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

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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.

 

Recent case law on EU Institutional Procurement under the Financial Regulation (I): Self-Cleaning

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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). This blog discusses the first case, while a subsequent post comments on the second.

Judgment of 27 June 2017, NC v Commission, T-151/16, EU:T:2017:437, is concerned with the registration in the Early Warning and Detection System database (ie the registry of tenderers and contractors debarred from EU Institutional procurement, currently relabelled as Early Detection and Exclusion System, EDES) of tenderers that have been found  to have committed serious breaches of contractual obligations--in this case, as established by OLAF, the simulation of procurement procedures for the acquisition of equipment ultimately funded by the EU. The case is affected by the additional difficulty that the rules controlling EU Institutional procurement (ie the Financial Regulation and its Rules of Application) were modified in the period between the irregularities were committed (2008 and 2009) and the time of the imposition of the sanction of debarment by the Commission (which crossed over between 2015 and 2016). This triggered two legal complications in terms of retroactivity of most favourable/lenient substantive rules: first, the effect that needed to be given to a reduction in the maximum period of debarment from 5 to 3 years; second, the possibility to neutralise a ground for exclusion on the basis that the affect undertaking had taken sufficient remedial measures demonstrating its reliability (ie had self-cleaned). On top of that, there were procedural complications due to the revised procedures leading to registration in EDES, which currently require a panel opinion that was not part of the pre-2016 procedure for the registration in the Early Warning and Detection System database.

On the procedural point, which the GC examines first, the dispute hinges on the fact that the debarment decision was adopted on 28 January 2016 (which would have required an involvement of the EDES panel, active from 1 January 2016; see para 32), but the Commission considered the administrative procedure 'completed' on 17 December 2015 (thus subjecting it to the 'no-panel' procedure in force until 31 December 2015; see para 34). This ground is ultimately dismissed by the GC on the basis that there is no reason to establish the retroactive application of the procedural rules to investigations started before 1 January 2016, which would 'imply recommencing the preliminary procedure completed properly before that date, in particular having regard to compliance with the adversarial principle' (para 43).

This decision goes against the general principle that new procedural rules that do not contain specific transitional provisions accompanying the fixing of their general application date also apply to on-going/pending procedures (see para 36). The decision is based on an exception to such created in the Judgment of 8 November 2007, Andreasen v Commission, F-40/05, EU:F:2007:189, whereby that rule can be excluded to avoid 'the retroactive annulment of procedures or procedural steps which complied with the rule in force when they were completed' (para 38; see also para 43 of T-151/16).

What I find interesting, though, is that the GC considers that such assessment is not altered '[e]ven if the introduction of that panel was intended to strengthen the rights of the defence of parties contracting with the Union who may be subject to a penalty under the Financial Regulation' (ibid). In my view, this is a very ad hoc finding, which the GC reaches only because it considers the pre-2016 rules already sufficiently protective of individual rights of the affected undertaking, and to have been adequately followed in the specific instance. Had this not been the case (eg, had the previous procedure been seen to fall short of complying with the adversarial principle), the decision by the GC may well have been the opposite. Thus, on this point, the decision of the GC seems difficult to extrapolate to other contexts and the exception that seems to derive from Andreasen and now NC needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

On the substantive points, first concerning the retroactivity of a more lenient rule allowing for self-cleaning, the GC takes the view that the possibility to self-clean and thus exclude debarment makes the new rules clearly more favourable (para 57). On that basis, the GC takes issue with the fact that the Commission took into account remedial measures for the purpose of setting the duration of the exclusion below the maximum exclusion period (initially at 2 years, later reduced to 18 months) but did not assess it with a view to completely exclude the debarment on the basis of satisfactory self-cleaning. As the GC put it: 'Although the contested decision shows that the remedial measures taken by the applicant were taken into account to determine the duration of the exclusion imposed, no reason is given in that decision as to why those measures were insufficient to satisfy the conditions' for an operator that has taken certain remedial measures demonstrating its reliability not to be excluded from the contracts and grants of the Union (para 58). Second, and along the same lines, on the assessment of the implications of a reduction the maximum debarment period from 5 to 3 years, the GC considers that the new spread of debarment times should have been explicitly taken into account by the Commission (paras 59-60). This eventually leads to an annulment of the debarment decision (para 63).

In my view, this strict approach adopted by the GC on the basis of the guarantees enshrined in Article 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and interpretive case law (paras 53-55) comes to strengthen the procedural guarantees involved in the adoption of debarment decisions. Extrapolating this to procedures not covered by the rules on EU Institutional procurement, but rather by the 2014 Public Procurement Package and its transposition at domestic level by the Member States, it seems clearer than ever to me that there is a need for the revision of the remedies directive in order to ensure the effectiveness of the same level of protection--as discussed, over a year ago, in A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' (August 11, 2016), to be published in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (forthc). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2821828.

GC case law round up: Three relatively recent public procurement judgments (T-700/14; T-74/15; T-441/15)

After some months of having them sitting on my desk, and now that teaching obligations at the University of Bristol Law School subside a bit, it is about time to comment on three relatively recent Judgments of the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in the area of public procurement. Of the three cases, two concern abnormally low tenders and the other  a tricky point about the scope of the CJEU's jurisdiction in the context of framework agreements--which creates some fuzziness in the delineation of private/public law dimensions of public procurement by the EU Institutions. Anecdotally, two of the cases involve European Dynamics, and two of them are available in French but not in English.

Abnormally low tenders (I): Substantive Aspects

Judgment of 26 January 2017, TV1 v Commission, T-700/14, not published, EU:T:2017:35. This tender concerned the provision of integrated audiovisual production, dissemination and archiving services for the European Commission in the context of the Europe by Satellite programme and was, thus, regulated by the Financial Regulation (version of 2012).

The procedure for the award of the contract foresaw three technical quality criteria in addition to the price criterion. It established that only offers that achieved a minimum score of 60% under each technical quality criterion and an overall score of at least 70% on their overall technical quality would be considered for award. It also determined that the overall score of a given tender would be calculated as follows: the ratio between the lowest priced offer and the price of a given offer would be multiplied by 40, and this would be added to the total (technical) quality score (over 100) multiplied by 60 (para 4, own translation from French). In other words, the award criteria relied on 60% of the points given to an absolute evaluation of technical quality and 40% of the points given to a relative evaluation of the prices offered by different tenderers. Given the relative assessment of the price component, this type of evaluation method is prone to challenges based on the treatment of seemingly abnormally low tenders.

