In its Judgment of 7 September 2016 in Finn Frogne, C-549/14, EU:C:2016:634, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued guidance on the requirements (and constraints) derived from the principle of equal treatment in situations where the difficulties in the performance of a contract are such that the contracting authority decides to settle its early termination in a way that implies a material amendment to the initial contract. This case is relevant in the early stages of the new rules on contract modification and termination in Articles 72 and 73 of Directive 2014/24. However, the compatibility between the Finn Frogne Judgment and these new rules raises several questions.
In Finn Frogne, and according to the rather limited facts given in the Judgment, the dispute concerned the contract for the supply of a global communications system common to all emergency response services and for the maintenance of that system for several years, which was awarded after a competitive dialogue. The execution of the contract was subsequently delayed due to difficulties for which neither the contracting authority nor the supplier accepted responsibility (in the terms of the ECJ, both parties disagreed "as to which party was responsible for making it impossible to perform the contract as stipulated", para 10), which eventually led them to enter into a settlement involving the reduction of the contract and each party waiving all other rights arising from the original contract (para 11).
The main point of contention was that the settlement not only included the supply of equipment initially covered by the original contract (a radio communications system), but also the sale of two central server farms which the contractor had itself acquired with a view to leasing them to the contracting authority in performance of the original contract (paras 11 and 19). The settlement was the object of a voluntary ex ante transparency notice and subsequently challenged by a third party.
The legal issue in front of the ECJ was "in essence, whether Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 must be interpreted as meaning that, following the award of a public contract, a material amendment cannot be made to it without a new tendering procedure being initiated, even in the case where the amendment is, objectively, a type of settlement agreement, with both parties agreeing to mutual waivers, designed to bring an end to a dispute with an uncertain outcome, which arose from the difficulties encountered in the performance of that contract" (para 27). Or, in simple terms, whether settling the disputes that had made the commercial relationship between the supplier and the contracting authority non-viable in a way that implied a substantive amendment of the initial contract breached the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency.
In Finn Frogne, the ECJ first took the opportunity to clarify its case law in pressetext (C‑454/06, EU:C:2008:351) and in Wall (C‑91/08, EU:C:2010:182) in the sense of emphasising that a material reduction of the scope of a public contract is equally caught by the restrictions on contract modification as a material extension of the scope of that contract. The reasons for this are as follows:
an amendment of the elements of a contract consisting in a reduction in the scope of that contract’s subject matter may result in it being brought within reach of a greater number of economic operators. Provided that the original scope of the contract meant that only certain undertakings were capable of presenting an application or submitting a tender, any reduction in the scope of that contract may result in that contract being of interest also to smaller economic operators. Moreover, since the minimum levels of ability required for a specific contract must ... be related and proportionate to the subject matter of the contract, a reduction in that contract’s scope is capable of resulting in a proportional reduction of the level of the abilities required of the candidates or tenderers (C-549/14, para 29).
This makes logical sense and is generally linked with the discussion of the division of contracts into lots and how to manage volume-related restrictions of competition for public contracts. However, in the context of a contractual settlement aimed at terminating the commercial relationship between the original (larger) provider and the contracting authority, this would lead to the conclusion that, in a case of breakdown of the commercial relationship implicit in all public contracts, "the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency imply that a contracting authority cannot consider entering into a settlement to resolve the difficulties arising from the performance of a public contract without this automatically giving rise to the obligation to organise a new tendering procedure relating to the terms of that settlement" (para 24), which the referring court considered problematic.
Indeed, in my opinion, taking this position would create situations where the contracting authority is simply in a catch 22 by having to either remain committed to a non-functioning contractual relationship that is not allowing it to perform its public functions to which the contract is instrumental, or having to spend significant funds in the creation of an alternative commercial relationship that may not be the best solution for its needs--particularly if there are economies to be had from preserving part of the original contract or the preparatory actions which the parties had already undertaken in view of its performance.
Regardless of this clear practical difficulty, the ECJ considered that
neither (i) the fact that a material amendment of the terms of a contract results not from the deliberate intention of the contracting authority and the successful tenderer to renegotiate the terms of that contract, but from their intention to reach a settlement in order to resolve objective difficulties encountered in the performance of the contract nor (ii) the objectively unpredictable nature of the performance of certain aspects of the contract can provide justification for the decision to carry out that amendment without respecting the principle of equal treatment from which all operators potentially interested in a public contract must benefit (C-549/14, para 29).
