Recent Case Law on EU Institutional Procurement under the Financial Regulation (II): Abnormally Low Tenders


Before the summer recess, the General Court adopted two interesting decisions on public procurement carried by the EU Institutions. One concerns the debarment of tenderers that have been found to breach EU procurement rules and negatively affect the financial interests of the Union (T-151/16). The other concerns the obligation to state reasons in the context of allegations that a tender is abnormally low (T-392/15). The first case was discussed in a previous post, while this blog now discusses the second case.

In its Judgment of 4 July 2017, European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence, T-392/15, EU:T:2017:462, the GC assessed once more the limits of the obligation incumbent upon contracting authorities to state reasons in the context of an assessment of an apparently abnormally low tender. The case is decided under the rules of EU Institutional Procurement (ie the Financial Regulation and Rules of Application), but its basic principles seem to me to be also of relevance for procurement covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package and, in particular, Article 69 of Directive 2014/24/EU.

The distinctive peculiarity of the case is that the challenge concerns the retendering of lots of a previous procedure that had been partially cancelled. As a result of the cancellation of the original procedure post-evaluation and the disclosure of information in the debriefing linked to that tender, participants in the retendering had the advantage of availability of substantial pricing information concerning their competitors (which is certainly one more reason to take confidentiality of information in these processes very carefully, in particular where disclosure of information allows for a 'reverse engineering' of the prices offered by other tenderers--see the discussion in A Sanchez-Graells, 'Transparency in Procurement by the EU Institutions' (August 16, 2017). As a result of having that information, one of the tenderers challenged the award decision in the retendering on the basis that some of the values of the preferred tenders were 'excessively low' and that the contracting authority, having access to that information, was under a duty to provide explicit reasons why it did not consider the tenders received in the second run abnormally low (see paras 68-69) .

In order to decide on the dispute, the GC first recasts the existing provisions and case law on the duty to provide reasons as part of the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (paras 72-80) and stresses that 'the obligation to state reasons for an act depends on the factual and legal context in which it was adopted' which in the specific requires that 'account ... be taken of the ... regulatory framework applicable in the present case governing abnormally low tenders' (para 81). The GC then discusses such regulatory framework (paras 82-90), stressing that previous case law 'has held that the contracting authority’s obligation to check the seriousness of a tender arises where there are doubts beforehand as to its reliability, bearing in mind that the main purpose of that [investigation] is to enable a tenderer not to be excluded from the procedure without having had an opportunity to explain the terms of its tender which appears abnormally low. Thus, it is only where such doubts exist that the evaluation committee is required to request relevant information on the composition of the tender, before, if necessary, rejecting it' (para 85, references omitted). This creates a two-stage approach to the analysis, where first the authority needs to assess if there is an appearance or suspicion of abnormally low values and,only in that case, engage in the inter partes detailed investigation that will trigger the need for additional justification of its final position on the abnormality or not of the tender. In the analysis of the GC, thus, whether there is a duty to investigate in detail and the extent to which reasons need to be given depend on whether 'there is evidence which arouses a suspicion that a tender may be abnormally low' (para 89).

Elaborating on this, the GC establishes that 'the contracting authority need, in the first stage, only carry out a prima facie assessment of the abnormally low character of a tender, that its duty to state reasons is limited in scope. To require the contracting authority to set out in detail why a tender does not appear to be abnormally low does not take into account the distinction between the two stages of the examination' (para 92). Thus, in even clearer terms, 'where a contracting authority accepts a tender, it is not required to state explicitly in response to any request for a statement of reasons ... [why] the tender it accepted does not appear to it to be abnormally low. If that tender is accepted by the contracting authority, it follows implicitly, although not necessarily, that the contracting authority considers that there was no evidence that that tender was abnormally low. However, such reasons must be brought to the attention of an unsuccessful tenderer which has expressly requested them' (para 93).