Indeed, amongst other legal grounds, the award of the contract was challenged on this basis; the incumbent provider and disappointed tenderer, TV1, argued that the Commission had infringed Art 110(2) Financial Regulation, in conjunction with Art 151 of its Implementing Regulation and the general duty of good administration by not proceeding to a detailed assessment (and rejection) of the seemingly abnormally low offer submitted by the successful tenderer. The GC will eventually reject the complaint in its entirety. In my opinion, some parts of the reasoning of the GC deserve closer attention.

After reproducing consolidated case law on the interpretation of these provisions and the circumstances under which a contracting authority may (or should) have doubts about the viability of a seemingly abnormal tender (paras 32-42), as well as on the broad discretion enjoyed by the contracting authority and the limited review in which the court should engage (para 44), the GC proceeds to analyse the different arguments raised by TV1 against the Commission's decision. In particular, it is interesting to note that the GC dismisses arguments put forward by TV1 concerning the duty the Commission should have had to identify the winning offer as seemingly abnormally low on the basis of the fact that (i) it was 40% lower than the maximum annual budget allowed by the Commission in the tender documents and (ii) it was 11% lower than TV1's offer.

(i) Interestingly, the reasoning of the GC concerning the irrelevance of the fact that the winning tender was 40% below the maximum budget set by the Commission (and that the challengers' offer was itself 32% below maximum budget) rests on the inaccuracy of the budget set by the Commission. Apparently, when setting the maximum budget, the Commission had failed to take into account sharp reductions in the cost of providing the services now (re)tendered (para 49). Thus, the GC was satisfied that the discrepancy between maximum budget and actual offers was a result of the Commission's inaccurate budgeting rather that of abnormal low prices included in the offers. Logically, this makes sense and it could have well been the case. It does, however, raise important concerns about the accuracy and usefulness of budgeting for public contracts under the Financial Regulations--but that is probably a discussion to be had some other time.

(ii) The reasoning of the GC concerning the 11% discrepancy between the lowest (winning) tender and the next (challenger) tender is also interesting. As a matter of general consideration, the GC stresses that "[a]n offer may be cheaper than another without being abnormally low" (para 58) and that "[t]his also applies to a situation in which the tender price of the successful tenderer is lower than that of the tender of the incumbent provider. Otherwise, the incumbent provider could systematically question the reliability of the cheaper offers of the other tenderers, even if they are not abnormally low, but only economically more advantageous" (para 59, own translation from French). In that connection, it is important to stress that the GC sets aside as insufficient reasons to trigger an in-depth assessment of the challenger's offer as apparently abnormally low, the claims brought forward by TV1 that it had to make significant investments when it was first awarded the contract now (re)tendered, and that an expert should be appointed to check that the winning tenderer "should have incurred expenses comparable to those which the [incumbent] had had to bear several years previously in order to be able to supply the services covered by the earlier contract" (para 67, own translation from French). This is interesting because it avoids an analysis of sunk costs that could, otherwise, advantage the incumbent [for related analysis, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 412 ff].

Overall, then, the GC's assessment of the reasons adduced by TV1 to justify the existence of an obligation on the part of the Commission to engage in an in-depth investigation of the winning tender as apparently abnormally low is sound and should be welcome.

Abnormally low tenders (II): Procedural Aspects

Judgment of 2 February 2017,  European Dynamics Luxembourg and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-74/15, not published, EU:T:2017:55. In this case, the tendered contract concerned the provision of IT services relating to off-site information systems development, studies and support. The tender was for the conclusion of a framework agreement which would operate on the basis of mini-competitions.

The challenge brought by European Dynamics concerned the rejection of two specific requests for quotations as a result of two such mini-competitions. One of the challenges concerned an allegation that the chosen quotation was abnormally low, and the legal basis on which it is founded concerns a failure to provide reasons for a dismissal of the claim that the winning quotation was not abnormally low (ie a breach of Arts 113(2) of the Financial Regulation and Art 161(2) of its Implementing Regulation, as cited above). Thus, in this case, the challenge is not based primarily on the dismissal of reasons adduced to create or justify an appearance of abnormality in a tender, but rather on the absence of motivation for that result.

The GC thus takes a very different approach in this case and, rather than concentrating on the elements under which the discretion of the contracting authority is assessed in relation to its determination of whether a tender is seemingly abnormally low or not (as above), on this occasion the GC concentrates on the duty to give reasons as the main check and balance of such discretion, as well as a necessary procedural step in order to preserve the procedural rights of tenderers for public contracts (paras 35-41). From this perspective, the GC stresses that

In the present case, it is apparent ... that the applicants expressly requested clarification from the Commission in order to demonstrate that the price offered by the successful tenderer was not abnormally low ... the Commission confirmed that its [debriefing] letter ... contained its reply in that regard. So far as concerns the nature of the tender selected [in the specific mini-competition] it is apparent from the last page of that letter that the Commission merely stated, in a single sentence, that ‘“the winning offer” of the IPT tender did not fall under the case of “abnormally low” offers.’ (para 45, emphasis added).

The legal issue in front of the GC was, consequently, whether such brief dismissal of the allegation brought forward by European Dynamics sufficed to meet the relevant threshold for the purposes of the duty to provide reasons. As could be expected, the GC does not offer a positive answer. It stresses that

... the single sentence in the letter ... stating that the tender was not abnormally low does not fulfil the duties assigned to the obligation to state reasons, that is, the reasons must be disclosed clearly and unequivocally so as, on the one hand, to make the persons concerned aware of the reasons for the measure and thereby enable them to defend their rights and, on the other, to enable the Court to exercise its power of review. It cannot be accepted that a contracting authority should explain the not abnormally low nature of a tender merely by stating that such was considered not to be the case (para 47, emphasis added).

The GC does not stop there and goes to the extra length of consolidating the substantive standard applicable to the reasons that should be given in order to discharge this duty vis-a-vis a claim concerning the abnormally low nature of a tender. The consolidation of the standard is rather formulaic and may be seen to follow too closely the specific aspects which the Financial Regulation sets out to be possible cause for the abnormality of low values in a tender (eg non-compliance with employment and social law), but it can be a generally useful benchmark in that it clarifies that

... requiring the contracting authority to present the grounds on the basis of which an offer was not considered to be abnormally low does not require it to disclose precise information on the technical and financial aspects of that tender, such as the prices offered or the resources that the successful bidder proposes to use in order to provide the services that it offers. In order to provide a sufficient statement of reasons for that aspect of the selected tender, the contracting authority must set out the reasoning on the basis of which, on the one hand, it concluded that, because of its principally financial characteristics, such an offer complied with the national legislation of the country in which the services were to be carried out in respect of the remuneration of staff, contribution to the social security scheme and compliance with occupational safety and health standards and, on the other, it determined that the proposed price included all the costs arising from the technical aspects of the selected tender ... Accordingly, the Commission’s argument that the tenders in the present case had not raised any doubts that they were not abnormally low and that there was therefore no other information which it could have provided to the applicants must be rejected. (para 49, references omitted and emphasis added).

