Making public procurement great again?* COMMENTS on the commission's Communication of 3 october 2017

number6_PNG18567.png

Continuing with our procurement tennis on the Commission's October 2017 procurement package, it is now turn for Pedro and me to concentrate on the Communication "Making Public Procurement work in and for Europe" COM(2017) 572 final, which is the main pillar of a renewed policy push that has a strong emphasis on the interaction between procurement and investment in the single market.

In this Communication, the Commission outlines 6 strategic priorities for public procurement policy in areas "where clear and concrete action can transform public procurement into a powerful instrument in each Member State’s economic policy toolbox, leading to substantial benefits in procurement outcomes". These include: (i) Ensuring wider uptake of strategic public procurement; (ii) Professionalising public buyers; (iii) Improving access to procurement markets; (iv) Increasing transparency, integrity and better data; (v) Boosting the digital transformation of procurement; and (vi) Cooperating to procure together.

In this post, I offer some critical comments on the 6 strategic priorities (three of which I consider highly questionable, and three which require further thought), as well as some overall considerations in the way the Commission seems to have started to shift away from its role of Guardian of the Treaties, and to morph into something else as it "commits to firmly support a change of the public procurement culture in Member States".

General comments

Overall, the Communication has undertones that bring it closer to an industrial policy for the single market, including the promotion of 'sustainability-orientated' secondary policies, than to a strategy to improve procurement as a working tool for the public sector. Indeed, procurement is presented as "a fundamental element of the investment ecosystem" because "a substantial part of public investment in our economy is spent through public procurement, representing 14 % of the EU GDP", which is language clearly linked to the instrumental use of procurement. And, to say it all, the Communication formulates that "sustainable industrial investment policy" through weird choices of words that echo the slogans of populist movements on both sides of the Atlantic--which may not send the right messages to trade partners monitoring issues such as the initiative on third country access to EU procurement markets. Therefore, it will probably not be surprising to read that I am not convinced that this is the best possible steer for public procurement policy in the EU context--much along the lines I already sketched here and here.

It will probably not be surprising either that the scant empirical evidence underlying the formulation of this policies is once again a source of criticism of the Commission's efforts. In the Communication (section 2), the Commission lists a series of examples of what it considers "encouraging steps ... to radically reform procurement practices or structures". Amongst them, the Commission resorts once more to the HAPPI Project, which it presents as having enabled"innovative solutions for healthy aging [to] have been procured jointly by contracting authorities in several Member States". However, the reality of things is that this project is far from a success story due to the extremely low take-up of the technologies procured and the limited use of the framework agreements put in place (as evidenced by reports financed by the Commission itself; see here). The Commission also presents as a success story the fact that "Slovakia has put in place a contract register that gives public access to all contracts concluded by the public authorities in the country, thus improving transparency and allowing for public scrutiny", without acknowledging that transparency in procurement remains a significant challenge and that the Commission's own initiative to promote the creation of such registries triggers some concerns (see here, here and here, as well as this paper by K-M Halonen). On the whole, the formulation of a policy priorities such as those contained in the October 2017 Communication should be supported by detailed empirical evidence and careful impact assessments. Their absence creates some questions as to the actual justification for the policies, which is regrettable.

It is also regrettable that, much as in the creation of the Internal Market Scoreboard (see here), the Commission continues to adopt random thresholds to assess the desirable intensity of specific procurement policies. For instance, the Commission indicates that there is significant scope for more strategic procurement because "55% of procurement procedures still use the lowest price as the only award criterion ... Yet, most economically advantageous tenders on the basis of a cost effectiveness approach which may include social, environmental, innovative, accessibility or other qualitative criteria are still underused". This conflates two or possibly three issues. Firstly, what is the threshold at which the use of price only would stop indicating unexploited opportunities for 'smart(er) procurement'? 10%? 20%? 30%? Why not 55%? Second, it is possible, in particular for standard products including eg environmental or accessibility requirements to be tendered on the basis of price only where sufficiently detailed technical specifications can be drafted. Thus, a simple analysis of the award criterion only tells part of the story concerning the intensity of the use of 'smart procurement' techniques. Third, the use of best price-quality ratios (BPQR, see Art 67(2) Dir 2014/24/EU) can hide or mask less than transparent procurement practices, so there is a clear (and unacknowledged) trade-off between non-price-only procurement and the integrity of the procurement procedure, as well as the costs of its administration.

In the same fashion, the Communication also indicates that "Contracting authorities are rarely buying together, as only 11 % of procedures are carried out by cooperative procurement", and that "[a]lthough not all types of purchases are suitable for aggregation, overall low aggregation rates suggest lost opportunities". Using a percentage threshold to assess whether centralised and collaborative procurement is sufficiently developed is equally unsettling, particularly because there is no good reason to consider that any given volume of procurement should be centralised. Moreover, given that the Commission has set at 10% the value of the indicator on 'cooperative procurement' for the purposes of the Internal Market Scorecard (see indicator [4]), it seems obvious that the Commission itself has no clue whether 10% of collaborative procurement suffices or not. Thus, setting policy priorities on the basis of unjustified % thresholds continues to be a dangerous path to follow.

