its challenge of Sunderland CC 's decision to award the services contract to NTW is based on the alleged existence of a conflict of interest affecting one of the members of the evaluation team. In particular, Counted4 CIC challenges the participation of the person responsible for the administration of the current contract [Mr. S] in the evaluation of the new bids. The challenge is not made in abstracto, but based on the existence of a strained relationship between Counted4 CIC and the contract administrator [Mr. S], of which there seems to be sufficient (indiciary) proof on the file.

What I find interesting is the way in which Carr J frames the issue in the following terms:

[31] I am quite satisfied there is a serious issue to be tried on the conflict allegation. Regulation 24 is relatively new and there is no relevant authority on it to date. It provides :
"Conflicts of interest
24. (1) Contracting authorities shall take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising in the conduct of procurement procedures so as to avoid any distortion of competition and to ensure equal treatment of all economic operators.
(2) For the purposes of paragraph (1), the concept of conflicts of interest shall at least cover any situation where relevant staff members have, directly or indirectly, a financial, economic or other personal interest which might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of the procurement procedure."
[32] In my judgment, it is properly arguable that the Defendant failed effectively to prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest in allowing [Mr. S] to be on the evaluation panel. "Other personal interest" can be directly or indirectly held. The phrase is very broad on its face and is clearly intended to add to the other conflicts identified, namely financial and economic. The Defendant submits that it is designed primarily at financial interest. That cannot be said to be certainly the case. The Claimant's case that "other personal interest" means anything pertaining to the relevant individual is arguable. It is arguable that [Mr. S]'s personal interest in protecting his professional reputation and/or role at the Defendant by awarding a new contract to someone other than the Claimant might be perceived to compromise [Mr. S]'s impartiality and independence. The issues with [Mr. S] appear to have been grave. [Mr. D, the Claimant's Chief Executive] states the difficulties were beyond normal managerial issues. [Mr. S] often became emotional. It is said that his failings were recognised. It is also now apparent that the Claimant's complaints about [Mr. S] led to an internal investigation into [Mr. S]'s performance, though the results of that investigation have not hitherto been disclosed by the Defendant.

This will probably be the first time in which Article 24 of Directive 2014/24, as transposed in reg.24 PCR2015 is interpreted in the European Union as a whole. Without disagreeing with this approach in principle, I think that the broad terms in which Carr J foresees a possible interpretation of the provision may not necessarily be the most straightforward (ie 'other personal interests' could relate to family, sentimental or equivalent situations, rather than professional concerns)--or, at least, it seems obvious that there will certainly be opposing views and an interest in adopting a narrow interpretation of the provision. Consequently, a referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union for a preliminary interpretation may well be warranted (if not on on this first instance, certainly on appeal).

Additionally, given that the case concerns procurement 'at the edges' of NHS procurement activity, it will be interesting to compare the decision in Counted4 Community Interest Company v Sunderland City Council in this judicial setting, with that recently adopted by the sector regulator Monitor in a recent case involving allegations of conflict of interest against members of the evaluation team; see its Investigation into New Devon CCG’s commissioning of community services for adults with complex care needs in eastern Devon: final report [Case CCD01/15, decided on 26 August 2015]. This is something that we will do at this event organised at the University of Bristol Law School on 23 June 2016, so do come along if you are interested on these issues (registration is free).

[*] I am grateful to P Somalis for bringing this case to my attention.

Collaborative Cross-Border Procurement in the EU: Future or Utopia?

I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN, which I will be presenting at the workshop on ‘Collaborative Efficiency in Government: The Trend, The Implications’ during the forthcoming ECPR Joint Sessions, Scuola Superior Sant’Anna and University of Pisa, 24-28 April 2016. 

The paper is entitled 'Collaborative Cross-Border Procurement in the EU: Future or Utopia?' and, in short, tries to conceptualise and look critically at the immensely complex legal issues that Directive 2014/24 has left unresolved. In order to conceptualise the political, economic and legal issues, I use a theoretical scenario that looks like this (so maybe it needs to be read with pen and paper, apologies!):



As the abstract explains in more detail:
Collaborative public procurement has been gaining traction in recent years and could be considered at the spearhead of public procurement reform and innovation. The 2014 reform of the EU public procurement rules (mainly Directive 2014/24) has expanded the tool-kit available to contracting authorities willing to engage in joint or centralised procurement activities, and in particularly in cross-border procurement collaboration. In a push forward, and as part of the Strategy for a deeper and fairer single market in its larger context, the European Commission is developing a policy to facilitate and promote cross-border collaborative public procurement in the European Union.

This paper adopts a sceptical approach and critically assesses the political, economic and in particular legal factors that can facilitate or block such development. To do so, it focuses on a case study based on a theoretical scenario of cross-border collaboration between centralised purchasing bodies in different EU Member States. The paper ultimately aims to establish a blueprint for future legal research in this area, in particular regarding the emergence of trans-EU public law.
This is an area where much more thoughtful legal research is needed, and I intend to do so in a paper I am just starting on the 'The emergence of trans-EU public law. Public procurement as a case study'. For now, though, the exploratory paper is out and comments would be most welcome!

The full paper is available: A Sanchez-Graells, Collaborative Cross-Border Procurement in the EU: Future or Utopia? (February 18, 2016). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2734123.

Restrictions on subcontracting under EU public procurement rules: à-propos the Opinion of AG Sharpston (C-406/14)

(c) Gregory Fox
In her Opinion of 17 November 2015 in Wrocław - Miasto na prawach powiatu, C-406/14, EU:C:2015:761, Advocate General Sharpston assessed to what extent contracting authorities tendering contracts under the EU public procurement rules can limit the percentage of the contract that the winning tenderer can subcontract to third parties. The Judgment in this case will be important because it addresses an area of EU public procurement law bound to be of growing relevance, particularly if Member States develop the supply-chain related tools that Directive 2014/24 has created in Art 71 (see here). It will also be important because it technically deviates from previous cases on reliance on third party capacities (comments here).

In the case at hand, the contracting authority imposed a requirement whereby '[t]he economic operator is required to perform at least 25% of the works covered by the contract using its own resources'. In her Opinion, AG Sharpston proposes that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) declares that such requirement runs contrary to EU public procurement law--ie that Directive 2004/18 on public procurement precluded a contracting authority from stipulating in the tender specifications of a public works contract that the successful tenderer is required to perform part of the works covered by that contract, specified in abstract terms as a percentage (in that case, 25%), using its own resources.

