GC on non-disclosure of ECB documents: Carte blanche to public market manipulation? (T-590/10)

Today's Judgment of the General Court of the EU in case T-590/10 Gabi Thesing and Bloomberg Finance LP v ECB has provided clarification on the reasons that the ECB (and, by analogy, other EU Institutions) can provide to reject a request of access to its documents. The GC has backed the ECB in its non-disclosure decision on the basis of the protection of public interest and has adopted a broad view of such an exception. 

In general terms, the position of the ECB and the GC seem appropriate to grant  sufficient administrative discretion to the EU Institutions in their assessment of the public interest at stake. However, the specifics of the GC Judgment are a bit troubling, if one takes the position of the GC to its logical extreme. In my view, the following bears emphasizing:
43 [...] the ECB must be recognised as enjoying a wide discretion for the purpose of determining whether the disclosure of documents relating to the fields covered by that exception could undermine the public interest. The European Union judicature’s review of the legality of such a decision must therefore be limited to verifying whether the procedural rules and the duty to state reasons have been complied with, whether the facts have been accurately stated, and whether there has been a manifest error of assessment or a misuse of powers (see, by analogy, Case C‑266/05 P Sison v Council [2007] ECR I‑1233, paragraph 34). [...]
45 [...] with respect to the applicants’ arguments that the ECB incorrectly failed to take account of the public interest considerations in favour of disclosure and that there is a compelling public interest for disclosure of the documents at issue which would in fact further the public interest, the Court notes that the exceptions to the right of access to documents provided for in Article 4(1)(a) of Decision 2004/258 are framed in mandatory terms. It follows that the ECB is obliged to refuse access to documents falling under any one of those exceptions once the relevant circumstances are shown to exist, and no weighing up of an ‘overriding public interest’ is provided for in that provision, in contrast with the exceptions referred to in Article 4(2) and (3) of that decision (see, by analogy, Joined Cases T‑3/00 and T‑337/04 Pitsiorlas v Council and ECB [2007] ECR II‑4779, paragraph 227 and the case-law cited). [...]
51 As regards the issue whether disclosure of the first document would specifically and effectively undermine the protected interest in question, it is common ground [...] that, at the time of the adoption of the contested decision, the European financial markets were in a very vulnerable environment. The stability of those markets was fragile, in particular, because of the economic and financial situation of the Hellenic Republic. It is also common ground that that situation and the related sales of Greek financial assets were causing strong depreciations in the value of those assets, which also triggered losses for Greek and other European holders. The applicants did not dispute that that development had the potential of leading to negative spillover effects on the solvency and funding conditions of other issuers and countries in the euro area. In such an environment, it is clear that market participants use the information disclosed by central banks and that their analyses and decisions are considered a particularly important and reliable source to assess current and prospective financial market developments. Moreover, the ECB was entitled to find that public confidence is an essential element affecting the proper functioning of the financial markets. The ECB was not indeed contradicted in this respect by the applicants. [...]
56 [...] the fact that, on 21 October 2010, the data contained in the first document were outdated and that they gave only a snapshot of the factual situation at the time that the document was drafted does not permit the conclusion that, in the event of disclosure of that document, financial market participants would also have regarded as outdated and therefore of no value ECB staff assumptions and views regarding the impact of off-market swaps on government deficit and on government debt which are contained in that document.
57 Although it is true that those participants are professionals who can be expected to use information taken from documents in the context of their work, the fact remains that they consider assumptions and views originating from the ECB to be particularly important and reliable for assessing the financial market. It cannot reasonably be precluded that, even if those assumptions and views were made on the basis of data available well before 21 October 2010, they would have been regarded as still valid on that date. Moreover, it can be assumed that, by relying on those assumptions and views that were based on a certain known factual situation, those professionals might have inferred, on the basis of additional data, assumptions and views allegedly held by the ECB regarding the government deficit and government debt at the time that the ECB definitively refused access to that document. In this respect, any clarification by the ECB on the disclosed version of that document, indicating that the information contained therein was no longer up to date, would not have been able to prevent disclosure of that document from misleading the public and financial market participants in particular on the situation regarding the government deficit and government debt as assessed by the ECB.
58 In the light of the very vulnerable environment in which the financial markets found themselves at the time of adoption of the contested decision, the assessment that such an error would undermine the economic policy of the Union and the Hellenic Republic cannot be rejected as manifestly incorrect. Indeed, such an error might have had negative consequences on access, in particular for that Member State, to the financial markets and might therefore have affected the effective conduct of economic policy in the Hellenic Republic and the Union. (T-590/10, paras 43 to 58, emphasis added).
In my view, to put it clearly, the reasoning of the GC diminishes the analytical capacity of the financial sector and disregards the ability of professional financial advisors and analysts to separate the chaff from the grain and boldly assumes that panic and shortsightedness would have dominated the analysis of the documents which disclosure was requested (a rather strong assumption, at any rate). Moreover, in its analysis of the cumulative impact that disclosure may have had, the GC basically opposes all basic tenets that financial markets can only work effectively on the basis of full disclosure of any potentially relevant information [an assumption that, on the other hand, is strongly defended under EU rules on market abuse]. 