I will not spend much time on the other fluff that surrounds the policy recommendations in the Communication. Suffice it to say that I am not convinced that "public procurement matters more than ever" (arguably, it has always mattered and will continue to matter for as long as the public sector engages with markets in the context of the development of its public interest activities, even if some of the notable challenges on the table are addressed in the future), or that the expression "a broad partnership for common success" has any relevant meaning. I would rather have the Commission avoid this type of language in communications aimed at formulating policies in relatively technical areas of EU economic law or, in the Commission's words, in a document aimed at promoting the "smart application of the new rules in practice", but that does not seem to be the thrust of the times--so let's move on and concentrate on the policy priorities.

(i) Ensuring wider uptake of strategic public procurement

The Commission takes the view that "[s]trategic public procurement should play a bigger role for central and local governments to respond to societal, environmental and economic objectives, such as the circular economy". Thus, it wants to promote the mainstreaming of "innovative, green, and social criteria, a more extensive use of pre-market consultation or qualitative assessments (MEAT) as well as procurement of innovative solutions at the pre-commercial stage". It acknowledges that this may not be feasible in all countries, where "there are still shortcomings in the proper functioning of the public procurement system", but it assumes that this not only a feasible, but also a desirable policy development elsewhere. 

In my view, there are two main issues with the assumption that strategic procurement should play a bigger role. The first one is that while some aspects of 'smart procurement' are compatible with the internal market (eg green or innovative procurement), others are structurally disaligned with internal market rules (most notably, the use of labour and social requirements, which are almost impossible to separate from their protectionist effects). Thus, talking about 'strategic' or 'smart' procurement as a solid reality is problematic. The second issue is that the inclusion of green, innovation (and social) considerations is bound to increase the cost of procurement--which is a major concern in economies still recovering from austerity periods--and will also reduce the possibilities for SME access to procurement, in particular if the public sector moves significantly away from market standards in a push for the strategic use of procurement as a market-making or making-shaping tool. All of these issues should create concern, and are in part in contradiction with other goals of the Communication (in particular, with the issue of SME access, see below iii), so a more nuanced approach may be necessary.

In addition, there is no consideration of the limits that need to be placed on strategic procurement from the perspective of public accountability (is it really in the public interest for every buyer to have its own secondary policy agenda?) and from the perspective of preventing distortions of competition created by the public buyer. Presenting strategic procurement as the 'must adopt' strategy without stressing the need for robust checks and balances even in countries with no perceived shortcomings in the functioning of their public procurement system presents a rather distorted view.

(ii) Professionalising public buyers

This is an issue developed in much more detail in the flaking initiative on professionalisation presented by the Commission on 3 October 2017, and which Pedro and I already discussed (here and here). 

(iii) Improving access to procurement markets

Surprisingly, this is one of the most disappointing aspects of the October 2017 Communication. The Commission indicates that improving access to procurement is mainly geared "to increase the SME share of public procurement in line with their overall weight in the economy", in particular "in view of promoting more cross-border procurement". However, the only specific actions mentioned by the Commission concern (i) the Remedies Directive (and, specifically, its criticisable decision not to review it, see here and here), (ii) the initiative on third country access to EU procurement markets (see here), and (iii) a sectorial initiative to increase SME participation in defence and security contracts. This is puzzling. 

While those initiatives can have some effect on increasing SME access to procurement markets, they are unlikely to facilitate a step change. Much more is needed in terms of guidance and best practice on facilitating SME access to procurement domestically and in an EU cross-border context (which the Commission should undertake), and there are obvious limitations derived from the cost of having the administrative (and language!) capacity needed to export. In that regard, the proposals in the Communication do not even brush the surface of what could be done at EU-level--starting with practical guidelines on how to maximise the advantages derived from the fact that, in the Commission's own terms, "[t]he 2014 directives include measures that should facilitate the access of companies including SMEs to public procurement, also cross-border". It would certainly be helpful for the Commission to flesh that view out in more detail.

(iv) Increasing transparency, integrity and better data

Broadly, the Commission stresses four different initiatives in this area: (1) a boost of data collection / big data, (2) a potential initiative on whistleblowing, (3) an initiative to produce tools addressing bid rigging and raising awareness to minimise the risks of collusive behaviours on procurement markets, and (4) guidelines on the application of the new EU procurement directives on exclusion grounds on collusion.

I think that initiatives 1, 3 and 4 should be welcome. I am particularly interested in the Commission's pledge to take "actions to improve the market knowledge of contracting authorities, support to contracting authorities careful planning and design of procurement processes and better cooperation and exchange of information between public procurement and competition authorities". However, in this area, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the Commission builds upon existing efforts (such as the OECD's recommendation and guidelines on bid rigging, or the draft Danish guidelines on the application of Art 101 TFEU in procurement settings, see here) and the extent to which it carries out meaningful consultations.

I am less convinced about initiative 2 on whistleblowing, as I am not sure why this would be necessary in contexts where public procurement is regularly subjected to judicial and administrative review. I do not grasp who would be in need for protection and for what purpose. In that regard, the Commission's statement that it "is currently assessing the need, legal feasibility and scope for horizontal or further sectorial action at EU level for strengthening the protection of whistleblowers" is way too cryptic.