This comes to clarify that, even if the contracting authority does not think that there is a need to engage in an in-depth assessment of the (winning) tender to determine if it is abnormally low, it must at all times be in a position to provide the reasons why it did not think that was the case. Overall, this seems adequate, although it continues a line of case law that tends to create a significant burden at debriefing stage and that can trigger significant concerns of excessive transparency of commercially-sensitive information between competitors, as the GC's relatively open-ended requirement in para 49 of the Judgment may be difficult to square with the contracting authority's obligation not to disclose information in a way that could alter competition [on that, generally, see A Sanchez-Graells, "The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives" (2013). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11]. 

A Tricky Jurisdictional Point

Judgment of 17 February 2017, European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EMA, T-441/15, not published, EU:T:2017:104. The tender in this case concerned the provision of IT services through a framework agreement that included a cascade mechanism for the allocation of call-off contracts within the framework (for a reference to previous litigation concerning this type of mechanism, see here). European Dynamics was awarded the second-tier framework agreement. At the relevant time, EMA asked European Dynamics for CVs of its candidates for the position of project manager for a given contract. EMA rejected all 5 candidates presented by European Dynamics, and this triggered the challenge.

From a jurisdictional perspective, the difficulty in this case was to determine whether EMA's rejection of the candidates put forward by European Dynamics was a decision of an EU Institution challengeable before the CJEU (GC) under its competence as per Art 263 TFEU. In that regard, the GC stressed that "[i]t must be borne in mind that, under Article 263 TFEU, the [Court] only reviews the legality of acts adopted by the institutions intended to produce legal effects vis-à-vis third parties, significantly by altering their legal position" (para 18, own translation from French). The key question was thus whether EMA's rejection of European Dynamic candidates fell within this jurisdictional framework. 

The GC distinguished this case from the previous analysis in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, EU:T:2014:831 (for discussion see here) on the basis that, "[t]he present case differs from [case T-498/11] in that [in the previous instance,] the specific contracts had not yet been awarded but had to be awarded on the basis of 'mini-competitions' between the selected 'framework contractors' ... [whereas] in the present case, as regards the implementation of a multiple framework contract with cascade allocation, the specific contract has already been allocated according to the position of the economic operators in the cascade, without the need for any further competition between those [economic operators]. Therefore, if the first economic operator is unable to provide the required service or not interested in doing so, the second best operator will be contacted. If the latter is unable to provide the required service or is not interested, then the third best operator will be contacted" (para 24, own translation from French).

Without any additional reasoning, the GC concludes that "the claim for annulment must be declared inadmissible in so far as it is based on Article 263 TFEU" (para 27), on the (implicit) basis that EMA's decision to reject European Dynamic's candidates falls strictly within a pre-established contractual relationship. In the specific case, the CJEU's jurisdiction is saved by the existence of a compromissory clause compatible with Art 272 TFEU in the framework agreement signed between EMA and European Dynamics (para 20), as well as due to the fact that EMA did not challenge the reclassification of the claim for annulment as a contractual claim (para 16). However, it is easy to see how the approach adopted by the GC could have left the claim in limbo -- and possibly time-barred ... -- had it not been by EMA's willingness to deal with the claim in a principled and open manner. Moreover, even if the GC's strictly literal interpretation was right (of which I am not convinced), there would be normative issues concerning the different treatment of functionally identical decisions depending on the type of framework agreement that European Institutions chose to conclude.

Overall, I would suggest that this case should work as a cautionary tale and that the scope of the jurisdiction of the CJEU (GC) to review acts of the European Institutions that, despite taking part within a contractual setting still carry (sufficient) connotations of the exercise of a public power (something the GC only lightly touched upon in this Judgment, at para [22]), requires some rethinking.

CJEU confirms its jurisdiction to review procurement decisions linked to EU's external action (C‑439/13 P)


In its Judgment in Elitaliana v Eulex Kosovo, C-439/13 P, EU:C:2015:341, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has followed the Opinion of Advocate General Jääskinen (discussed here) and considered that it has jurisdiction to review procurement procedures conducted by external missions of the European Union as part of the Common foreign and security policy (CFSP) because they functionally fall within its competences linked to the execution of the EU budget.

The CJEU clearly indicated that, despite the fact that it does not, in principle, have jurisdiction with respect to the provisions relating to the CFSP or with respect to acts adopted on the basis of those provisions (para 41), any restrictions on its competence to interpret the EU Treaties needs to be narrowly construed and, consequently, it must assert jurisdiction when CFSP matters affect the EU budget. More specifically, the CJEU indicated that
47 ... it is not disputed that the Eulex Kosovo Mission is civilian in nature and that the expenditure relating to the helicopter-support service for the Eulex Kosovo Mission was to be allocated to the European Union budget.
48 Therefore, the measures at issue, whose annulment was sought on the basis of an infringement of the rules of EU public procurement law, related to the award of a public contract which gave rise to expenditure to be charged to the European Union budget. Accordingly, the contract at issue is subject to the provisions of the Financial Regulation.
49 Having regard to the specific circumstances of the present case, the scope of the limitation, by way of derogation, on the Court’s jurisdiction ... cannot be considered to be so extensive as to exclude the Court’s jurisdiction to interpret and apply the provisions of the Financial Regulation with regard to public procurement.
50 Consequently, the General Court and, in the case of an appeal, the Court of Justice have jurisdiction to hear this case (C-439/13 P, paras 47-50, emphasis added).
In my view, this is the correct decision. However, as indicated earlier (here), the question that remains open, then, is to what extent there is a need to revise the EU's Financial Regulation to include provisions on mixed civil-military/defence procurement along the lines of the regime foreseen in Directive 2009/81, so that compliance with the rules is not too burdensome for external missions, at least in their early stages. To be fair, running the external missions of the European Union is clearly challenging and procurement probably does not rank very high in the priorities of bodies and agents that need to make it happen. And, in those circumstances, it is fair to say that the regime for urgent procurement can still be rather limiting, particularly as challenges and protests are concerned. Hence, this may be an area that needs regulatory reform.