All in all, in an (acknowledged) extreme reading of the GC's Thesing Judgment, the ECB (and other EU Institutions) may have been given carte blanche to manipulate financial markets (by withholding information) if they deem such manipulation in the public interest. That can surely not be acceptable under EU Law. Therefore, a correction of the Thesing broad reasoning seems desirable, in order to keep any degree of effectiveness in the provisions of article 15 TFEU -- and so that everything is not effectively lost in the field of EU governance.

Duty to give reasons under EU procurement law and EU trademark law: is there a contradiction?

Even if they may seem two rather disconnected areas of legal practice, reading cases on EU public procurement and on EU trademark law sometimes offers interesting insights into broader issues of EU Economic Law or, more generally, EU Law. For instance, some recent case law on the duty to provide reasons under each of the specific adminsitrative procedures that govern contract tendering and trademark registration shows what, in my view, is rather a contradiction.

On the one hand, and as commented recently here, the General Court issued his Judgment in Sviluppo Globale GEIE v Commission where it imposed a very demanding standard for the duty to give reasons in procurement cases. Indeed, the GC held that:
27 [...] despite the information contained in [debriefing] letters, and taking into account the relevant case law [Evropaïki Dynamiki/OEDT, T-63/06 at para 112, and Evropaïki Dynamiki/Commission, T-300/07 at para 50] the applicant has not received a response from the Commission showing in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision. [...]
30 [...] the Commission has not made a formal comparison of the projects described by the applicant in its expression of interest against the benchmark of the three criteria set out in paragraph 21.3.a) of the contract notice. In particular, it did not explain which of these three criteria was not satisfied by the projects [submitted by the applicant]. In these circumstances, the applicant was not able to know if the reason for the rejection of her expression of interest in the procurement in question concerned the minimum number of projects implemented, their budget, their completion in a timely manner or the areas in which they were executed. [...]
35 [...] when, as in this case, a European institution has a wide discretion, the guarantees conferred by the Community legal order in administrative procedures is of an even more fundamental relevance. Those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to state sufficient reasons for its decisions (Technische Universität München, C-269/90 at para 14; Le CanneCommission, T-241/00 at paras 53 and 54, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-300/07  at para 45). [...]
40 In light of the foregoing, it must be held that the applicant properly submits that, to the extent that the Commission has not developed further the reasons why her candidacy did not meet the technical selection criteria set in the contract notice, it has not received in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning of the Commission, which would have allowed her to know the reasons for the decision not to be included in the shortlist of the contract at issue. Moreover, she could not sue without knowing what those reasons are. It is noteworthy in this regard that the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 1) sets an obligation on the administration to justify its decisions and that this motivation is not only in general, the expression of the transparency of administrative action, but it must also allow the individual to decide, with full knowledge of the facts, if it is useful for her to apply to a court. There is therefore a close relationship between the obligation to state reasons and the fundamental right to effective judicial protection and the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (GC T-183/10, at paras 27 to 40, emphasis added, own translation from French).
As I said, this detailed debriefing standard imposes a very high burden on the contracting authorities and entities to provide very detailed reasons concerning every single criterion used in the evaluation of bids. Therefore, contracting authorities and entities will have a powerful incentive to be extremely cautious in the level of detail they provide in debriefing letters and meetings and, in case of doubt, they may feel that the safer position is to err on the side of providing excessive rather than insufficient information. And this generates some troubling incentives and risks, as discussed here.