(v) Boosting the digital transformation of procurement

This is another area where the Commission could have been clearer on what it is trying to achieve, and where its thoughts are scattered throughout the Communication. While the aim of harnessing the opportunities that "[n]ew digital technologies offer ... to streamline and simplify the procurement process through the roll-out of electronic public procurement", as well as the ambition for "the whole public procurement process [to undergo] digital transformation", are welcome--it is not clear to me where the e-procurement / digitalisation of procurement boundary lies. I am also not sure whether the Commission has already given up on the possibility of making efforts to ensure that the deadline for full roll-out of e-procurement takes place within the deadline of October 2018 (which will no doubt be missed by a majority of Member States), and whether a focus on digitalisation is an attempt to create a smoke curtain to cover the simple fact that e-procurement will soon be around 15 years late.

I am personally interested in exploring the regulatory challenges that digitalisation and automation can require and facilitate, but reading this part of the Communication left me with the impression that the Commission will work on a piecemeal fashion, rather than trying to come up with a more ambitious plan (to pilot) fully digital procurement. In my view, this is an area where the Commission could be more ambitious, and where it could explore wacky and disruptive initiatives, such as an ideas competition. Any takers?

(vi) Cooperating to procure together

Finally, the Communication also puts significant emphasis on pushing for more collaborative and centralised procurement. However, the Commission simply assumes that "[j]oint cross-border procurement, where contracting authorities from different countries jointly organise their procurement procedures, is greatly facilitated by the new EU rules". However, this overlooks the simple fact that there is a great deal of legal uncertainty surrounding articles 37 to 39 of Directive 2014/24/EU (and the equivalents in Dir 2014/25/EU, see here, here and the recent working paper by I Herrera Anchustegui, here), and that the Commission should take a much more robust approach than simply aiming to "raise awareness and promote good practice for joint cross-border procurement".

Guidance on the interpretation of the relevant provisions of the 2014 Public Procurement Package is long overdue and, in my view, the Commission continues to conflate issues of collaboration stricto sensu with issues of professionalisation and innovative procurement processes, which it considers central purchasing bodies (CPBs) to be in a good position to promote. The Commission also overlooks the impacts of centralisation on competition in procurement markets, as well as the need to ensure that standards of competitive neutrality are ensured where CPBs engage in economic activity (eg in the context of professionalisation or consultancy). In my view, the Commission's proposals here are both weak and naive, and more focused legal guidance should be the priority.

 

* The title for this post is far from original. See eg http://spendmatters.com/2016/02/08/make-procurement-great-again/

 

 

The Commission's procurement mechanism for large infrastructure projects, soft law with a new twist, or catch 22?

new_commission.jpeg

On 3 October 2017, the European Commission launched a strategy aimed at "Making Public Procurement work in and for Europe". As the accompanying press release indicates, the strategy has four main strands: (i) the definition of priority areas for improvement at Member State level; (ii) voluntary ex-ante assessment of large infrastructure projects; (iii) a Recommendation on professionalisation of public buyers; and (iv) a consultation on stimulating innovation through public procurement.

The first initiative consists in a policy push to prompt Member States to concentrate efforts on six priorities: "greater uptake of innovative, green and social criteria in awarding public contracts; professionalisation of public buyers; improving access by SMEs to procurement markets in the EU and by EU companies in third countries; increasing transparency, integrity and quality of procurement data; digitisation of procurement processes; and more cooperation among public buyers across the EU". None of the priority areas concern issues that I would consider of immediate practical relevance, in particular in terms of legal clarification of the 2014 Public Procurement Package (see here), but rather reflect issues that have been at the top of procurement policy-making agendas at least for the last 10 years, and where all efforts (and gains) are at best incremental. I find the push for further 'strategic' use of procurement particularly interesting, as well as the push for more procurement collaboration, including centralised and cross-border procurement. These are issues that will deserve further discussion some time soon.

The third initiative on professionalisation will also be the object of a future post, while I will aim to submit my views on the use of procurement to foster innovation in the context of the official consultation. Here, I am particularly interested in the second initiative, the voluntary ex-ante assessment of large infrastructure projects (already announced in the 2015 Strategy on Upgrading the Single Market), which is described in more detail in the accompanying Communication "Helping investment through a voluntary ex-ante assessment of the procurement aspects for large infrastructure projects".

The initiative is structured around three main elements: (i) a helpdesk where the Commission can provide clarifications on issues of interpretation of the EU procurement rules or their application to a specific case within one month, and which answers (once anonymised) will be published for more general use; (ii) a notification system aimed to apply to broader procurement plans, where Member States can ask the "Commission services [to] express their views on whether the procurement plan complies with EU procurement rules, without prejudice to any future legal interpretation or assessment"; and (iii) an information exchange mechanism meant to be a knowledge management tool for use by national authorities and contracting authorities/entities, ultimately geared towards building up reference classes of similar projects as a means of sharing experience, and to serve as a platform for exchanges on different aspects related to projects.

There are significant practical issues, in particular concerning the third strand, and especially concerning the utility of a collection of past projects where there is no indication that the information will be checked from a legal compliance perspective by the Commission (!), and where "[d]ocuments can be provided in any of the official languages of the EU [and] [t]he database will include a machine translation facility". That can significantly reduce the practical relevance of this part of the initiative, in particular given the significant difficulties in obtaining accurate machine translation of eg technical specifications or complex contract clauses.

More importantly, however, I think that this mechanism, and in particular the notification system, raise issues as to the legal nature of the assessments and clarifications obtained from the Commission, as well as some more practical issues concerning the resourcing of the helpdesk on which the mechanism relies. I will solely concentrate on the first issue for now, as the challenge of ensuring sufficient human capital to field all questions and notifications potentially coming from the Member States is ultimately a managerial issue dependent on budget availability.