Given that the specific circumstances of the case did not allow for an assessment of the subcontracting requirement at the stage of qualitative selection (which was the approach followed by previous case law, see paras 36-37), AG Sharpston's analysis rests heavily on Art 25 of Directive 2004/18, according to which
In the contract documents, the contracting authority may ask ... the tenderer to indicate in his tender any share of the contract he may intend to subcontract to third parties and any proposed subcontractors. This indication shall be without prejudice to the question of the principal economic operator's liability.
The reasoning of AG Sharpston would apply equally to Directive 2014/24, which Art  71 reiterates the same rules in paras 2 and 4. In that regard, it is interesting to stress how, in AG Sharpston's view,
30 Directive 2004/18 is designed not only to avoid obstacles to freedom to provide services in the award of public service contracts or public works contracts but also to guarantee the opening-up of public procurement to competition. Recital 32 in the preamble to that directive states that the possibility of subcontracting is liable to encourage small and medium-sized undertakings to get involved in the public contracts procurement market. Subcontracting enables such undertakings to participate in tendering procedures and to be awarded public contracts regardless of the size of those contracts. Subcontracting thus contributes to achieving the directive’s objectives by increasing the number of potential candidates for the award of public contracts.
31. Accordingly, Article 25 of Directive 2004/18 not only envisages that a tenderer may subcontract part of the contract but also sets no limit in that regard. Indeed, Directive 2004/18 confirms explicitly that an economic operator may, where appropriate and for a particular contract, rely on the economic, financial, technical and/or professional capacities of other entities, regardless of the legal nature of the links which it has with them. Consequently, a party may not be eliminated from a procedure for the award of a public service contract solely because it proposes, in order to carry out the contract, to use resources which are not its own but belong to one or more other entities. 
32. That said, contracting authorities do have a legitimate interest in ensuring that the contract will be effectively and properly carried out. Where an economic operator intends to rely on capacities of other economic operators in a tendering procedure, it must therefore establish that it actually will have at its disposal the resources of those operators which it does not itself own and whose participation is necessary to perform the contract. A tenderer claiming to have at its disposal the technical and economic capacities of third parties on which it intends to rely if it obtains the contract may be excluded by the contracting authority only if it fails to meet that requirement. 
33. The contracting authority may not always be in a position to verify the technical and economic capacities of the subcontractors when examining the tenders and selecting the lowest tenderer. The Court has held that in such cases Directive 2004/18 does not preclude a prohibition or a restriction on subcontracting the performance of essential parts of the contract. Such a prohibition or restriction is justified by the contracting authority’s legitimate interest in ensuring that the public contract will be effectively and properly carried out. Directive 2004/18 does not require a contracting authority to accept performance of essential parts of the public contract by entities whose capacities and qualities it has been unable to assess during the contract award procedure.
34. In my view, considering the essential role subcontracting plays in promoting the objectives of Directive 2004/18, no other prohibition or restriction is permissible. It is true that, in Swm Costruzioni 2 and Mannocchi Luigino, the Court considered that there may be works with special requirements necessitating a certain capacity which cannot be obtained by combining the capacities of more than one operator which individually would be unable to perform that work. In those specific circumstances, the Court has held that the contracting authority is justified in requiring that the minimum capacity level concerned be achieved by a single economic operator or, where appropriate, by relying on a limited number of economic operators ... as long as that requirement is related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract at issue. However, that is not a specific ground for prohibiting or restricting subcontracting as such. Nothing precludes that ‘single economic operator’ or ‘limited number of economic operators’ from being a subcontractor or subcontractors of the successful tenderer(s).
35. It follows that a stipulation such as that in issue in the main proceedings [ie that the economic operator is required to perform at least 25% of the works covered by the contract using its own resources] is clearly not consistent with Directive 2004/18 (Opinion in C-406/14, paras 30-35, references omitted and emphasis added).
In my view, this proposed interpretation should be generally welcome, not least because the imposition of this sort of requirements could neutralise the open-ended character of the qualitative selection phase through the back door. I developed some thoughts regarding subcontracting in Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 353-355, where I reached the complementary and compatible conclusion that 'contracting authorities should refrain from mandating or inducing subcontracting (in particular, by using the percentage of subcontracted work as an award criterion)'. A contrario, as AG Sharpston proposed, contracting authorities should also be prohibited from imposing a 'ceiling' on the amount of work to be subcontracted.


More generally, I would submit that contracting authorities generally do not have much to say about the distribution of works between a contractor and its subcontractors. They can insist on mechanisms that ensure proper expertise, actual availability of means, proper mechanisms of liability (of the prime contractor and any subcontractors). They can also implement measures to monitor the supply-chain, particularly as legal compliance is concerned (provided they have the expertise and resources to do so). However, they seem not to be in a good position to intervene in the market by choosing some productive structure (of minimum or maximum vertical integration) over others. 

Thus, the CJEU would do well in following AG Sharpston's advice and, more generally, in clarifying the limited role of rules on subcontracting for the purposes of imposing specific productive structures (if they can have any role in that regard at all).

Nothing is what it seems: A different concept of 'body governed by public law' for public procurement and VAT (C-174/14)

In its Judgment of 29 October 2015 in Saudaçor, C-174/14, EU:C:2015:733, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) followed the Opinion of Advocate General Jääskinen (of 25 June 2015, C-174/14, EU:C:2015:430, paras 59-67) and ruled that the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 on the common system of value added tax (VAT) must not be interpreted by reference to the definition of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 on public procurement (now substituted by Art 2(4) of Directive 2014/24). 

This is an important Judgment because it consolidates the atomisation of concepts that are increasingly relevant for the application of EU economic law in a scenario of ever growing recourse to private law institutions by the public sector in the organisation of its activities. Thus, it is worth looking closely at the reasons that led to this disconnect between concepts of 'body governed by public law' for the purposes of different branches of EU economic law (namely, taxation and public procurement).

In the Saudaçor case, the dispute concerned the VAT treatment of Sociedade Gestora de Recursos e Equipamentos da Saúde dos Açores SA (Saudaçor). This entity was created by Regional Legislative Decree No 41/2003/A of the Autonomous Region of the Azores (RAA) transforming the Institute of Financial Management of the Health Service of the RAA into a limited company with exclusively public capital, that company being wholly owned by that region. 