In my view, this test is helpful, as it sets a clear balance of duties between the contracting authority -- a duty to assess whether there is evidence to support a suspicion of abnormality, but no duty to justify why it does not consider that this is the case in each and every single instance -- and the tenderers -- which can express their concerns about the appearance of abnormality of competing tenders and demand that the contracting authority clarifies the reasons for its disagreement, where prompted to do so. In my view, this is a useful and practical approach generally applicable to procurement, both under the rules of EU Institutional procurement and that covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package.


Are the EU Institutions (about to start) breaching Art 50 TEU & EU public procurement law in the context of Brexit?

The Financial Times has reported that "Brussels starts to freeze Britain out of EU contracts ~ Commission memo tells staff to prepare to ‘disconnect’ UK". According to the FT, an internal European Commission memorandum urges its senior officials to start introducing Brexit considerations in their decision-making, seemingly to avoid “unnecessary additional complications”. As public procurement is concerned, the FT indicates that 

Where legally possible, the [C]ommission and its agencies will be expected in all activities to “take account” of the fact that Britain may be “a third country” within two years, including in appointing staff and in awarding billions of euros of direct contracts for research projects or services.

“Apart from the legal requirement for a contracting party to be established in the EU, there may be political or practical reasons that speak in favour of contracting parties established in a specific member state, not only at the conclusion of the contract, but also throughout the duration of the contract,” the note states.

The FT piece lacks the necessary detail for a full legal assessment and the caveat that this strategy should be undertaken "where legally possible" may well deactivate it [in legal terms]. However, at least in its thrust, this is a rather clear breach of Article 50(3) TEU.

Inasmuch as it states that "The Treaties shall cease to apply to [a withdrawing Member] State ... from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification" (given by the UK on 29 March 2017), unless this period is extended unanimously by the European Council; Art 50(3) TEU does not allow for any anticipatory effects of a decision to withdraw. Until withdrawal and its terms are actually agreed and legally effective, both the withdrawing Member State and the EU Institutions remain bound by EU law in its supremacy, direct effect and the mandate to respect the rule of law (Art 2 TEU). This is an appropriate measure aimed at the preservation of the rule of law in the form of compliance with EU law during the withdrawal negotiations, not least because nobody knows if withdrawal is legally irreversible and unavoidable -- and, quite frankly, every day that goes by without the EU Institutions (as well as the UK) seeking clarification from the Court of Justice of the European Union is a missed opportunity and another blow to the foundations of the rule of law in the EU.

Such prohibition of anticipatory effect goes both in the direction of preventing the 'freeing up' of the withdrawing Member State from compliance with EU law (which is obvious from Art 50(3) TEU itself), as well as in the opposite direction of preventing the EU Institutions from discriminating against the withdrawing Member State. It is clear to me that EU law will always bind the EU Institutions vis-a-vis a withdrawing Member State all the way up to the point of legal withdrawal - and from then onward, the legal regime setting up mutual duties will be that of any transitory arrangements created by the withdrawal agreement, and/or the legal regime governing the "the framework for [the withdrawing Member States'] future relationship with the Union". Violating the absolute mandate of subjection to EU law up to the point of withdrawal would be an infringement of Art 50(3) TEU by the EU Institutions -- if not by itself, certainly in combination with the duty of non-discrimination and equal treatment between Member States of Art 4(2) TEU, as well as the duty of sincere cooperation of Art 4(3) TEU.

In the specific area of public procurement, just as it was illegal for the UK's Department for International Trade to tender contracts screening contractors on the basis of their commitment to support the delivery of Brexit as a cultural fitness criterion (see here), it is also illegal for the EU Institutions to tender contracts on the basis of "political or practical reasons that speak in favour of contracting parties established in a specific member state, not only at the conclusion of the contract, but also throughout the duration of the contract". Article 102 of the Financial Regulation governing the award of contracts by EU Institutions clearly establishes that "All public contracts financed in whole or in part by the [EU] budget shall respect the principles of transparency, proportionality, equal treatment and non-discrimination". Imposing requirements around the Member State of incorporation, registration or sit of a public contractor runs against these general principles.