Other than that, and from the strict perspective of the scope of competence of the Union courts in the field of public procurement, it may also be a good occasion to rethink the role of the General Court and the CJEU as public procurement review bodies. In my opinion, developments such as the Elitaliana v Eulex Kosovo case point to the need to either create a specialized review chamber parallel to the EU Civil Service Tribunal, or to subject procurement review processes to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Maybe this is a second area in need of regulatory reform/institutional redesign.

Interesting case on the award of public contracts and 'prudential budgetary reserves' (T-90/14)

The tension between budgetary rules and public procurement law was rather evident in a recent case before the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European, which it decided in its Judgment of 8 October 2015 in Secolux v Commission, T-90/14, EU:T:2015:772 (only available in French). The case concerned procurement by the EU Institutions, but the situation seems to be applicable mutatis mutandis to procurement covered under the general EU rules for procurement carried out by the Member States.

In the case at hand, the European Commission received a tender valued at 4,222,680 euros and selected it for award of the contract, therefore disclosing that information to all other bidders as part of the general debriefing process. However, the Commission finally awarded the contract for a value of 5,070,000 euros and disclosed this information in the relevant contract award notice. There was no indication of the reasons behind this higher contract value in the contract award notice.

In view of this significant discrepancy between both contract values, a disappointed tenderer challenged the award decision on the basis of an infringement of the requirements of transparency, equal treatment and non-discrimination resulting from the applicable rules. Quite surprisingly, the GC dismissed this claim, on the basis of the following reasoning:
27. At the outset, it should be noted that, as the Commission has explained, the amount of the successful offer was 4,222,680 euros ... The contract has been awarded for 5 070 000 euros euros ... This later amount is equivalent to the rounded price of the offer of the successful tenderer, increased by 20% for indexing and contingencies.
29. In this context, the applicant alleges in particular infringement of the principles of transparency and equal treatment ... as well as rules on advertising.
32. ... it is understood that the applicant's complaint, in essence, is directed against the award of the contract for an amount equivalent to the offer of the successful tenderer , increased by 20% for indexing and contingencies.
37 According to the relevant case law, the principle of transparency, which is essentially aimed to ensure the absence of favoritism or arbitrariness on the part of the contracting authority, means that all terms and conditions of the award procedure must be drawn in a clear, precise and unequivocal manner in the contract notice or in the contract documents (judgments of 29 April 2004, Commission / CAS Succhi di Frutta, C-496/99 P, EU: C: 2004: 236, paragraph 111, and of 26 September 2014, Evropaïki Dynamiki / Commission, T-498/11, EU: T: 2014: 831, paragraph 119).
38 In order to ensure respect for equal treatment and transparency, it is important that all the elements taken into consideration by the contracting authority to identify the economically most advantageous tender and, if possible, their relative importance are known potential bidders when preparing their tenders (judgment of 21 July 2011, Evropaïki Dynamiki / EMSA, C-252/10 P, EU: C: 2011: 512, paragraph 30, and Evropaïki Dynamiki / Commission, paragraph 37 above, EU: T: 2014: 831, paragraph 121).
39 All these requirements were satisfied in this case. Indeed, it clearly appears from the case file that the terms and conditions of the award process have been clearly established in the call for tenders. In addition, the allocation by the Commission for a market value including indexing and contingencies was irrelevant in the identification of the most economically advantageous tender
40 ... the first plea must be rejected as in part inoperative and in part unfounded. None of the arguments advanced by the applicant is in any event undermine that conclusion. 
41 First, it should be stressed that the Commission limited itself to  the creation of a budgetary reserve, which will not be used in the absence of contingencies and applications for price indexing. Therefore, it is not a unilateral increase of the price proposed by the successful tenderer. Moreover, the reservation of a higher budget to deal with unforeseen circumstances constitutes prudential behavior on the part of the Commission (T-90/14, paras 27, 29, 32 and 37 to 411, own translation from French and emphasis added).
The reasoning of the GC is quite surprising because, regardless of the budgetary mechanisms or restrictions affecting the Commission's decision (eg under the applicable rules, there was no specific provision allowing for contract modification, which would have created an incentive for the Commission to create a budgetary reserve by means of inflating the award price), the contract was in fact awarded at a higher price than the tender submitted by the bidder, which is a significant deviation of the standard procedural requirement and opens the door to post-award negotiations that can completely undermine the pre-award competition. 

Such preservation of the result of the ex ante competition for the contract is precisely the reason why contract modification has been the object of specific regulation under Art 72 Dir 2014/24. In short, pre-empting the effectiveness of rules on contract modification (either inexistent rules that prevent it or positive rules that constrain it) by artificially increasing the price of the contract at award stage should not be seen as legitimate prudential behaviour on the part of the contracting authority, but a deviation of power that certainly infringes the basic requirements of the duty of good administration.

Moreover, in the case at hand, there were allegations that the offer was abnormally low and that the chosen tenderer would be unable to perform the contract at the prices offered. Under those circumstances, the GC would have been well advised to dig deeper into the (actual) reasons for the Commission to create such a budgetary reserve by means of an artificially high contract price (which is certainly not best or even standard practice), which could reasonably have been motivated by an actual knowledge that the execution of the contract could not be performed at the offered prices without increases (due to indexation, contingencies or otherwise). And this seems particularly suspicious in view of the fact that the awardee of the contract was an incumbent provider of services to the European Commission.

Thus, in my opinion, the decision of the GC in Secolux v Commission is either naive or way too formal and a better analysis of the behaviour of the Commission would be necessary. I am no expert in EU budgetary law at all, but I find it odd that the Commission can simply decide to create 'prudential budgetary reserves' by means of a manipulation of the prices of the contracts it awards. If there is a further appeal to the CJEU, I would prompt the Court to consider the issue under a more stringent framework.

AG Jääskinen confirms GC and CJEU jurisdiction to review procurement decisions linked to EU's external action: Time to rethink? (C‑439/13 P)

In his second Opinion of 21 May 2015 in case Elitaliana v Eulex Kosovo, C-439/13 P, EU:C:2015:341 (not available in EN), AG Jääskinen has submitted that the EU Courts have competence for the review of decisions awarding public contracts financed by the EU budget in the context of the EU's external action.

In the case at hand, the challenge concerned the award of a services contract for helicopter emergency medical services [transportation] and air ambulance services tendered by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (Eulex Kosovo), which is the largest civilian mission ever launched by the European Union under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) by means of Joint Action 2008/124 (as amended).

AG Jääskinen's Opinion could not be clearer in stressing that "insofar as it relates to public contracts awarded in the context of the external action of the European Union, [the challenge] certainly comes within the scope of the budgetary provisions of EU law", which makes the General Court and the Court of Justice of the European Union competent. I fully agree with his view.