Saudaçor has the task of providing services of general economic interest in the field of health and, particular, the planning and management of the regional health system and associated information systems, infrastructure and facilities and the completion of construction, conservation, rehabilitation and reconstruction work on health establishments and services, in particular in areas covered by natural disasters and in areas regarded as risk areas. 

Saudaçor had not been charging VAT to the RAA for the provision of these services. It relied on the exemption as a non-taxable person under Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112, according to which
States, regional and local government authorities and other bodies governed by public law shall not be regarded as taxable persons in respect of the activities or transactions in which they engage as public authorities, even where they collect dues, fees, contributions or payments in connection with those activities or transactions.

However, when they engage in such activities or transactions, they shall be regarded as taxable persons in respect of those activities or transactions where their treatment as non-taxable persons would lead to significant distortions of competition.
In this setting, the Public Treasury opened an investigation and considered that the services provided by Saudaçor in respect of the planning and management of the regional health service concern areas of activity involving private initiative, which means that treatment as a non-taxable person for VAT purposes might lead to distortions of competition, thus challenging Saudaçor's status as a non-taxable person.

The appeals of the case went all the way up to the Supreme Administrative Court of Portugal, who harboured doubts as to the interpretation of the concept 'other bodies governed by public law' used by the judge of instance, which had decided that 
for the purpose of interpreting the rule laid down in the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112, under which bodies governed by public law are not regarded as taxable persons for VAT purposes, there is no need to refer to the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ defined, in the context of public procurement law, in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 since the latter concept is understood in a broad sense, whereas the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 must be interpreted strictly when applying the rule of treatment as a non-taxable person for VAT purposes because that rule constitutes an exception to the general rule of taxation of any economic activity (C-174/14, para 24).
The Supreme Administrative Court of Portugal considered that
whilst it is clearly established in the [CJEU]’s case-law that only the activities of bodies governed by public law acting as public authorities are excluded from liability to VAT, it cannot be determined on the basis of that case-law whether an entity such as Saudaçor, having regard to its legal status as a limited company originating from the transformation of a State entity, comes within that concept of body governed by public law. The question arises in particular whether the scope of that concept tallies with the scope of the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 in the context of the definitions of the various categories of ‘contracting authorities’ (C-174/14, para 28, emphasis added).

In his Opinion, AG Jääskinen considered that there was no need to consider the compatibility of the definition in Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 and that in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18. In his view, such irrelevance of the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of Directive 2004/18 for the interpretation of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 derived from the following reasons

63. Article 13 has been regarded in the Court’s case-law as an exemption which should be placed in the general context of the common system of VAT. Thus, as a derogation from the principle that any activity of an economic nature must be subjected to VAT, the first subparagraph of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 must be interpreted strictly. Obviously, this also holds for the interpretation of the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ in the first subparagraph of Article 13(1).
64. By contrast, in the light of the objectives pursued by the provisions of Union law on the coordination of the procedures for the award of public contracts, and in particular the dual objective of opening up competition and transparency, the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 should be given a broad and functional interpretation.
65. It should be stated that the meanings of, on the one hand, ‘body governed by public law’ for the purposes of Directive 2004/18 and, on the other, ‘other bodies governed by public law’ for the purposes of Directive 2006/112 cannot be the same, as those two directives have very different objectives (sic) [...]
66. It should be added that, as was rightly pointed out by the United Kingdom Government, the Union legislature made the deliberate choice not to make reference in Directive 2006/112 to the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ which appears in Directive 2004/18. In other contexts, where it considered that a link should be made between two instruments of EU law, the Union legislature chose to adopt the definition used in Directive 2004/18 by means of a cross-reference (Opinion of AG Jääskinen in C-174/14, paras 63-66, references omitted and underlining added--other emphasis in the original).
In my view, this approach creates two difficulties. Firstly, if concepts of identical wording are to be interpreted differently depending on the ultimate goals of the rules of EU economic law in which they are inserted, legal certainty can hardly be satisfied. Secondly, the narrow interpretation of Article 13 could have been implemented through a strict approach to the concept of  'activities or transactions in which they engage as public authorities', or to the existence of 'distortions of competition'. This would have been preferable to the dissociation of concepts that are meant to determine the subjective scope of application of rules of EU economic law--which, by the way, are meant to be applied concurrently to the those entities.


In its final Judgment, the CJEU followed the Opinion of AG Jääskinen and ruled that
46 By defining in broad terms the concept of ‘body governed by public law’ and, as a result, the concept of ‘contracting authorities’, Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18 seeks to define the scope of that directive in a sufficiently extensive manner so as to ensure that the rules on, in particular, transparency and non-discrimination which are required in connection with the award of public contracts apply to all State entities which do not form part of the public administration but which are nevertheless controlled by the State, in particular by means of their financing or their management.
47 However, the context of the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ referred to in Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 is fundamentally different.
48 That concept is not intended to define the scope of VAT but, on the contrary, makes an exception to the general rule on which the common system of that tax is based, namely the rule that the scope of that tax is defined very broadly as covering all supplies of services for consideration, including those provided by bodies governed by public law (see, to that effect, judgment in Commission v Netherlands, C-79/09, EU:C:2010:171, paragraphs 76 and 77) (C-174/14, paras 46-48, emphasis added).
I have difficulty accepting the reasoning of the CJEU as persuasive. Taken literally, it would mean that the rules that determine the (material, and personal?) scope of application of a norm are only those of a positive nature--ie rules of inclusion--whereas the negative rules that free situations or agents from coverage by that norm--ie rules of exclusion--would not be seen as able to construct its scope. This is logically confusing, as delineating the actual scope of application of a norm involves taking into account both the elements that determine what is included and those that determine what is not included therein [for a discussion on the validity and effectiveness of restrictive legal norms, see K Larenz, Metodología de la Ciencia del Derecho, 2a ed (Madrid, Ariel, 2001) 252-253].