There may be some specific circumstances or projects (the FT piece mentions the Galileo project) where it would not be possible for public contractors to be based outside the EU, but these are clearly exceptional and need to be subjected to a very strict proportionality analysis. In most cases, particularly for services and research contracts, there is no need for any physical presence in the EU (or elsewhere). This is clearly demonstrated by the coverage of a good number of Brexit-sensitive services markets in the EU's market access concessions under the World Trade Organisation's Government Procurement Agreement (albeit on a reciprocal basis, for obvious trade policy reasons).

Moreover, the extent to which it would be impossible for UK-based contractors to complete the execution of public contracts post-Brexit depends on the existence or not of transitory arrangements, as well as the framework for the future EU-UK relationship (which may well imply mutual coverage of services procurement in WTO GPA terms). Therefore, a decision made now that determined such impossibility and thus served as the basis for the exclusion of UK tenderers from procedures carried out by the EU Institutions would be legally defective.

Beyond these technical issues, it is shocking and worrying to see the EU Institutions engage in what can be seen as trade war by erecting non-tariff barriers against a withdrawing Member State, just as it was worrying and unacceptable to see the UK do that. If both parties to the withdrawing negotiations "prepare" for a disorderly Brexit in this manner, this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the only stopper to such noxious developments is to be found in the rule of law and the EU's and the withdrawing Member States' obligations under the Treaties to comply with EU law until the withdrawal is effective in terms of Art 50(3) TEU. If the European Commission is itself not able to abide in this manner, then my pessimism about the irreversible effects of Brexit on EU law can only plummet even further....

ECA's Special Report on access to EU Institutions' procurement: will it give a push to further reform?

On 13 July 2016, the European Court of Auditors published its Special Report No 17/2016 "The EU institutions can do more to facilitate access to their public procurement", where it examines how accessible the EU Institutions make their public contracts. I had the honour and pleasure of being invited to act as an academic expert during the preparation of this report, as well as to participate in a stakeholder meeting where the report was discussed with its main addressees, including the business community and the EU Institutions themselves. However, please note that the following only reflects my personal opinions about the report and any future developments.

To put the relevance of the report and the activities under investigation in perspective, it is worth stressing that the European Court of Auditors estimated the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions in 2014 in €4.2 bn. In particular, it is worth stressing that the European Commission manages just over €3 bn, while the Parliament and the European Central Bank manage €500 mn each, and the Council follows with more limited procurement activities of €171 mn.

These figures are important, particularly because they stress how the European Commission's procurement value exceeded that of some of the smaller Member States in 2014, such as Malta (€0.8 bn), Cyprus (€1.3 bn), Estonia (€2.5 bn) or Latvia (€2.7 bn); and the combined procurement of the EU Institutions also exceeded that carried out by Lithuania (€3.6 bn), and was very close to Bulgaria (€4.8 bn) and Slovenia (€4.9 bn). In my view, this indicates that the effects (positive or negative) of the regulation and development of public procurement by the EU Institutions should attract more attention than it usually does.

The report is generally positive on compliance issues, and it is clear that the European Court of Auditors takes no issue with the way in which the EU Institutions manage their procurement activities from a legal compliance perspective, since it found that 'the management and control arrangements were robust and reduced the risk of errors which could deter businesses from participating and prevent fair treatment'. However, the European Court of Auditors considered that the approach to procurement could be more strategic or market-oriented and, in particular, that EU Institutions could do more to facilitate SME access. 