Consequently, it stuck to its previous line of case law in Succhi di Frutta (C‑496/99 P, EU:C:2004:236) whereby any material modification of a public contract requires a new tender (para 38), but placed significant emphasis on the fact that
Although the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency must be guaranteed even in regard to specific public contracts, this does not mean that the particular aspects of those contracts cannot be taken into account. That legal imperative and that practical necessity are reconciled, first, through strict compliance with the conditions of a contract as they were laid down in the contract documents up to the end of the implementation phase of that contract, but also, second, through the possibility of making express provision, in those documents, for the option for the contracting authority to adjust certain conditions, even material ones, of that contract after it has been awarded. By expressly providing for that option and setting the rules for the application thereof in those documents, the contracting authority ensures that all economic operators interested in participating in the procurement procedure are aware of that possibility from the outset and are therefore on an equal footing when formulating their respective tenders (C-549/14, para 37, emphasis added).
Ultimately, the ECJ ruled that
Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 must be interpreted as meaning that, following the award of a public contract, a material amendment cannot be made to that contract without a new tendering procedure being initiated even in the case where that amendment is, objectively, a type of settlement agreement, with both parties agreeing to mutual waivers, designed to bring an end to a dispute the outcome of which is uncertain, which arose from the difficulties encountered in the performance of that contract. The position would be different only if the contract documents provided for the possibility of adjusting certain conditions, even material ones, after the contract had been awarded and fixed the detailed rules for the application of that possibility (C-549/14, para 40, emphasis added).
In my view, the Finn Frogne Judgment must be criticised, at least for two reasons.
First, because it is very difficult to coordinate with the functional approach of Art 72 (and to some extent, 73) of Directive 2014/24 and gives excessive deference to the creation of contractual modification mechanisms. Strictly on the coordination aspect, it is worth stressing that Art 72 seems to be concerned with extensions of the contractual object, but not with its reduction (Art 72(4)(c)), and with qualitative or technical changes that would have allowed other tenderers to participate (Art 72(4)(a)). In the Finn Frogne case, there would have seemed to be more reason to challenge the content of the settlement on the basis that it changed one of those conditions (sale rather than lease of the central server farms) rather than on the change of overall value of the contract.
Moreover, it is worth stressing that Art 72 also provides significant leeway for the modification of contracts up to 50% of their value (per modification, without a maximum cap) where a diligent contracting authority could not have foreseen the circumstances leading to the need for the contractual modification. Implicitly, the ECJ seems to indicate that every diligent contracting authority needs to foresee the possibility of the commercial relationship breaking down (which may be fair enough), but it also goes on to require a full contractual regulation of how such termination of the contractual relationship needs to unfold.
In that regard, it must be stressed that the requirements for the inclusion of "general" contractual review clauses foreseen in Art 72(1)(a) demands them to be "clear, precise and unequivocal", which may or not be coincidental with the ECJ's requirement for the contractual arrangements to fix "the detailed rules for the application [of] the possibility of adjusting certain conditions"--and which may not be (feasibly) applicable to "termination through settlement" clauses, whereby the parties must necessarily engage in negotiations.
In my view, the ECJ has fallen in the same problematic assumption of the possibility to design "perfect contracts" explicitly and exhaustively regulating all consequences of their (un)foreseeable non-viability or imperfection that also affects the provision in Art 72(1)(a) of Dir 2014/24 [for criticism, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 428], but with the aggravating factor of not acknowledging that they may also be totally ineffective in scenarios where the commercial relationship is broken and, consequently, the parties need to settle, mediate, arbitrate or litigate those consequences regardless of the prior inclusion of such contractual clause.
The second reason why the Finn Frogne Judgment needs to be criticised is because it does not make any effort to attempt to distinguish between settlement conditions that remain strictly within the scope of the original contract and, consequently, only entail its partial enforcement (in its own terms) from settlements which include substantive changes in either their scope or the conditions for (partial) performance. While the first imply a consolidation of the effects already (de facto) created by the original contract, the latter seem to indicate the appearance of different needs of the contracting authority and/or different ways of satisfying them by the supplier. And, in my opinion, while the latter may justify the imposition of strict restrictions and (depending on the circumstances and the proportionality of the requirement) a new tender, the former do not seem to warrant such an approach.
These are issues that will necessarily arise again in litigation concerning the termination of contracts under the combined effect of Arts 72 and 73 of Directive 2014/24 and I would hope that the ECJ will adopt a more analytically rigorous approach when that happens because following the path started in Finn Frogne does not make commercial sense.