Moreover, when the CJEU engages in the determination of whether Saudaçor meets the requirements to be considered within the category of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ for the purposes of Article 13(1) of Directive 2006/112 (paras 55 and ff), the CJEU uses criteria that are fundamentally aimed at determining if: 1) it has powers that traditionally would belong to the public sector (paras 58-59), 2) the region that owns it can exercise decisive control over it (paras 60-65), and 3) it engages in any competition with private providers (para 66). Implicitly, the CJEU also considers whether more than 50% of its funding comes from the public sector (para 63), and it stresses that the activity carried out by Saudaçor is a service of general economic interest (para 67), to the effect of (implicitly) determining that it is not of a purely commercial nature. 

Thus, in my view, these are fundamentally the same criteria and considerations that would apply under the test designed to determine whether an entity is a body governed by public law under the applicable public procurement rules. Functionally, then, the analysis actually carried out by the CJEU is convergent in the fields of taxation and procurement. I consequently struggle to see what was there to be won in the position that "the concept of ‘other bodies governed by public law’ within the meaning of Article 13(1) of [Directive 2006/112] must not be interpreted by reference to the definition of ‘body governed by public law’ in Article 1(9) of Directive 2004/18". 

It seems that the CJEU is only willing to engage in functionalism in the application of the rules, but not in the formulation of the concepts that underpin them. This creates significant confusion and threatens legal certainty. Specially when it is impossible to know in which situations where it is confronted with (almost) identically drafted provisions of EU economic law the CJEU will adopt a single 'EU law' autonomous concept or more than one... Nothing is what it seems under EU economic law...

A conversation on horizontal policies in public procurement

I was kindly invited to talk about centralisation and public procurement at the Law School of the University of Lisbon last week by Prof. Miguel A. Raimundo. At the event, Prof. Nuno Cunha Rodrigues provided an initial overview on the opportunities that centralisation can create for the pursuit of horizontal or secondary policies. Based on my general views (here), I opposed the use of centralisation to achieve secondary policy goals, for the standard economic reasons, as well as for the issue of the democratic deficit that would ensue from allowing centralised purchasing bodies to act as market regulators.

Prof. Cunha Rodrigues has followed up on our discussion via email and has provided me with some detailed remarks (plus a short rebuttal/further thoughts I am adding at the end)(*). With his consent, I am posting them below (in black), accompanied by my own reaction to his points (in blue). I hope this "virtual" conversation on horizontal policies in procurement will be of interest. By all means, please feel free to comment.



Dear Albert:

As I told you personally, I´m a great admirer of your work which I´ve been following through your several publications and your blog. I saw your last post and I just wanted to make some comments on it.

Far too kind.

As a matter a fact, I don´t have a close view on secondary or horizontal policies. It´s still to be proved their efficiency knowing that State has several other tools in order to promote the same goals associated to secondary policies, like the use of sectorial legislation, taxation or subsidies.

In my view, this should suffice to at least refrain from their expansion, particularly under centralised procurement.

Nevertheless, I think we shouldn`t regret the importance of the (possible) use of public procurement to pursue (some) secondary policies like social policies. Said this, I just want to make some telegraphic notes:

i) It´s true that the pursue of secondary policies through public procurement does not have (enough) democratic legitimacy. Still, knowing that (most) of the central purchasing bodies in Europe directly depend on central government, we can say that centralisation of public procurement is the (ideal) way to develop secondary policies because governments can directly control those bodies and the policies they pursue (in Portugal, central government can send direct instructions to the central purchasing body). The issue of democratic legitimacy is one that can provoke a huge discussion namely in the field of EU law (and the powers of the European commission…);

I strongly disagree with this approach. The issue is quite significant because the establishment of higher requirements (green, social or otherwise) in procurement than in general consumption of goods in services shows a clear regulatory/legislative double-standard that can hardly be monitored or resolved through governmental control of the central purchasing body. There is no good reason why the public sector cannot purchase goods and services legally marketed to private buyers. If the government/legislator considers that a given product or service should not be consumed for objective reasons, it needs to legislate in that way. Otherwise, this approach does not only lead to a clear democratic deficit, but also to a cross-subsidy that can go both in favour of or against the public purse / consumer purse.

ii) Public bodies are subjected to the legality principle. As so, and knowing that most European constitutions (and the TFEU) acknowledge the precaution principle in environmental issues and also the equality principle, one can recognise that secondary policies (namely social policies) should be consider by public bodies on the decision of what to buy;

Yes, but only expressed and articulated (by hard law instruments) environmental and social rules. Again, as above, there is no reason why procurement policy needs to be more cautious in environmental or social terms than the explicit and legislated environmental and social policies themselves.

iii) Your last post mentions some articles that stress that set-asides are a bad ideia. Some of those articles come from the 80’s and the 90’s, knowing that (modern) secondary policies (like the one connected with environmental and social policies) appeared mainly last decade (after Concordia Bus case, although I’m aware of previous Du Pont de Nemours case and others) and that some authors have recognised their importance in the recent past, like Arrowsmith, Kunzlik and MacCrudden (despite the fact that some may disagree with these policies). After the Concordia Bus case, the 2004 and 2014 directives, the national experiences and, mainly, the ECJ cases (like Concordia Bus, Wienstrom and Ruffert) it became clear that there was a new role to public procurement in this field;

In my view there is no new role (maybe some more regulatory space, but no new role) for secondary policies in the current rules and, in economic terms, the situation is exactly the same assessed under the studies I refer to. I agree that new empirical studies would be really useful in trying to price or measure the distortions created in EU markets at present, but I would stress that the value of proper empirical work is that it allows us to test economic theories. And, as far as I can read, there is no question that secondary/horizontal policies create economic inefficiency. The burden of proof, in empirical terms, lies on the other side.

iv) The economic crises that some European countries have been facing showed the importance of public procurement as an economic policy tool, like we saw mainly between 2009 and 2010 when the European Commission inducted member states to spend more public money is order to stabilise economy;

I partially agree, in that there is an economic role to be plaid by public procurement as a macroeconomic policy. However, that is a decision on the level of expenditure and, possibly, on areas of priority. However, that has nothing to do with what should be bought or how. I develop these issues distinguishing the different economic roles of procurement in my book and I stick to that [A Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 52-56].

v) In fact, market failures must be covered by state and they can be through multiple ways (depending on how efficient they prove to be), namely by regulation through contract (but sometimes, for sure, not directly through public procurement but through other instruments such as sectorial legislation, taxes or subsidies).