In order to promote a more commercial approach to procurement, in particular, the European Court of Auditors included the following recommendations:

  1. In order to facilitate the monitoring of the accessibility of their procurement activities, all EU institutions should collect and analyse data both on the initial number of requests to participate and offers received and the number of offers which were taken into account for the final award decision.
  2. For the upcoming 2016 revision of the EU Financial Regulation the Commission should consolidate all relevant provisions into a single rulebook for public procurement. Participation of small and medium‑sized enterprises should be explicitly encouraged.
  3. The EU institutions should proactively use preliminary market consultations wherever appropriate with a view to preparing the procurement and informing economic operators of their procurement plans.
  4. The EU institutions should divide contracts into lots wherever possible to increase participation in their procurement procedures.
  5. The EU institutions should create a common electronic one‑stop shop for their procurement activities allowing economic operators to find all relevant information in a single online location and to interact with the EU institutions through this website.
  6. The Commission should propose a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated. Such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts.
  7. To allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts which could be developed as part of TED eTendering.
  8. The European Anti‑Fraud Office OLAF should produce reports and statistics on the different types of allegations under investigation and the outcome of these investigations.
  9. The EU institutions should use peer reviews for mutual learning and exchange of best practice.

Most of these recommendations are welcome and the European Court of Auditors should be encouraged to put some pressure on the EU Institutions, so that they materialise. There are, however, two recommendations that deserve some additional comments: recommendation 6 on remedies and recommendation 7 on the creation of a single public repository.

Recommendation #6 & EU Institution's resistance to facilitate review and flexible remedies

Given the reduced effectiveness of the informal resolution mechanisms provided by the European Ombudsman, which are significantly curtailed by the strictness of the procurement rules, and the cost and delay of challenging procurement decisions of the EU Institutions before the General Court (to these effects, see paras 76-88 of the report), it should come as no surprise that the European Court of Auditors recommended the creation of 'a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated', and that 'such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts'.

What is more surprising, or maybe not, is that both the Council and the Parliament decided to omit this recommendation from their replies to the report, and that the Commission expressly opposed it. Indeed, in its reply to the report, the Commission indicated that

As far as the EU institutions are concerned, the Commission considers that the setting-up of a non-judicial review body, in addition to the already existing review mechanism provided for in the Financial Regulation, is neither needed nor appropriate as it would generate disproportionate costs for the benefits sought.
The Financial Regulation already provides that the unsuccessful tenderers are notified of the grounds and details reasons for their rejection and they may request additional information ... Such requests are subject to a strict deadline: the contracting authority must provide this information as soon as possible and in any case within 15 days of receiving the request.
In addition, whenever an act adversely affecting the rights of the candidates or tenderers is notified to the economic operators in the course of a procurement procedure (e.g. rejection), such notification will refer to the available means of redress (Ombudsman complaint and judicial review).
The Commission considers that the limited number of actions before the General court which dealt with procurement by the Union institutions (17) and the fact that compensation for alleged damages is rarely granted by the Court are strong indicators that the system in place is efficient and fit for purpose. Hence, the setting up of the suggested rapid review is not only not needed but it would also represent a disproportionate measure, not in line with cost-efficiency and not a good use of administrative resources (reply to point 78 of the report, emphasis added).

This is surprising because the European Commission does not seem willing to apply to its own procurement activities the standards of independent review that it promotes for Member States. In my opinion, a domestic system could not avoid a serious investigation on the effectiveness of its procurement remedies system with the argument that there are very few cases and those are unsuccessful, not least because the general principle of EU law that requires effectiveness of remedies ultimately requires that the available remedies do not make it practically impossible to claim the corresponding EU rights, which could be the case here.

When the procurement cases in front of the General Court last on average 35 months (see para 82 of the report) and the cost of litigation at the highest EU level is taken into consideration, one should not be too ready to accept the Commission's submission that the reduced number of such cases indicates the lack of need for more accessible, speedier and more effective review mechanisms. Moreover, the creation of such an alternative mechanism could also contribute to reduce the pressures on the General Court's procurement docket and, in general, facilitate specialisation and more flexibility in the resolution of conflicts.

Thus, the blanket rejection of the recommendation by the Commission seems to require some rethinking, and it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, although this is an unlikely option for reasons that would take us too far from the discussion.