Non-bindingness of specific legal assessments?

In simple terms, the Commission describes the mechanism as follows:

Complex projects can go wrong right from the beginning if the project managers do not fully grasp the complex rules that apply to large-scale procurement. The Commission will set up a helpdesk that can answer specific questions at an early stage related to projects with an estimated value over €250 million. For projects of high importance for the Member State concerned or with a total estimated value above €500 million, relevant authorities can ask the Commission to check the complete procurement plan for compatibility with the EU procurement legislation, significantly reducing uncertainties and the risk of delays and legal challenges. The mechanism is voluntary, the Commission's advice is non-binding, and information will be handled subject to strict confidentiality requirements (emphasis added).

This is also highlighted at the start of the fuller description of the mechanism, where the Commission indicates that "[n]ational authorities and contracting authorities/entities have the option to use the mechanism on a voluntary basis to raise questions with the Commission and receive an assessment of a project’s compatibility with the EU regulatory framework before taking important steps", but that the "views expressed by the Commission services in their assessment are not legally binding on those using the mechanism or on the Commission, and are without prejudice to the interpretation of the relevant rules by the Court of Justice of the European Union" (COM(2017) 573, at 4, some footnotes omitted, except footnote 10).

Already at this level of design of the mechanism for ex-ante assessment of the procurement, EU lawyers will probably raise their eyebrows in surprise, wondering how is it possible that a specific review by the Commission, where it issues a specific opinion on the compliance or not with EU law, can be considered non-binding. In my view, and particularly if there are EU funds involved in a project which risk being withdrawn, this will certainly end up being litigated on the basis of the principle of legitimate expectations (or administrative estoppel). On that note, it is worth recalling that, in its latest formulation, the Court of Justice has reiterated that, in accordance with its settled case-law,

the right to rely on the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations extends to any person whom an institution of the European Union has caused, by giving him precise assurances, to entertain justified hopes. Information which is precise, unconditional and consistent, in whatever form it is given, constitutes such assurances (Judgment of 13 September 2017, Pappalardo and Others v CommissionEU:C:2017:672, para 39; see also references cited therein).

I would have thought that a contracting authority (and winning tenderer) that had obtained a document from the Commission indicating that the project complied with EU law could, at the very least, wave it against the Commission in case of a subsequent infringement procedure. Conversely, where the Commission issued a negative opinion and the contracting authority decided to carry on regardless, that document could end up being used against the contracting authority in domestic litigation and prove rather persuasive to review boards or domestic courts. Additionally, it is hard to see how the pre-existence of the negative opinion would not be used against the Member State in a potential infringement procedure, and how this would not raise due process claims on the Member State's side. All in all, then, this seems like another instance of soft law bound to harden, but this time with a twist, because it would be the result of a specific procedure created by the Commission to that effect--rather than as a byproduct or unintended consequence of regular administrative procedures subject to EU administrative law.

The Commission could, of course, argue that they will couch their views in such terms as to avoid a level of detail specific enough to create legitimate expectations (which would however empty this mechanism of any effectiveness or appeal), and that they will resist public disclosure of these assessments to avoid these effects (which I do not really think possible, given the duty to grant access to documents under Regulation 1049/2001, discussed here). That would not be very convincing, though. Each of these issues requires some further assessment, because none of them seem to hold much water.

Precision and legal effects

In trying to make the mechanism attractive to the Member States which it sets out to support, in the Communication, the Commission indicates that, the helpdesk can deal with rather particular and potentially complicated issues, such as

  • the applicable EU legal framework governing the project: classic procurement or utilities directives; concessions directive, etc.
  • conditions for exclusions from the directives;
  • procurement procedures to be used and their specific features;
  • selection and award criteria;
  • inclusion of green, social and innovative considerations;
  • how to implement joint procurement under Article 39 of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Regardless of the nature of the question, an within one month from the time when the Commission has all the information it considers necessary to answer it, the Commission will aim to provide a specific reply. That reply will later be anonymised and published on the website of the ex-ante mechanism. However, at this point and probably in awareness (and worry) of the potential legal effects of such answers to specific and potentially rather complex and tricky questions, the Communication contains a cross-referential footnote that indicates again that "[t]he views expressed by the Commission services in their assessment are not legally binding on those using the mechanism or on the Commission, and are without prejudice to the interpretation of the relevant rules by the Court of Justice of the European Union".

Similarly, concerning the notification of a procurement plan by the relevant authority, or issues specific contract amendments, and within a period of three months, "[t]he Commission services will then provide an assessment, in which the Commission services express their views on whether the procurement plan complies with EU procurement rules, without prejudice to any future legal interpretation or assessment." Interestingly, once more, at this point the Communication contains another cross-reference to the by now famous footnote 10, which indicates that "[t]he views expressed by the Commission services in their assessment are not legally binding on those using the mechanism or on the Commission, and are without prejudice to the interpretation of the relevant rules by the Court of Justice of the European Union".

At this point, one will be forgiven for wondering whether contracting authorities will have any incentive to raise issues with the Commission knowing that they will have to wait for a month (helpdesk) or three months (full-fledged notifications of procurement plans) and that all they will obtain is a view from the Commission that the Commission itself is not willing to be bound by, and at the risk of being faced with specific recommendations or warnings on how to carry out the procurement. There seems to be an opposing incentive for contracting authorities to ignore these mechanisms and the delay they imply altogether, except where they cannot afford independent legal advice (which seems rare where there is a project budget of €250 mn or €500 mn) and may see the Commission as the only source of available (free) expertise.