The point of departure that the AG takes is to stress that, under what is now Article 41 TEU, CSDP missions "are funded by the Member States based on their gross national product (GNP) when it comes to military operations, while civil and military expenses are borne by the European Union" (para 38, own translation). And, more specifically, that Art 16 of Joint Action 2008/124 determines that "all the costs of Eulex Kosovo are managed in accordance with the rules and procedures applicable to the general budget of the European Union" (para 39, own translation). Consequently, the "jurisdiction of the Court of Justice follows from the budgetary commitment made by the Union and the adoption of decisions that aim to ensure its implementation within the framework of the functions exercised by entities established pursuant to the acts of the CFSP" (para 41, own translation). 

This leads AG Jääskinen to reject the arguments against the CJEU's jurisdiction based on the "extraneousness" of public procurement rules to the CFSP/CSDP (as submitted by the Commission), or the "political gravitas" of CFSP/CSDP acts, which would require the CJEU to refrain from exercising jurisdiction (as submitted by Eulex Kosovo).

In his Opinion, the AG stresses that there is no doubt whatsoever about the applicability of the relevant EU financial regulation to the contracts awarded in the execution of CSDP missions, in as far as they are financed by the EU Budget--as clearly indicated in the practical guide on contracting procedures applying to all EU external actions financed from the EU general budget and the European Development Fund published by the European Commission (see  2014 version).

At this point, the AG examines the only exception to the previous rules, stressing that
although the jurisdiction of the General Court and the Court of Justice to hear the dispute over public contracts awarded in the context of the external action of the Union has been established, the conclusion of such contracts could however escape the jurisdiction of the Union courts if the contracts include military action. Indeed ... in the light of Article 41 TEU, operations that have an impact on the fields of the military or defense are borne by the budgets of Member States, unless the Council decides otherwise. However, with regard to public procurement of a civil nature, the competence of the Court is indisputable (para 60, own translation).
In view of all the above, AG Jääskinen concludes that: "the courts of the European Union cannot avoid future disputes concerning the insufficient protection of the rights of individuals in the context of external action. Thus, the debate on the status of missions and their personnel, to the extent that they benefit from privileges and immunities, must be accompanied by the provision to individuals of legal means to challenge the acts of the missions that affect their rights and obligations" (para 66, own translation).

The question that remains open, then, is to what extent there is a need to revise the EU's Financial  Regulation to include provisions on mixed civil-military/defence procurement along the lines of the regime foreseen in Directive 2009/81, so that compliance with the rules is not too burdensome for CSDP missions, at least in their early stages. To be fair, running the CSDP missions is clearly challenging and procurement probably does not rank very high in the priorities of bodies and agents that need to make it happen. And, in those circumstances, it is fair to say that the regime for urgent procurement can still be rather limiting, particularly as challenges and protests are concerned. Hence, this may be an area that needs regulatory reform.

Other than that, and from the strict perspective of the scope of competence of the Union courts in the field of public procurement, it may also be a good occasion to rethink the role of the General Court and the CJEU as public procurement review bodies. In my opinion, developments such as the Elitaliana v Eulex Kosovo case (if the CJEU follows AG Jääskinen, of course) point to the need to either create a specialized review chamber parallel to the EU Civil Service Tribunal, or to subject procurement review processes to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Maybe this is a second area in need of regulatory reform/institutional redesign.

GC gets it totally wrong and pushes once more for excessive price transparency in public procurement (T-667/11)

The General Court (GC) recently issued Judgment in Veloss and Attimedia v Parliament, T-667/11, EU:T:2015:5, and annulled an award decision (actually, a ranking of tenderers decision) on the basis of the European Parliament's resistance to disclose the price of the highest ranking bid to the disappointed tenderer that was ranked second. 

In the GC's view, such deliberate omission of the price information requested during the debriefing phase amounts to a breach of Art 100(2) of the applicable Financial Regulation, which established that: "The contracting authority shall notify all candidates or tenderers whose applications or tenders are rejected of the grounds on which the decision was taken, and all tenderers whose tenders are admissible and who make a request in writing of the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the tenderer to whom the contract is awarded" (emphasis added). 

Following its previous case law on this topic (criticised here, here, here and here), the GC shows no flexibility whatsoever and determines that
the Parliament was required to inform them of the price offered by the successful tenderer, which was one of the characteristics and one of the key advantages of the successful tender, especially since, in the circumstances of the present case, that criterion counted for 40% in the evaluation of tenders and the applicants’ tender was the first on the list of tenderers following the evaluation of the qualitative criteria.
That finding is not called into question by the argument put forward by the Parliament at the hearing that the applicants could have established the minimum price offered by one of the tenderers and the price offered by the tenderer ranked first on the basis of the information available to them and deducing it through working backwards on the basis of the [award] formula
suffice it to note that it is clear from settled case-law that, in order to comply with the obligation to state reasons enshrined in Article 296 TFEU, the reasoning of the author of the act must be shown clearly and unequivocally (see, to that effect, judgments in Koyo Seiko v Council, paragraph 42 above, EU:T:1995:140, paragraph 103, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, paragraph 42 above, EU:T:2010:101, paragraph 134). The Parliament’s argument that the applicants could, through working backwards, have deduced the minimum price offered by one of the tenderers and, therefore, the price offered by the tenderer ranked first cannot be accepted. It must be considered that, even if the applicants had made such a deduction, they would have had no certainty regarding the correct application of that formula and the accuracy of the result obtained. That finding is corroborated by the Parliament’s attitude, which raised the possibility of such a deduction being carried out only at the hearing and not during the written procedure. (T-667/11, paras 60, 64 & 65, emphasis added).
It is worth stressing, however, that the requirement to disclose the (exact) price of the highest ranking tender is not explicit in Art 100(2) of the Financial Regulation and, as argued repeatedly, it is not a desirable feature of any debriefing process because it creates excessive transparency [see A Sanchez-Graells, The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives (Nov 2013). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11]. 

Hence, the fact that the GC reads an obligation to explicitly disclose the price offered by the successful tenderer and rejects an argument based on the fact that the disappointed tenderer could ascertain the relative advantage (in terms of price) on the basis of indirect information disclosed by the contracting authority (which, again, reinforces the obligation to disclose the price explicitly) is a very unwelcome development in the interpretation of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation (which can have a clear impact on the interpretation of Art 55 of Directive 2014/24, with further reaching consequences).

Moreover, it is shocking that there is no discussion at all about the second paragraph of Art 100(2) of the Financial Regulation, which expressly indicates that, notwithstanding the general obligation discussed above, "certain details need not be disclosed where disclosure would hinder application of the law, would be contrary to the public interest or would harm the legitimate business interests of public or private undertakings or could distort fair competition between those undertakings". This safeguard clause makes a lot of sense and their ineffective use (or its total disregard) must be lamented.