It is also important to stress that the creation of robust remedies mechanisms in public procurement (and in other areas of EU economic law) is not solely for the benefit of undertakings that partake in those procedures, but in the ultimate benefit of the taxpayer and society at large. In the case of procurement, if potential suppliers do not consider that they have a fair chance of protecting their interests, they will refrain from making investments in the submission of tenders. Such reduction of competition for public contracts carries an important implicit cost. Thus, aiming to save on direct administrative costs may well be self-defeating if this results in much larger shadow or indirect costs. This is not to mean that remedies should be promoted beyond the point necessary to ensure the integrity and probity of the procurement process, or that (generous or disproportionate) damages claims are the best way to ensure those remedies. What seems clear to me is that the issue of public procurement remedies under EU law requires further research and thought, and most certainly legal reform to adapt the existing system to the reforms of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. In that regard, it seems desirable for the Commission to carry on with the (seemingly abandoned) review of the Remedies Directive--and that such would be the ideal occasion to include the issue of remedies in the setting of EU Institutions' procurement in the proper considerations.

Recommendation #7 & risk of excessive procurement transparency

The second recommendation that deserves some comments is number 7, whereby the European Court of Auditors recommended that, in order to 'allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts'.

This raises, once more, the very tricky issue of the appropriate level of transparency of public procurement procedures and their outcomes, and the undesirable (unforeseen) effects that it can create. There is no doubt that the European Court of Auditors, like any audit body at national or international level, requires this information in order to discharge its functions. However, it is far from clear that there is a positive value in publishing all this information. While making this information public could contribute to some aspects of public governance (such as NGO and press scrutiny of these activities), it is by no means less clear that creating excessive transparency would contribute to anti-competitive strategies and potentially result in the cartelisation of public procurement markets.

In that regard, I would reiterate once more the need for a more nuanced approach to the compilation and publication of this type of information. 
As a functional criterion, only the information that is necessary to ensure proper oversight and the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures should be disclosed, whereas the information that can be most damaging for competition should be withheld. 

Generally, what is needed is more granularity in the levels of information that are made accessible to different stakeholders. The full transparency approach implicit in recommendation 7 of the European Court of Auditors' report, whereby all information is made available to everyone via a public registry or repository, falls very short from the desired balance between transparency and competition goals of public procurement. A system based on enabling or targeted transparency, whereby each stakeholder gets access to the information it needs for a specific purpose, is clearly preferable.

In more specific terms, the following normative recommendations should be subjected to further discussion in the roll-out of recommendation #7. They are by no means exhaustive and simply aim to specify the sort of nuanced approach to disclosure of public procurement information that is hereby advocated.

  • Public contract registers should not be fully available to the public. Access to the full registry should be restricted to public sector officials under a strong duty of confidentiality protected by appropriate sanctions in cases of illegitimate disclosure.
  • Even within the public sector, access to the full register should be made available on a need to know basis. Oversight entities, such as the audit court or the competition authority, should have full access. However, other entities or specific civil servants should only access the information they require to carry out their functions.
  • Limited versions of the public contract registry that are made accessible to the public should aggregate information by contracting authority and avoid disclosing any particulars that could be traced back to specific tenders or specific undertakings.
  • Representative institutions, such as third sector organisations, or academics should have the opportunity of seeking access to the full registry on a case by case basis where they can justify a legitimate or research-related interest. In case of access, ethical approval shall be obtained, anonymization of data attempted, and specific confidentiality requirements duly imposed.
  • Delayed access to the full public registry could also be allowed for, provided there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that historic information does not remain relevant for the purposes of protecting market competition, business secrets and commercial interests.
  • Tenderers should have access to their own records, even if they are not publicly-available, so as to enable them to check their accuracy. This is particularly relevant if public contract registries are used for the purposes of assessing past performance under the new rules.
  • Big data should be published on an anonymised basis, so that general trends can be analysed without enabling ‘reverse engineering’ of information that can be traced to specific bidders.
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should regularly publish aggregated statistics by type of procurement procedure, object of contract, or any other items deemed relevant for the purposes of public accountability of public buyers (such as percentages of expenditure in green procurement, etc).
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should develop a system of red flag indicators and monitor them with a view to reporting instances of potential collusion to the relevant competition authority.