On the other hand and on the same day, the GC issued its Judgment of 10 October 2012 in case Case T-569/10 Bimbo v OHMI - Panrico (BIMBO DOUGHNUTS), where the challenger of OHIM's decision contended, among other grounds for appeal, that OHIM had not expressly addressed some of the arguments presented during the trademark review procedure. In this case, the GC found that:39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons provided for in the first sentence of Article 75 of Regulation No 207/2009
39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons [...]
40 It is to be observed that in the present case the Board of Appeal set out in the contested decision the facts and legal considerations which led it to take that decision [...]
41 As regards, more particularly, the applicant’s argument that the Board of Appeal failed to respond to two specific arguments which it had put forward during the procedure before OHIM, the following points should be made.
42 Firstly, with regard to the applicant’s argument that the word ‘doughnuts’ is regarded by the Spanish public as descriptive of the goods in question, the Board of Appeal addressed that argument by stating, in paragraph 18 of the contested decision, that for the average Spanish consumer (excluding those who speak English) the word ‘doughnuts’ did not describe the goods or their qualities. It also held that the earlier sign, like the sign applied for, would be perceived as a foreign or fantasy term ‘by most consumers’.
43 Thus, the Board of Appeal implicitly held that the majority of average Spanish consumers did not speak English or, at least, did not speak it well enough to know the meaning of the word ‘doughnuts’. In that context, it should be observed that the reasoning of the decision of a Board of Appeal may be implicit, on condition that it enables the persons concerned to know the reasons for the Board of Appeal’s decision and provides the competent Court with sufficient material for it to exercise its power of review (Case T‑304/06 Reber v OHIM – Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli (Mozart) [2008] ECR II‑1927, paragraph 55).
44 In this case, the Board of Appeal’s reasoning rejecting the argument based on the allegedly descriptive character of the ‘doughnuts’ element of the trade mark was sufficient to enable the applicant to understand the reasons that had led the Board of Appeal to adopt the contested decision and to enable the Court to exercise its power of review.
45 Secondly, with regard to the applicant’s argument based on the reputation of the ‘bimbo’ element of the trade mark applied for, it is true that the Board of Appeal did not explicitly address that argument in the contested decision. However, it pointed out that the ‘doughnuts’ element in the trade mark applied for ‘[would] catch the attention of the relevant Spanish public, as it appears unusual in Spanish due to the atypical combination of vowels “ou” and the accumulation of consonants “ghn”’. The Board thus held that that element could not be disregarded in the comparison in question. Thus, it follows from the contested decision that the Board of Appeal did not consider that the ‘bimbo’ element of the mark applied for dominated the overall impression created by the mark applied for to such an extent that the other component – the ‘doughnuts’ element – could be disregarded. The reasoning relating to this point was also sufficient to enable the applicant to know the reasons for the contested decision and to enable the Court to review the legality of the decision on that point.
46 The statement of reasons in the contested decision is thus sufficient in law.
(GC T-569/10, at paras 39 to 46, emphasis added).
In my reading, the position of the GC in Bimbo Doughnuts is a more balanced review of the reasons provided by the authority than in Sviluppo Globale, and the focus is ultimately functional. Even if the bottom limit or the minimum standard concerning the duty to give reasons set by the GC in both Sviluppo Globale and Bimbo Doughnuts points towards the same functional requirement [ie that the affected party (either a bidder or a trademark applicant) must be able to decide whether to apply to a court to challenge the decision on the basis of its supporting elements, and that such court must be able to exercise its power of review], there seems to be a clear contradiction--or, at the very least--a significant discrepancy in the level of scrutiny in both cases.

Whereas Sviluppo Globale indicates the need to "show in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision", Bimbo Doughnuts leaves more room to administrative restrictions of the information provided by accepting that "the reasoning of the decision may be implicit and even not expressly address all points raised by the applicant", provided always that the information given is sufficient to understand the reasons for the contested decision. In my opinion, the second position is much less formal and allows for a more workable system of administration of EU rules. Therefore, it seems preferable and should be extended to the public procurement arena and, more generally, to all areas of EU Law.

In this regard, the codification of a proper set of rules (or standards) on EU Administrative Law seems a worthy regulatory exercise. For very interesting proposals, please see the projects conducted under the Research Network on EU Administrative Law http://www.reneual.eu/.