Not sure about this point. However, market failures are not the only ones that concern procurement, which should also be wary of regulatory or government failures. Capture or gold-plating by the central purchasing body is at least equally worrying.

vi) In the EU law, secondary policies appeared in a shy way with the 2004 directives and they are one of the main causes of the 2014 directives so we can’t deny the will of the European legislator in this matter;

Yes, but that does not mean we need to acritically accept that whatever the legislator wants to do is in the society's best interest. There are too many theoretical and historical objections to list them here.

vii) If we exclude the use of secondary policies, we are comparing, at the end, public procurement with private procurement. Still, public procurement must follow public interest and this one is not always connected with an idea of the lowest price or efficiency (or an idea of simplification of public procurement).

I disagree. We are just disentangling the regulatory/public power of deciding what to buy from the economic mechanism of procurement, which should be concerned with how to buy that in the most efficient way.

Nevertheless, even the criteria of the lowest price can be used to promote secondary policies (e.g. through technical specifications or the use of eco-labels) and, on the other hand, by choosing the most economic advantageous proposal, public bodies can promote secondary policies even without a clear legal base, so every guidance we can give in this area will be helpful;

Guidance may or may not be helpful. I agree that secondary policies could permeate different parts of the procurement cycle. However, the rules on technical specifications are much more stringent than those on award criteria in terms of accepting equivalent solutions and limiting formal restrictions to participation. Hence, I would much rather see green procurement limited to technical specifications and social clauses to contract compliance requirements (both of which have been limited in Dutch coffee and Bundesdruckerei) than in award criteria, where the scenario is much less streamlined.

viii) We know that, at the end, secondary policies can determine that prices get higher for public bodies. Still, the goal of public procurement is not only to assure value for money but also to promote public interest and this one can allow public bodies to buy in a more expensive way in order to promote, v.g., social policies.

This is very contentious. I completely disagree. Arrowsmith (in mild terms) and Kunzlik (in more enthusiastic terms) may agree with you. Here is a summary of the academic "conversation" we have been having for a while.

ix) Public interest (and European interest) has raised environmental policy to one transversal European policy (and the ECJ has said that) that must be included in public procurement concerns (and it was not in the past). The ECJ has said the same about social policies, namely in the Viking case;

That sounds like a bit of a simplification to me, particularly because the CJEU has always been stressing the need to comply with enacted secondary rules, rather than with policies. In any case, the opposition to secondary policies is not to be extended to procuring goods or services in compliance with the applicable legislation, which is an altogether different discussion.

x) I´m aware that the use of secondary policies may cause distortions in the market (and in competition). But public procurement is not concerned just with the competition principle (knowing that this one has been raising its importance after FENIN-SELEX ECJ cases and the new directives). Here, proportionality principle may help to balance competition principle with the pursue of secondary policies connected with the public interest. In some cases, it might be necessary to exclude some competitors that act in the same relevant market (e.g. State can exclude competitors that sell cars that pollute excessively or sellers of inefficient lamps) in order to promote secondary policies, namely promoting a change in technology that its consider to be needed according to the public interest.

I disagree. If the State does not want excessively polluting cars, it needs to legislate against them. If it is legal to sell those cars, there is no justification for an exclusion of the offeror from public procurement. Secondary policies cannot be a fix for the inability to legislate appropriately.

xi) In the field of secondary policies, the use of soft law is a way to, step by step, get to hard law and sometimes it has a fundamental role in order to allow the operators to understand the functioning of hard law. For example, competition law wouldn`t really be comprehensive without soft law (knowing that, in most of the times, it follows ECJ case law) even if, sometimes, the road gets away from soft law (e.g. what happens with the relevant market definition and the modern economic approach to merger control). We can also see the same use of soft law in tax law and I think we shouldn`t deny it`s value in the interpretation and development of public procurement law in the future.

If we don´t have soft law, the discretionary power of public bodies would be even bigger knowing that the use of secondary policies is allowed in the 2014 directives in general terms. As so, soft law can have a role in order to make more clear the use of secondary policies (and the situations where they can´t be used) although we are aware of the risks concerning the frontier between hard law and soft law (that were already raised by the ECJ);

I disagree with this, particularly in the competition field. Soft law is an asymmetrical lye we tell ourselves simply to allow regulation to be developed below the radar screens. My more developed views are available at A Sanchez-Graells, Soft Law and the Private Enforcement of the EU Competition Rules (July 2010)].

xii) The use of social policies through public procurement was, in some countries, a case of success in the past (v.g. USA; UK; Canada; South Africa; Malasia) so we shouldn`t throw the possible use of it immediately away;

I remain to be presented with any evidence about the success of any of those policies in any of those jurisdictions.

Like I said, this is just a short reaction to your post, without quoting any article or book to support me, that I’m sending you with friendship and admiration. I really don`t have a close view on this issue but I think (and I agree with what you say on your blog) that, concerning secondary policies, we won`t go back after 2014 directives. As so, operators will need guidance in this matter in the future.

Well, it is certainly an area where we will continue holding academic debates. :)

Postscript: Some further thoughts by Prof. Cunha Rodrigues

i) You say that secondary policies, at the end, can produce "a cross-subsidy that can go both in favour of or against the public purse / consumer purse." I think that this idea is stick to one of economic efficiency that is not necessarily linked to public interest. Sometimes, it`s necessary to pay more (public purse / consumer purse) in order to get a superior social outcome or to have a change in technology so cross-subsidy can have a positive effect to tax payer in a near future (namely when we prove that the outcome is more efficient if compared with other public tools).

Promoting social policies buying to companies that employ handicapped persons may not satisfy economic efficiency but it will meet public interest and satisfy public procurement goals. Another example: every time technology moves forward, prices get higher at the beginning so State, through public procurement, can have a role in helping to develop that technology and getting prices to be cheaper, namely by buying those products. That happened, in several countries, for essence when some public bodies decide to buy electric cars (and, in those cases, I think that competition would be more distorted if we exclude from the market inefficient cars through hard law rather than excluding them through public procurement).

ii) You mentioned that “secondary policies cannot be a fix for the inability to legislate appropriately”. I think that this idea, at the end, would translate to hard law the decision to exclude some (inefficient) products from the market what might agravate the effect of distorting competition because: a) it wouldn´t allow private parties to decide what to buy; b) it would exclude private producers from the market, causing an even bigger distortion of competition than the one (eventually) caused by using secondary policies through public procurement.