It is not clear whether the European Parliament expressly relied on this exception (from reading the Judgment, it would seem not), but it is unacceptable that the GC completely excluded such considerations in its Veloss and Attimedia Judgment. Disclosure of explicit prices can have clear negative impacts on competition and should be covered (always, or at least in the vast majority of cases, by the safeguard clause in Art 100(2) of the Financial Regulation, as well as by Art 55(3) Dir 2014/24]. 

Indeed, the problem of excessive pricing transparency and its negative effects for competition in public procurement markets is very important and the scholarly consensus is that transparency needs to be reduced, particularly when it comes to price signals in procurement settings [for a recent discussion, see C Estevan de Quesada, ‘Competition and transparency in public procurement markets’ (2014) 23 Public Procurement Law Review 229-244]. Consequently, the Veloss and Attimedia Judgment is a step in the wrong direction and it starts to be hard to believe that the case law on transparency can make a turn towards economic wisdom.

On a more positive note, another important point to stress focuses on the possibilistic approach adopted by the GC when it comes to deciding what sorts of procurement decisions are amenable to judicial review. In that regard, it bears some stress that the GC found that
according to settled case-law and having regard to the objective of effective and rapid judicial protection, in particular by interlocutory measures, the possibility of review cannot be subject to the fact that the public procurement procedure in question has formally reached a particular stage. On the basis of the consideration that compliance with the procurement rules must be ensured in particular at a stage at which infringements can still be corrected, it must be concluded that an expression of the will of the contracting authority in connection with a contract, which comes in any way whatever to the knowledge of the persons interested, is amenable to review, provided that that expression has passed the stage of acts which constitute a mere preliminary study of the market or are purely preparatory and form part of the internal reflections of the contracting authority with a view to a public award procedure and is capable of producing legal effects (see, to that effect and by analogy, judgment of 11 January 2005 in Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C‑26/03, ECR, EU:C:2005:5, paragraphs 38 and 39) (T-667/11, para 47, emphasis added).
This, the GC got right.

Three recent cases on EU Institutions' procurement and one common theme: good administration and confidential information (T-498/11, T-91/12 & T-199/12)

Within the last week, the General Court has ruled on three disputes concerning public procurement activities of the European Commission to which the Financial Regulation was applicable. All cases involved the rejection of tenderers/tenders (at different stages of the procurement procedures) and challenges against the immediate rapport established between the Commission and the disappointed tenderers, which involved some sort of (discretionary) management of confidential information by the contracting authority. Remarkably, all cases have been decided in favour of the European Commission.

Reading them together, a common theme emerges from the Judgments in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, 
EU:T:2014:831Flying Holding and Others v Commission, T-91/12, EU:T:2014:832; and Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission, T-199/12, EU:T:2014:848. Functionally, all these Judgments are concerned with the duty of good administration, some of its more specific requirements (such as the duty to provide reasons, or the duty to protect confidential information), and its boundaries--which is a topic of increasing relevance in EU public law and, particularly, in EU public procurement law [see J Mendes, ‘Good Administration in EU Law and the European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour’, EUI Working Paper Law 2009/09, and some related comments here].
 
In my view, these three Judgments clearly indicate that despite the increasing complexity and detail of the public procurement rules, most decisions end up being assessed on the basis of the reasonableness, objectivity and proportionality of the decisions taken by contracting authorities as implicit requirements of the principle of good administration. The following is a closer discussion on why I think this is so.
 
(1) Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF) is concerned with the rejection of an offer submitted for the services contract concerning the revamping of the website of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). More specifically, Evropaïki Dynamiki challenges the withholding of information regarding the technical aspects of the winning offer, which the Commission justified on the basis that it 'might affect the successful tenderer’s legitimate business interests ..., or might distort fair competition between the undertakings concerned' (which follows what is established in art 100(2) Financial Regulation, as discussed here, here and here). In the applicant's view, this amounts to a violation of the duty to state reasons and, ultimately, of the principle of good administration.
 
The GC engages in a detailed assessment of the duty to state reasons and the balance with the protection of the confidential information and business interest of other tenderers (and, particularly, the awardee of the contract) (paras 28-50). In my view, the argument is ultimately concerned with compliance with these two conflicting requirements of the more general duty of good administration. It is worth highlighting that the GC clarifies that
in order to fulfil its obligation to state reasons, the [contracting authority] was required to communicate to the applicant the reasons for the rejection of its tender, the characteristics and relative merits of the successful tender, and the name of the successful tenderer (order of 29 November 2011 in Case C-235/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 46). By contrast, it does not follow from those provisions or from the judgment of 10 September 2008 in Case T-59/05 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR [...] that the [contracting authority] was required to provide the applicant with a complete copy of the evaluation report (see, to that effect, order of 20 September 2011 in Case C-561/10 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 25) (T-498/11 at para 43).
It is also important to stress that the GC finds no shortcoming based on the principle of good administration in the use of relatively generic justifications for the withholding of information:
It is thus apparent that the [contracting authority] fulfilled its obligation to state reasons [...] regardless of the fact that the wording of those letters was stereotypical in nature as regards the reasons for the removal of some information (see, to that effect, judgment of 24 April 2012 in Case T‑554/08 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 141). Such wording is permissible in light of the fact that it may be impossible to state the reasons precisely justifying the confidentiality of each of the pieces of information concerned without disclosing them and therefore negating the effectiveness of the second subparagraph of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation (T-498/11 at para 45, emphasis added).
In my view, this Judgment is important in that it should reinforce the message that the principle of good administration requires a careful balance of the duty to state reasons against the duty to protect propietary and confidential business information, which should allow contracting authorities to give more importance to the second element and be less afraid of litigation on the basis of alleged shortcomings in the duty to state reasons. Generally, it may contribute to a better balance between transparency and competition in the public procurement setting, which should be welcome [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, Albert, 'The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives' (2013) University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11].
 
(2) Flying Holding and Others v Commission (not available in English) concerned the hire of aerotaxis for the President and other members of the EU Institutions and was organised as a two-stage restricted procedure. In this case, Flying Holding and its subsidiaries were not invited to the second phase of the tender due to the incompleteness of the documentation supporting their expression of interest and, in particular, certain security audits.