How confidential is confidential?

The second important issue concerns potential difficulties in preserving the confidentiality of the documents exchanged with the Commission. Indeed, as the Commission itself reminds (in another footnote!, n 23), "Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 2001 regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents applies to all documents drawn up or received by the Commission and in its possession".

This means that, even where the Commission and the contracting authority share a view on whether a piece of information is confidential or not, the fact that the Commission holds the documentation triggers a risk of disclosure (or, at least, of disclosure-related litigation) under the EU rules. This may be particularly challenging for contracting authorities in Member States imposing lower levels of transparency than the European standard. It also means that, where the Commission and the contracting authority do not share a view on the confidentiality of some information, there is additional potential for litigation. Even if the Commission was willing to defer to Member States and reassure them that the second type of problem will not arise, the first one is unavoidable.

Even if there are good reasons to think that Reg 1049/2001 (Art 4) contains sufficient exceptions to disclosure of information of the type that can worry a contracting authority, the simple fact that the Commission has felt the need to introduce specific references to those rules in relation to every document that could include confidential or sensitive information indicates that the Institution, itself, is in no position to ensure watertight confidentiality.

The devil is in the footnotes, or catch 22?

All in all, then, the mechanisms included by the Commission in its initiative on the voluntary ex-ante assessment of large infrastructure projects, including its related helpdesk and information exchange mechanism, seem to be affected by two main issues: first, an unavoidable tension between, on the one hand, the need to provide detailed assessments that make consulting the Commission worth the contracting authorities' while (in particular, in terms of time) and, on the other, the belt and braces approach to disclaiming any legal effectiveness of those assessments. Second, a risk of public exposure of all or parts of a project that can have highly sensitive implications (in political and commercial terms).

The Commission seems to have relied on the existence of a large amount of (good) willingness from contracting authorities, and the hope that the mechanism will be perceived and understood as soft (also by economic and political agents with other agendas). However, as PhD supervisors and peer-reviewers will know well, the devil is in the footnotes, where we all tend to hide those arguments that we know will be more controversial or those issues that we want to avoid having to deal with more openly. In my view, footnotes 10 (no legal effects) and 23 (confidentiality warning) and the multiple cross-references, are good indicators that this mechanism will be problematic. And this is simply because, even if it is clear that contracting authorities will always benefit from additional expertise and (good) free legal advice (in particular, but not only, when they deal with complex projects), the simple fact is that the Commission is not in a position to provide it. First, structurally, because of the legal framework within which it operates--which questions its ability to engage in this type of advocacy plus initiative at all. Second, because of important resourcing constraints, which may well become obvious rather soon if the mechanism is used.

On the whole, I think that this voluntary ex ante mechanism is the paradigm of a catch 22 for the Commission. What is noticeable is that this is one that the Commission has created for itself (ignoring the lessons of the now long-abandoned notification mechanism in the context of Article 101(3) TFEU). And what saddens me personally is that I know for a fact that the Commission heard all of these arguments long before publishing the Communication--as evidenced by the minutes of the meeting of the Stakeholder Expert Group on Public Procurement of 17 February 2016 (note the last two bullet point of para 2).

 

 

Critical Assessment of the BBG-SKI study on the feasibility of joint cross-border public procurement

Following last week's initial reaction to the publication by the European Commission of the "Feasibility study concerning the actual implementation of a joint cross-border procurement procedure by public buyers from different Member States" prepared by BBG and SKI, I have now written a response paper: "Is Joint Cross-Border Public Procurement Legally Feasible or Simply Commercially Tolerated? ~ A Critical Assessment of the BBG-SKI JCBPP Feasibility Study" (2017) European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review (forthc), available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2944008.

The paper provides a critical assessment of the BBG-SKI study and submits that, while the study provides some interesting data and details about relevant case studies, it does not shed significant light on the doubts created by the rules on joint cross-border public procurement (JCBPP) in the 2014 Public Procurement Package [which I had previously sketched out here], and that the main weakness of the study is its lack of a general legal analytical framework.

In order to go beyond the shallow legal analysis of the BBG-SKI study and try to gain additional legal insights on the basis of the same empirical data, the paper proposes an analytical framework under which to assess the legal compliance of JCBPP structures. It then summarises each of the case studies included in the BBG-SKI study and offers a critical (re)assessment of the issues that would have required more information and/or which are insufficiently analysed in the BBG-SKI study. Based on this reorganised empirical evidence, the paper proceeds to a critical assessment of some of the outstanding legal barriers and challenges to JCBPP. It concludes by stressing some of the remaining uncertainties concerning legal development at Member State level, and calls on the European Commission to facilitate more detailed research leading to the adoption of future guidance on JCBPP under the 2014 EU Public Procurement Directives.

Study on the feasibility of joint cross-border procurement published (teaser)

The European Commission has recently published the "Feasibility study concerning the actual implementation of a joint cross-border procurement procedure by public buyers from different Member States" prepared by BBG and SKI. This study is a follow up on the Commission's work on collaborative procurement (see here and here) and is primarily meant to "to carry out a feasibility study on the possible implementation of Joint Cross-Border Public Procurement (JCBPP), in particular focusing on the legal, administrative and organisational aspects of four selected JCBPP projects" (p. 9).