This is somehow an idea similar to what happens in competition law where, in some cases, R&D can justify antitrust behavior (along with others conditions, for sure, according to article 101.º, n.º 3 of the TFEU). In both cases, one can say that competition principle or an idea of economic efficiency doesn`t necessary prevail. Naturally this example can’t be understood in cases where public procurement comes along with monopsony power (and I fully agree with you that the possible application of article 102.º of the TFUE can be wider, in the future, even knowing FENIN and SELEX cases, because of the role that central purchasing bodies can and will have under 2014 directives).

Paper on centralisation of procurement and competition law

Ignacio Herrera Anchustegui, from BECCLE - University of Bergen, and I have just completed a working paper on the new rules on centralisation and occasional procurement under articles 37-39 of Directive 2014/24. The paper assesses the risks, rationale and justification for the rules on centralisation and aggregation of public procurement in Directive 2014/24. The paper is entitled "Impact of public procurement aggregation on competition. Risks, rationale and justification for the rules in Directive 2014/24" and is now part of the University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper Series.
 
The paper explores the justifications advanced for the aggregation of purchasing and the countervailing risks it generates. In both cases, it focusses in economic and administrative aspects. It then proceeds to a summary overview of the new rules for the aggregation of public procurement in Directive 2014/24, and emphasised how the Directive is expressly recognising possibilities that clearly exceed the more modest approach in Directive 2004/18. Moving on, it then focusses on the potential justification for certain activities now permitted by the 2014 rules, and engages in a critical assessment of their competitive impact. The paper briefly highlights the far-reaching and not necessarily positive implications that a maximisation of the centralisation and aggregation possibilities under Directive 2014/24 could have, and proposes that strict competition law enforcement will be necessary to avoid undesired consequences. Some suggestions for further research are provided by way of conclusions.
 
The full paper is available for download on SSRN. Its full citation is:

Sánchez Graells, Albert and Herrera Anchustegui, Ignacio, Impact of Public Procurement Aggregation on Competition. Risks, Rationale and Justification for the Rules in Directive 2014/24 (December 5, 2014). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 14-35. Available at SSRN:  
http://ssrn.com/abstract=2534496.
 
 

CJEU keeps Lianakis interpretation relevant under Directive 2014/24 (C-641/13)


In its Judgment in Spain v Commission (financial support for cuenca hidrográfica del Júcar), C-641/13, EU:C:2014:2264 (not available in English), the Court of Justice of the EU has reiterated in very clear terms the currency of its Lianakis case law [C-532/06, EU:C:2008:40]. Indeed, in Spain v Commission (paras 33-41), the CJEU has clearly stressed that Lianakis (paras 30-32) and Commission v Greece [C-199/07, EU:C:2009:693, paras 55-56] prevent the past experience of the tenderer being used as an award criterion. Given the brevity and clarity of the reasoning of the CJEU, few doubts can remain as to the rather absolute character of the prohibition.
 
This should come as no suprise, as this was the majoritarian interpretation of the Lianakis Judgment [for a possibilistic interpretation seeking flexibility, though, see S Treumer, ‘The Distinction between Selection and Award Criteria in EC Public Procurement Law—A Rule without Exception’ (2009) 18 Public Procurement Law Review 103, and A Sanchez Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 310-12]. Moreover, this was precisely one of the points in which the 2011 proposals for new EU public procurement Directives aimed to deviate (or fine-tune) the case law of the CJEU [for discussion, see M Orthmann, 'The experience of the Bidder as Award Criterion in EU Public Procurement Law' (2014) 1 Humboldt Forum Recht 1 ff].
 
With this in mind, it is worth stressing that Directive 2014/24 now (well, as soon as the Member States transpose it, which they must do by 18 April 2016) deviates from the standard reading of the Lianakis case law. Directive 2014/24 decouples the treatment of the general experience of the tenderer as a qualitative selection criterion [art 58(4), where Lianakis applies full-force] from the assessment of more limited and specific aspects of experience evaluation clearly linked to the subject-matter of the contract, which allow for the specific experience of staff assigned to performing the contract to be taken into consideration at award stage, 'where the quality of the staff assigned can have a significant impact on the level of performance of the contract' [art 67(2)(b), which restricts, specifies of modifies Lianakis].
 
The justification given by Directive 2014/24 for this change is that
Wherever the quality of the staff employed is relevant to the level of performance of the contract, contracting authorities should also be allowed to use as an award criterion the organisation, qualification and experience of the staff assigned to performing the contract in question, as this can affect the quality of contract performance and, as a result, the economic value of the tender. This might be the case, for example, in contracts for intellectual services such as consultancy or architectural services. Contracting authorities which make use of this possibility should ensure, by appropriate contractual means, that the staff assigned to contract performance effectively fulfil the specified quality standards and that such staff can only be replaced with the consent of the contracting authority which verifies that the replacement staff affords an equivalent level of quality [rec (94), emphasis added].
In my view, all of this indicates that the use of staff (specific) experience at award stage will need to be assessed under strict proportionality terms (particularly as the 'significance' of its impact on the level of performance of the contract is concerned), given that exceptions[art 67(2)(b)] to the general rules [art 58(4)] of Directive 2014/24 and the applicable interpretative case law need to be constructed strictly. Moreover, recourse to this sort of award criterion will still need to comply with general requirements and, in my view, avoid distortions of competition such as first comer advantages for incumbent contractors.

The "new" principle of competition in Directive 2014/24: a new set of presumptions?

The adoption of Directive 2014/24 of 26 February 2014 has resulted in the consolidation of the principle of competition in Article 18. According to the wording of this provision: "The design of the procurement shall not be made with the intention of […] artificially narrowing competition. Competition shall be considered to be artificially narrowed where the design of the procurement is made with the intention of unduly favouring or disadvantaging certain economic operators".
 
In my opinion, despite the positive aspects of the express recognition of the principle of competition in the new EU Directive, the inclusion of a subjective element and the reference to the prevention of corruption or the avoidance of conflicts of interest by establishing an irrebuttable presumption of competitive distorsion, raise many questions that are difficult to answer that may give rise to more litigation. In this post, I venture some further thoughts on this "new" principle of competition in Directive 2014/24 (for an initial reaction, see here; please bear in mind that this is a translation of a contribution to http://www.obcp.es/ soon to be published in Spanish, which justifies (?) the references to Spanish domestic law).
 