The dispute revolves around the (lack of) clarity of the documentary requirements included in the call for expressions of interest, as well as the Commission's unwillingness to accept the belated submission of those documents by Flying Holding due to a previous false declaration that they did not exist. The arguments of the challenger fundamentally rely on alleged breaches of the principles of proportionality, right to defence, and good administration. Interestingly, the GC has upheld the initiative taken by the Commission to directly contact the relevant aviation authorities to enquire about the safety of the operations of Flying Holding and its subsidiaries in the absence of documentation in the expression of interest. Furthermore, the GC has considered that even if the way in which such contact was carried out may have amounted to a violation of the right of defence, that would not have altered the outcome of the procedure due to the automatic application of the exclusion grounds based on falsity of (self)declarations in the public procurement setting (under art 94 Financial Regulation).
 
The reasoning of the GC is riddled with very technical points (see paras 41-50) but, in my opinion, the ultimate functional reading is that contracting authorities that proactively seek to clarify the (in)existence of a ground for exclusion/qualitative selection of tenderers are adequately discharging their duties under the principle of good administration, even if they contact third parties or authorities [for discussion of the new rules under Directive 2014/24, see A Sánchez Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing in the New Public Sector Procurement Directive 2014/24', in F Lichere, R Caranta and S Treumer (ed) Novelties in the 2014 Directive on Public Procurement, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series, (Copenhagen, Djøf Publishing, 2014)]. The requirements of the right of defence in that case are limited to communicating the result of such enquiries to the candidate or tenderer concerned, as well as providing it with an opportunity to comment.
 
It is also interesting to stress the reasoning the GC undertakes in relation to false or inexact (self)declarations and their relationship with the right to defend against the imposition of administrative sanctions (paras 51-79), which in my view are bound to trigger significant litigation in non-institutional (or general) procurement once Directive 2014/24 gets transposed (and, particularly, its rules on the European Single Procurement Document of art 59). The GC sees no breach of the principle of proportionality in the application of very strict standards in the interpretation and enforcement of exclusion grounds (paras 81-91). On that point, some more space may be created in the treatment of non-fully compliant tenderers, in the same way as for abnormally low and non-fully compliant bids [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, (2013), 'Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions' in M Comba & S Treumer (eds), Award of Contracts in EU Procurements, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series, Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013, 267-302].
 
(3) Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission concerned the provision of services related to the 'Crimean tourism diversification and support project', for which the challenging consortium's offer was not selected. Legally, this case is peculiar because the application of the Financial Regulation derives from the Practical Guide to Contract Procedures for EU external actions, in its 2010 version, updated in March 2011 (‘the PRAG’). Generally, the case is interesting because it focusses on the irregular situation where the disappointed tenderer seemed to have gained access to confidential information while the tender procedure was still under way, which triggered the involvement of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) [however, I could not find public information on that strand of the case].
 
As procurement is concerned, in the case at hand, Euro-link had access to a version of the CV of the team leader proposed by a competing tenderer and used it to challenge the technical assessment of her experience. Avoiding issues of confidentiality of that document, the GC considered that, even if the two versions of the CV (the one submitted by the competing consortium and the one used by Euro-link in its challenge) were different, this was not relevant. In its words,
As regards the alleged infringement of the principle of equal treatment, it must be noted that, according to settled case-law, that principle requires that comparable situations not be treated differently and different situations not be treated alike unless such treatment is objectively justified (see judgment of 10 October 2013 in Manova, C‑336/12, ECR, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 30 and the case-law cited). In the present case, it must be noted that the different treatment of the version of Ms T.’s CV submitted to the Evaluation Committee by the consortium led by GDSI and that submitted by the applicants is justified by the different situations in which those two documents were submitted. The first, submitted in the context of the evaluation procedure, was intended to be examined by the contracting authority, whereas the second, submitted after the contract had been awarded, did not constitute, subject to the examinations carried out by the Commission, evidence capable of calling into question the probative value of the first (T-199/12 para 78).
This reasoning based on the principle of equal treatment seems odd and it is submitted that an alternative assessment based on the principle of good administration may have led to the same conclusion. Where the Commission has carried out a proper evaluation procedure and is satisfied that all requirements are met by a given tenderer, there is no breach of its duty of good administration if it does not reassess that position on the basis of (confidential) documentation submitted by a tenderer that does not provide substantial new facts.
 
As a tentative working conclusion, I think that this group of cases highlight the increasing trend of litigation of procurement decisions based on general principles of EU administrative and public law. Moreover, it makes it clear that contracting authorities will not be blamed for balancing the duty to state the reasons for their decisions with competing needs, even if they: 1) ensure a high level of protection of confidential information, particularly where third party (business) interests are at stake; 2) take proactive steps in the verification of the information provided by candidates (hence, lifting partially the confidentiality of the procedure or seeking access to third party confirmation, provided defence rights are upheld); or 3) disregard competing claims based on confidential information if they have carried out their own verification procedures (at evaluation stage).
 
Generally, I think that this group of cases should show that contracting authorities that exercise discretion in the management of confidential information are much less open to (viable) legal challenge than could have been though. And this should reduce the existing pressure towards excessive transparency in the public procurement setting, which can ultimately result in a healthier competitive environment. Consequently, this line of legal development must be welcome.

Competition infringer: You don't want the EU Commission as your banker (T-564/10)

In its Judgment in Quimitécnica.com and de Mello v Commission, T-564/10, EU:T:2014:583, the General Court has addressed a rather strange issue concerning the interest rates applicable by the European Commission when undertakings that have breached competition law choose to (partially) defer the payment of their fines.

The main dispute derives from the fact that, under the 2002 Financial Regulation, unsecured outstanding amounts are subject to an interest rate of ECB+3.5%, whereas secured debts go down to ECB+1.5%. It is a rather important point to note that the Financial Regulation indicates that the deferral of payments is subject to the condition that
"the debtor lodges a financial guarantee covering the debt outstanding in both the principal sum and the interest, which is accepted by the institution's accounting officer" (emphasis added).
 
In the case at hand, Quimitecnica and JMS requested their fine to be payable in three annual instalments and offered to provide a bank guarantee by a given Portuguese bank. The Commission's accounting officer agreed to the deferred payment plan, subject to them providing a guarantee  issued "by a bank rated as long-term AA", which the proposed guarantor was not.
 
The undertakings failed to obtain such guarantee and challenged the "long-term AA" requirement before the GC (in the case that has now been decided). They did not provide any other bank guarantee. However, during the procedure, the undertakings met all deadlines in the agreed (but unsecured) financial plan and eventually settled all their debt with the Commission. However, at this stage, the Commission requested the payment of  additional interest in view of their failure to provide satisfactory guarantees for the credit (now effectively extinct).
 