At least in part, the study would have to address the complex legal issues involved in JCBPP projects, which I mapped out in my paper “Collaborative Cross-Border Procurement in the EU: Future or Utopia?” (2016) 3(1) Upphandlingsrättslig Tidskrift 11-37 (to which the study refers). However, the study does not really dig deep on any of those legal issues and keeps the analysis at a very shallow level -- eg stressing on repeated occasions that "JCBPP is more a matter of legal complexity than of legal barriers", which I struggle to understand.

I find particularly puzzling that its main conclusions concerning legal aspects of JCBPP is that

... we must be aware of the fact that the evolution of the legal framework dealing with JCBPP is still in progress and that the regulatory approach towards the complex theme of JCBPP has not wholly settled yet in all its details. Just as in other areas of EU harmonisation legislation, a number of questions will have to be dealt with by the Member State’s legislation and jurisdiction, but may eventually also need answering by the European Court of Justice. However, the relevant legal provisions on the EU level show some gaps, are not always fully coherent and definitely pose a number of interpretational problems of their own. Non[e]theless in looking at the cases portrayed in this study, we also see that from a legal point of view (sic) JCBPP initiatives are not necessarily only a risky endeavour, but also open up opportunities for achieving the goal of enhancing efficiency in public procurement (p. 111, emphasis added).

I am going to re-read the study carefully and comment on it in more detail soon, trying to identify in particular the ways in which the case studies it discusses offer viable legal solutions or allow contracting authorities to exclude or mitigate the legal risks derived from JCBPP. For now, I just wanted to raise awareness of the publication of the report.

Wish list for 2017: My Top 10 priorities for the European Commission’s future activity in public procurement

Now that 2016 is drawing to a close, and after having engaged in a large number of discussions and exchanges of views with academics and practitioners at a number of conferences, workshops and expert meetings during the year, I have sat down to write my wish list of where I would like the European Commission to concentrate its future activity in the area of public procurement. Some of these suggestions could also serve to set agendas at national level. although my preference would be for centralised action at EU level.

These suggestions only represent my personal views, and in particular do not bind the European Commission’s Stakeholder Expert Group in Public Procurement of which I am but a member. However, some of the suggestions are supported by other members of the group in their individual capacity, and these are issues which I will push for in the activities of the group in 2017.

My wish list of top 10 priorities for future action is as follows:

1. Ensure full and adequate transposition of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, and provide guidance on the direct effect of the substantive rules to support contracting authorities in Member States where transposition is being delayed. At the time of writing, 14 Member States have fully or partially failed to transpose the new Directives (see here, and take into account that Finland adopted transposition measures on 13 December 2016). The correctness and completeness of the transposition in the remaining Member States also triggers some questions. Working towards speedy and proper transposition across all EU Member States is of utmost importance in order to ensure that the intended benefits of the 2014 reform are unlocked. It is also relevant to ensure that the direct effect of the 2014 Public Procurement Package is ensured in the absence of transposition to domestic law.

2. Reform the Remedies Directives to coordinate them with the new rules in the substantive instruments comprising the 2014 Public Procurement Package.[1] In particular, further clarification needs to be provided on the remedies applicable to call-offs within framework agreements and dynamic purchasing systems, as well as for contract modification and contract termination disputes.

3. Provide additional guidance on the development of inter partes procedures where contracting authorities aim to take decisions that would imply the impossibility for undertakings and tenderers to participate or continue participating in tenders for public contracts. This is particularly relevant in relation to exclusion rules and the management of conflicts of interest, and could use the existing rules on the assessment of apparently abnormally low tenders as a blueprint.

4. Develop effective policies concerning procurement information. This should include provision of guidance on reporting obligations under Articles 84 and 85 of Directive 2014/24/EU, as well as developing the policy on public contract registries announced as part of the 2015 strategy ‘Upgrading the Single Market: more opportunities for people and business’ in a way that ensures an appropriate balance between transparency of procurement processes and the associated expenditure of public funds with the protection of commercial and competition-sensitive information.[2] This should be done in light of the transposition of Directive 2016/943/EU on the protection of undisclosed know-how and business information (trade secrets) against their unlawful acquisition, use and disclosure.

5. Provide guidance on the interpretation of Article 12 of Directive 2014/24/EU and the interaction between the in-house and the public-public cooperation exemptions it consolidates. This should be done through a thorough revision of the 2011 Commission Staff Working Paper concerning the application of EU public procurement law to relations between contracting authorities. This guidance should also extend to Article 17 of Directive 2014/23/EU and to the related rules in Articles 28 to 30 of Directive 2014/25/EU.

6. Provide additional guidance on centralised and collaborative procurement, including an assessment of the competition risks and potential negative impacts of centralised and collaborative public procurement, and develop recommendations for the effective oversight of centralised and collaborative purchasing by both national competition authorities and audit/controlling authorities. This should include providing more transparency on the European Commission’s work with the CPBs Public Procurement Network, as well as on the status of the actions plan(s) underpinning the strategic goal of facilitating aggregation of demand.[3]

7. Provide guidance on the interpretation of Articles 72 and 73 of Directive 2014/24/EU concerning contractual modification and termination. In particular, provide guidance on the use of umbrella modification clauses and the interaction between different grounds of justification for contract modifications, as well as on the effects of contractual termination that are required in case of mandatory termination due to breaches of EU law. This should be coordinated with the reform of the Remedies Directive (above 2) in order to ensure consistency of legal effects derived from contractual ineffectiveness and contractual termination.