Explicit recognition of the principle of competition
 
Importantly, and unlike in Spanish national legislation on public procurement (art 1 of RDL 3/2011, of 14 November, approving the consolidated text of the Law on Public Sector Contracts: "This law aims to regulate public sector procurement in order to [...] ensure [...] an efficient use of funds [...] by [...] safeguarding free competition"); so far, the principle of competition in public procurement was only reflected somewhat partially and in a fractionated manner at EU law level, by means of both Directive2004/18 (and earlier versions of the procurement Directives that it consolidated) and the interpretative case law of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) in cases such as Fracasso and Leitschutz (C-27/98, para 31 . "to meet the objective of developing effective competition in the area of public contracts"), Lombardini and Mantovani (C-285/99, para 76: "all the requirements imposed by Community law must unquestionably be complied with in the context of the various aspects of the national procedures for awarding public works contracts, which must moreover be applied in such a manner as to ensure compliance with the principles of free competition") and SECAP (Opinion of AG in C-147/06, para 29 "those directives pursue a limited direct aim, namely the coordination of procedures governed by the sectoral directives with a view to encouraging the development of effective competition in the field of public contracts", as endorsed by the CJEU in the Judgment in C-147/96, para 29: "assess tenders which are submitted to them under conditions of effective competition").
 
Additionally, the contours of the principle of competition were somewhat fuzzy and required a considerable interpretive effort to delineate the obligations derived therefrom (for further details, see A Sanchez Graells, "Competition and the Public Buyer Towards a More Competition - Oriented Procurement: The Principle of Competition Embedded in EC PublicProcurement Directives"). From this perspective, the explicit recognition of the principle of competition in the new EU directive is to be welcomed. However, the explicit formulation adopts the policy is problematic for at least two reasons.
 
Inclusion of a very problematic subjective element: can we "objectify" it?
As we have seen, Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 provides a formulation of the principle of competition in which the subjective or intentional element of any restriction of competition is emphasized: "The design of the procurement shall not be made with the intention of […] artificially narrowing competition" (emphasis added). This intentional element is common to different language versions of the Directive ("intención" in Spanish, "intention" in French, "intento" in Italian, "intuito" in Portuguese or "Absicht" in German), so it cannot be justified as a deficiency in translation or an error in the wording of the provision. However, the recitals of the directive do not provide any clarification and, ultimately, this provision opens the door to complex problems of identification and attribution of intentional elements in the field of public procurement—or, more generally, in administrative (economic) law.

In my opinion, this task is very complex, as it requires establishing the parameters by which a decision that often involves various individuals (and potentially several administrative bodies) is considered affected by an underpinning anticompetitive intent. In fact, I think that this task is virtually impossible, given that the traditional mechanisms of allocation of subjective factors in (administrative) disciplinary or criminal law are not applicable and very clearly require an "objectifying" reinterpretation of the intentional element in the provision.
The reasons for the "objectification" of the wording of Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 are multiple and derived mainly from the need for coordination of this new rule with some of its "functional neighbours". Firstly, such coordination should take into account the objective character of the restrictions of competition derived from the rules of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) and its interpretation by the CJEU. Indeed, the prohibitions in Articles 101 and 102 TFEU (and their national counterparts, such as in Articles 1 and 2 of the Spanish Law 15/ 2007 of 3 July, on the defence of competition) apply in abstraction from any volitional element of the offending parties. A competitive restriction in the market automatically results in a violation of those prohibitive norms, irrespective of the intention with which market players have conducted the practice restrictive of competition.
 
Secondly, and in a more subtle but functionally relevant relationship, the objectification of the competition principle standard must be coordinated with the criminal law rules applicable to the criminal liability of legal entities—which establish (at least in Spain) a clearly objective and independent regime, disconnected from any subjective element of the specific individuals who have committed crimes or offences whose responsibility extends to legal persons (see Article 31bis.3 of the Spanish Criminal Code, as introduced by LO 5/2010, of June 22, amending the Organic Law 10/1995 of 23 November, on the Criminal Code).
Therefore, the objectification of Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 seems the most appropriate functional solution—but, acknowledgedly, it can be seen as lying somewhat far away from a literal interpretation of the provision. Broadly speaking, in my opinion, this objectification of the principle should be carried out by establishing a rebuttable presumption of restrictive intent in cases where, in fact, the tendering procedure has been designed in a manner that is restrictive of competition.
The disproval of this rebuttable presumption would require the contracting authority or entity to justify the existence of objective, legitimate and proportionate reasons for the adoption of the criteria restrictive of competition (ie, to provide a plausible justification for the imposition of restrictive conditions of competition in tendering the contract, so as to exclude the plain and simple explanation that it was intended to restrict competition therewith). In other words, if it could be justified that a "reasonable and disinterested contracting entity" (meaning free from any intent to restrict competition) would have taken the same decision on the design of the tender in a form restrictive of competition, the presumption of restrictive intent would not be applicable and, ultimately, the tender would be compliant with Article 18 of Directive 2014/24. Obviously, this test requires further development (and I will devote some time to developing a more refined proposal in the coming months).
 
Linking distortions of competition and favouritism or corruption: a bidirectional and biunivocal relationship?
 
The second problematic aspect in the wording of Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 is, in my opinion, the establishment of a iuris et de iure presumption of competitive distortion in: "Competition shall be considered to be artificially narrowed where the design of the procurement is made with the intention of unduly (sic) favouring or disadvantaging certain economic operators".
 