There are may interesting passages in the Judgment, such as the attitude displayed by the Commission in its argument that the appeal had now become void of content (due to the debt having been paid in full) despite the dispute of over 36,000 Euro in interest being on the table. The arguments against the standing of the undertakings to challenge the measure on the basis that it could not change their legal situation simply do not hold water, regardless of the technicalities in which the Commission and the GC engage.
 
More importantly, the way in which the GC accepts the position of the Commission and does not engage in any significant assessment of the proportionality of the "long-term AA" rating is troubling. Indeed, the arguments raised by the undertakings on the inconsistency incurred by the Commission should have been given more weight. It is definitely irrational for the Commission to be criticising rating agencies and proposing their regulation, while at the same time stubbornly relying on their ratings and not being willing to negotiate the conditions of acceptability of guarantees issued by other banking institutions.
 
Furthermore, from a functional perspective, the case does not make much sense and there is an element of estoppel that I am finding difficult to pin down, but puzzles me. If the furniture of the bank guarantee was a condition for the acceptance of the payment plan, absent the guarantee, the Commission should have insisted on payment of the debt immediately and in full.

Reversely, by accepting partial payments according to the plan, and leaving its credit completely unsecured during the proceedings before the GC (could an interim measure not have been requested?), the behaviour of the European Commission could be seen as amounting to a waiver of the guarantee requirement. Somehow, I think that the Commission is having its cake and eating it too. And I am not sure that the same behaviour by a private creditor would be tolerable, which makes the findings of the GC all the more troubling.
 
In any case, it is very likely that the cost of this procedure far exceeds the 36,000 Euro at stake, which makes me wonder if this is the best possible use of the Commission's and the GC's resources.

Cheaters beware: GC enforces strict #suspension rules in EU #publicprocurement (T-87/11)

In its Judgment of 10 April 2013 in case T-87/11 GRP Security v Court of Auditors, the General Court of the EU (GC) has analysed some interesting features of the sanctions that EU institutions can apply to non-performing public contractors in order to prevent their participation in new public tenders for a given period of time (ie temporary exclusion, or suspension).

In the case at hand, GRP Security had been awarded a contract for the security of the premises of the Court of Auditors on the basis of falsified professional documentation--more specifically, the CV and professional qualifications of the security team leader called to oversee the proper working of the security activities. Upon discovery of such falsity, the Court of Auditors unilaterally decided to terminate the services contract and informed GRP Secutirty that it planned to claim damages and to enforce the available financial and administrative penalties. The company retorted that they were not aware of the illegal behaviour of their employee, whom they fired and sued for damages. 

The Court of Auditors' decision was unchanged, and the contract was terminated, together with a claim for €16,000 for moral and economic damages (which were deduced from the payments corresponding to the outstanding invoices for the services rendered before termination). Moreover, on the basis of article 96.2.a)  of the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities, GRP Security was thus provisionally excluded from contracts and grants financed by the budget of the Union for a period of three months--which should be revised and could lead to an extension of the exclusion if the applicant did not provide evidence that it had taken appropriate internal corrective action to prevent similar events from happening again. It is worth stressing that the maximum period of exclusion is 10 years, and that the payment of financial penalties by the contractor can reach the full value of the contract in question [art 96.2.b)]--so it is clear that the sanctions imposed by the Court of Auditors were well below the maximum thresholds set in the Financial Regulation.

Within the set period of three months, GRP Security submitted a remedial plan to the satisfaction of the Court of Auditors and, consequently, no extension of the initial suspension was imposed. Afterwards, GRP Security initiated legal proceedings to challenge the unilateral termination of the contract by the Court of Auditors and announcing that it reserved the right to seek financial compensation (not least, for its temporary exclusion from EU procurement tendering).

One of the interesting points of law in the dispute is whether the EU Financial Regulation actually allows for a sanction of reviewable temporary exclusion or not. Article 96.2.a) of the Financial Regulation, coupled with article 134 ter of its Implementing Regulation, determine that

Without prejudice to the application of penalties laid down in the contract, candidates or tenderers and contractors who have made false declarations, have made substantial errors or committed irregularities or fraud, or have been found in serious breach of their contractual obligations may be excluded from all contracts and grants financed by the Community budget for a maximum of five years from the date on which the infringement is established as confirmed following an adversarial procedure with the contractor.
That period may be extended to 10 years in the event of a repeated offence within five years of the date referred to in the first subparagraph (emphasis added).
According to GRP Security, the system only foresees one-off exclusion decisions, but it does not allow for a set of rolling decisions dependent upon the adoption of remedial action on the part of the suspended contractor. The GC avoided answering this important point of law by relying on the specific circumstance that the Court of Auditors did not extend GRP Security's exclusion at the end of the initial 3-month period (paras. 67-71 of the T-87/11 Judgment). Therefore, legal uncertainty seems to remain concerning this possible reviewable or on-going application of the suspension regime.

In my view, however, such temporary suspension coupled with a compliance check fits within the system of  the Financial Regulation and its Implementing Regulation, and would be to the advantage of contractors--since, in the absence of such possibility to review, contracting authorities could clearly be tempted to impose longer exclusion periods from the beginning. Moreover, companies should be the first interested in implementing remedial action and, consequently, gaining some immediate benefits from that investment. Also, this would be in line with the current trend of recognition of the value of 'self-cleaning' efforts, such as in article 55 of the December 2011 proposal for a reviewed EU Directive.

GRP Systems also appealed the 3-month temporary suspension decision on the basis of an alleged lack of proportionality, which the GC easily dismissed, considering that
the applicant has seriously failed to meet its contractual obligations. In addition, it should be recalled that the Court of Auditors, which is one of the institutions of the Union, is dedicated to examining the legality and regularity of revenue and expenditure of the Union and any organ or body created by the EU and to ensure their sound financial management (Article 287, second subparagraph, TFEU). Particularly in view of these missions and the severity of the deficiencies attributable to the applicant, it should be considered that the latter, by his conduct undermined the image of the Court of Auditors and the European Union (T-87/11, para 81, own translation from French).
This part of the Judgment may be criticised on the basis that it seems to allow for an analysis of the gravity of the offence and the ensuing sanction on the basis of factors that are external to the offender (would the same actions be less reproachable had they been committed against an institution not entrusted with a financial audit or oversight mission?). However, it seems clear that the GC is prepared to uphold the highest standards of professional conduct in the field of EU public procurement and this more general message must be most welcome.



In general, this case highlights the need for some additional clarity and development of the system of suspension and debarment of non-performing contractors in EU public procurement which, in my view, should not only be created for EU's institutional procurement, but extended to the general rules applicable in the Member States.