8. Provide additional guidance on the interaction between public procurement and State aid rules, and ensure the consistent application of the recent 2016 Commission Notice on the notion of State aid as referred to in Article 107(1) TFUE with public procurement enforcement. This particularly concerns the substantive tests applicable to the identification of cross-border interest/effects.[4] This also concerns additional guidance on the substantive standards applicable to the assessment of aid for SGEI and NESGI, where the interaction between the ECJ’s Judgments in Altmark (C-280/00, EU:C:2003:415), Spezzino (C-113/13, EU:C:2014:2440) / CASTA (C-50/14, EU:C:2016:56), and Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung (C-446/14 P, EU:C:2016:97) is rather unclear.

9. Continue to support the transition towards eProcurement and the development of open access, free to use technical solutions and standards. The work of the Commission should concentrate on ensuring that technological barriers do not arise from the transition to eProcurement and that interoperability is ensured in both the short and the long run.[5] Work in this area could also include creating pilot experiments with public sector virtual markets on the basis of dynamic purchasing systems and electronic catalogues, which could be run entirely electronically.

10. Significantly reform the Internal Market Scoreboard for Public Procurement, so as to avoid embedding undesirable policy pushes, such as the unjustified push for aggregation of more than 10% of public sector procurement expenditure. Carefully assess the desirability and utility of similar ongoing projects in the Public Procurement Action Plan—such as “Developing an index for rating Contracting Authorities according to their performance ("Trip advisor")—and seriously consider abandoning them to concentrate on more useful initiatives.

______________

[1] See A Sanchez-Graells, “‘If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts”, in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming. Available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=2821828.

[2] See A Sanchez-Graells, “Centralised Procurement Registers and their Transparency Implications”, Discussion Non-Paper for the European Commission Stakeholder Expert Group on Public Procurement, 19 September 2015. Available at http://www.howtocrackanut.com/blog/2015/09/why-are-public-contracts-registers.html.

[3] As briefly described in “Public buyers save money with cooperative procurement”, 1 December 2016, http://ec.europa.eu/growth/tools-databases/newsroom/cf/itemdetail.cfm?item_id=9013.

[4] See A Sanchez-Graells, “Commission Notice on Notion of State Aid shows Contradictions with EU Public Procurement Rules, in Particular Concerning Aid and Contracts for Local SGEI”, 20 May 2016, http://www.howtocrackanut.com/blog/2016/5/20/commission-notice-on-notion-of-state-aid-shows-contradictions-with-eu-public-procurement-rules

[5] See P Ferk, “E-Procurement between EU Objectives and the Implementation Procedures in the Member States—Article 22(1) of the 2014 Directive”, in GS Ølykke & A Sanchez-Graells (eds), Reformation or Deformation of the EU Public Procurement Rules (Edward Elgar, 2016) 101-124.

Brexit may have negative effects for the control of public expenditure, particularly regarding subsidies to large companies

In the current state of turmoil, it is difficult to speculate on the exact relationship between the EU and the UK that can result from the Brexit vote and the future negotiations to be held under Article 50 TEU, in case it gets triggered. However, in order to contribute to the debate of what that relationship should look like in the interest of taxpayers in the UK, it is important to consider the implications that a post-Brexit deal could have in terms of the potential disappearance of the EU rules applicable to the control of how public funds are spent. A reduction in the control mechanisms applicable to certain types of public expenditure could indeed diminish the effectiveness of policies funded by UK taxpayers and create shortcomings in public governance more generally.

This is particularly clear in the case of the EU State aid rules in Articles 107 to 109 TFEU and accompanying secondary legislation, which ultimately aim to avoid subsidy races, as well as the protectionist financing of national champions by Member States. Ultimately, these rules establish a set of controls over the selective channelling of public funds to companies, be it in the form of direct subsidies, or in more indirect ways such as tax exemptions, special contributions to pension plans, or the transmission of public assets (such as public land) in below-market conditions.

The European Commission has created a framework that allows Member States to use State aid for horizontal purposes (such as the support of environmental, innovation or employment-related activities), but also aims to prevent the use of public funds in order to benefit specific companies, in particular through a subsidisation of their operating costs. The European Commission enforces these rules and can bring Member States that breach them before the Court of Justice of the European Union. Additionally, competitors of the companies that receive State aid can challenge those decisions in their domestic courts.

Even if these rules are admittedly imperfect and their enforcement could be improved,* there is no question that the European Commission has been active and rather effective in combating the use of public funds to benefit specific large companies. Remarkably, Member States need to notify State aid measures to the European Commission and must not provide any aid until the Commission has authorised it. Overall, this means that in cases involving large companies, no State aid contrary to the EU rules is generally put in effect, as demonstrated by the discussions surrounding the Hinkley Point project. Where Member States infringe this standstill obligation, the Commission can force a recovery of the aid. The recent tax avoidance cases involving Starbucks or Fiat are a clear testimony of this important role in controlling the way public funds are spent in support of large companies.