This assumption raises a potential problem of (logical) "capture" of the interpreters of this rule, as they may be tempted to consider that in the absence of (undue!) favouritism or corruption, no restrictions on competition are contrary to the precept—that is, they can be inclined to decide not to apply the "residual" part of the prohibition and limit it exclusively to cases covered by the presumption. Additionally, while it is true that most cases of favouritism or corruption will result in a restriction of competition, this is not always necessarily the case. For example, in cases where the beneficiary of favouritism could be awarded the contract under competitive conditions, or in cases in which corrupt practices are added to previous restrictions of competition created by the bidders active in the market; it could be argued that there is no (independent) restriction competition and, therefore, that the presumption is unnecessary or unjustified.
In any case, the instances of favouritism included in the irrebuttable presumption would (also) be covered by the new rules relating to conflicts of interest envisaged in Article 24 of Directive 2014/24: "Member States shall ensure that contracting authorities take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising in the conduct of procurement procedures so as to avoid any distortion of competition and to ensure equal treatment of all economic operators", and can even fit into one of the headings of mandatory exclusion of Article 57(1)(b) for corruption, as supplemented by the obligation to terminate the contract under Article 73(b).
Therefore, the establishment of the presumption of anticompetitive intent in cases of favouritism or discrimination is, in my opinion, unnecessary and may be counterproductive. Ultimately, I think that it will be necessary for the bodies responsible for the implementation of these provisions to clearly distinguish instances of corruption from those of (simple) restriction of competition and, in the latter scenario, apply the first part of the principle of competition in an "objectified" manner, as advocated above.
Conclusion
The consolidation of the principle of competition in Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 should be welcomed, but its wording requires two major adjustments designed to ensure functionality. On the one hand, it is necessary to objectify the interpretation and application of the provision and, in my opinion, this should be done by establishing a rebuttable presumption of competition restrictive intent. Moreover, the irrebuttable presumption of restriction of competition in cases of favouritism or corruption should be interpreted as not being exhaustive and should not prevent the widespread application of the (not necessarily residual) general test of competitive restraint in the absence of (clear) discrimination.
In any case, it should come as no surprise if the new Article 18 of Directive 2014/24 gives rise to a significant level of litigation.

Are future (lease) contracts covered by the EU public procurement directives? (C-213/13)

In his Opinion of 15 May 2014 in case C-213/13 Impresa Pizzarotti (not available in English, so the following discussion is based on my reading of the Spanish version), Advocate General Nils Wahl has addressed the tricky issue whether future lease contracts, or contracts for the lease of buildings that are yet to be constructed, are covered by the EU public procurement Directives (in particular, by Directive 2004/18, but the interpretation will remain relevant under the new Directive 2014/24, which scope has not changed as far as works contracts are concerned).
 
The factual background of the case is rather complicated as the Commune di Bari and the Italian Ministry of Justice kept changing the conditions of the financial arrangements concerned with the building and rental of Bari's new city of justice; but, as AG Wahl indicates in his Opinion, the legal issue to be addressed is whether transactions relating to future buildings may fall within the exception to the application of the rules on public contracts--as foreseen in Article 16(a) of Directive 2004/18 [or art 10(a) Dir 2014/24], which indicates that the Directive "shall not apply to public service contracts for: (a) the acquisition or rental, by whatever financial means, of land, existing buildings or other immovable property or concerning rights thereon".
 
In his view, the exception in Art 16(a) Directive 2004/18 [and now art 10(a) Dir 2014/24] can under no circumstances be interpreted in a way that covers works which execution has not yet started (para 54). On the ultimate basis of the principles of the protection of the internal market's fundamental freedoms and the promotion of effective competition (para 56), AG Wahl clearly argues that
With respect to the exclusion relating to the acquisition or lease of real estate, understood in the broad sense, I believe that it can only refer to existing assets. Indeed, a tender under the application of the rules on public procurement will have little purpose when referred to the lease or sale of an existing and well determined bulding, which is inappropriate for a confrontation with others because of its unique character. Furthermore, it appears from some preparatory works that the exclusion of contracts for lease or purchase of real estate was initially motivated by the local and non cross-border nature of these contracts. However, given that the activities in question involve the future construction of real estate and, therefore, the execution of works, the tendering process and transparency required by these rules are not inappropriate at all and therefore should be applied. Further, in my view, the reference that the provisions in question make to "other (immovable) property" should be understood in the sense that it relates to assets other than land and buildings, and not to goods whose construction has yet to be conducted. [...] In the event that a public administration chooses, within the framework of the installation of certain services, for a formula for the purchase or lease of a work to be constructed, this operation shall be subject to the procurement procedures established by the relevant regulation (Opinion in C-213/13 at paras 60 and 61, own translation from Spanish, references ommitted and emphasis added).
 
This reasoning must be shared, given the need to interpret the exclusions to the Directives in a restrictive manner (as the AG stresses in his Opinion, at para 58). Incidentally, it is also interesting to stress that in AG Wahl's Opinion, the fact that the aggregated consideration for the lease of the future building does not cover the costs of its construction is insufficient to alter any conclusion as to the existence of a works contracts that should have been tendered under the relevant EU rules (para 80).
 
In my view, this is an important case, as the adoption of the interpretation suggested by AG Wahl would come to limit the possibilities to exclude certain types of contracts that fall within the broad category of public-private cooperation from the remit of the procurement directives, and seems to put some pressure on the (increased) use of either design contests or full-fledged procurement procedures (probably, from now on, the competitive procedure with negotiation under art 29 dir 2014/24) when contracting authorities seek to have dedicated buildings constructed. Let's hope that the CJEU follows this Opinion.

The new Directive on Concessions is basically unnecessary, but creates red tape, duplication & legal uncertainty (Dir 2014/23)

I have been working on the preparation of a commentary to the first part of the new Directive 2014/23 on the award of concession contracts [OJ L 94, 28/03/2014, p. 1–64] and have realised that, unfortunately, it has indeed become a basically unnecessary piece of EU legislation that creates significant red tape and muddles an already complicated area of EU Economic Law.

Unfortunately, as I anticipated [What Need and Logic for a New Directive on Concessions, Particularly Regarding the Issue of Their Economic Balance? (2012) European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review 2/2012: pp. 94-104], most of the general provisions of Directive 2014/23 are a copy (or a 'Frankenstein copy') of provisions already available in other procurement Directives and, mainly, in Directive 2014/24 on public sector procurement. Such a duplication makes me think that the EU legislator would indeed have been better off by just including a limited set of specific provisions dealing with concession contracts within Directive 2014/24. By not doing so, it has created unnecessary duplication and complication.

As clear evidence of the basic unnecessity of Directive 2014/23, suffice it to stress that only 10 of its first 29 articles include specific rules for concession contracts (and, only 5 articles of those 10 are exclusively relevant for concession contracts, while the other 5 are slight modifications of general rules). All other articles are simply a repetition of provisions of other Directives. The table below clarifies this assessment. Hopefully Member States will take this significant duplication into account and will adopt a sensible (unified) approach in the transposition of Directives 2014/23, 2014/24 and 2014/25 to their domestic legal systems before April 2016, avoiding unnecessary repetitions.