The European Commission is thus heavily involved in the State aid measures aimed at specific large companies and acts as a filter to ensure that the expenditure of public funds pursues a legitimate objective in compliance with EU law. This was particularly the case of the State aid channelled to banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Overall, then, at least for cases of State aid involving large sums of money and large companies, the Commission acts as an important filter to prevent damaging economic interventions in the economy, which constitutes an important check on how public money is spent. Whether such a tight system could be relaxed in order to enable a more proactive EU-wide industrial policy is a subject of significant debate, but the constraints that EU State aid rules currently impose on the provision of direct and indirect financial support to large companies are certainly not perceived as minor.

The question is thus whether a post-Brexit deal could free the UK Government from such State aid control, at least in the medium to long-run, so that it could engage in largely unchecked public subsidy policies, such as creating particularly beneficial tax conditions in order to try to retain or attract large multinational companies considering relocating elsewhere in the EU, or channelling public funds to chosen companies, either in support of industrial policy goals or otherwise.

These would be policy interventions clearly tackled by the European Commission under existing rules, and they would also be caught by the EFTA Surveillance Authority in case the post-Brexit deal resulted in the UK joining the European Economic Area (the so-called ‘Norwegian option’), which would require compliance with the same rules. However, whether interventions aimed at subsidising large companies would be caught in case of a ‘WTO-based’ trade scenario is less clear because the WTO rules on subsidies are not as tight as the EU’s, and their enforcement ultimately relies on other WTO Members bringing a complaint against the UK to the dispute settlement board, which is a very political decision ultimately reliant on trade calculations. To be sure, the EU itself could bring cases against the UK, but this would be a highly contentious issue in the framework of a relationship already very strained by the UK’s exit from the EU and detachment from the EEA.

Should the UK not be a part of the internal market via membership of the EU or the EEA, and in the absence of effective WTO-based external checks on the use of public funds to provide financial support to large companies, the control of this form of public expenditure would fall solely to Parliament and the domestic UK institutions, such as the National Audit Office.

This can be seen as an advantage by those convinced by arguments of self-control and UK-centric governance, but economic regulatory capture theory, and public policy theory more generally, have repeatedly demonstrated that such a self-policing architecture is unlikely to prevent ‘politicised’ uses of public funds. It seems clear to me that, in that case, the possibilities for any given Government to engage in expenditures of this type would be greater than they currently are, which would not necessarily result in the pursuance of the best interests of taxpayers in the UK.

Therefore, if there is value in having an external control of subsidies to large companies in order to avoid anti-economical protectionist policies or redistributive policies that take money away from other pressing social priorities—and I would certainly argue that there is—it seems clear to me that any post-Brexit deal that does not include the application of EU/EEA State aid rules would imply a net loss in terms of public governance and, in particular, in terms of an effective control of public expenditure, particularly regarding subsidies to large companies. Ultimately, then, from this perspective, it seems to me to be in the interest of taxpayers in the UK to strongly support a post-Brexit arrangement that retains State aid control, either by the European Commission or the EFTA Surveillance Authority.

__________________

* A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) 4(1) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement 157-187.

Commission issues first salvo to tardy Member States: what next for transposition of public procurement reform?

The European Commission has formally reacted to the tardiness of the vast majority of EU Member States in the transposition of the 2014 public procurement package. 21 out of the 28 Member States have been addressed letters of formal notice whereby the Commission reminds them of their overdue obligation to transpose Directives 2014/23/EU, 2014/24/EU, and 2014/25/EU into national law. Logically, if the Member States do not react promptly, the Commission should be opening infringement procedures under Art 258 TFEU (maybe after the summer?), which could eventually lead to the imposition of fines to Member States that continue to fail in their obligation to transpose.

This first salvo can be seen as an indication of the seriousness with which the Commission may intend to oversee the transposition of this significant reform, which seems justified by its belief that the 'new rules make it easier and cheaper for small and medium enterprises to bid for public contracts and respect the EU’s principles of transparency and competition. Increased transparency improves accountability and helps combat corruption. The rules also allow the authorities to use public procurement to work towards broader policy objectives, such as environmental and social goals and innovation' [an alternative view seems to emerge from a closer analysis of the rules, though, as will soon be apparent in the contributions to GS Ølykke and A Sanchez-Graells (eds), Reformation or Deformation of the EU Public Procurement Rules (Edward Elgar, 2016)].

However, maybe from a more cynical perspective, it also seems like a first indication of the difficulties that lay ahead in terms of the effective transposition of the new procurement rules. Issues such as the transition to full, proper eProcurement, the need to oversee in an effective manner the conduct of an increasing volume of negotiated procedures, the complications derived from aggregation of procurement and cross-border collaboration (if it ever happens), or the need to reform the remedies system to make sure that the new substantive rules have sufficient bite (which the Commission however now seems to have dropped from its regulatory agenda), just to name a few of the relatively obvious issues, are clear points of future friction between the Commission and the Member States.

Also, it seems clear that infringement procedures are unlikely to fix any of these issues in a satisfactory manner, particularly where Member States simply do no have the resources (economic or otherwise, such as an adequately trained workforce) to implement the rules. Thus, all this can lead to is a futile exercise of transposition on paper (passing laws is relatively cheap and can certainly put a lid on the Commission's oversight strategy, unless it is willing to resource it properly on its own end) and maybe hope for private litigation to force its effectiveness--which would be patchy and incomplete in any case.

All in all, I think that the system is close to bursting at the seams (or at least at some of the seams) unless procurement is better resources at Member State level soon, which does not seem to be feasible in the short run. If that does not happen, any illusion of (formal) transposition will be misleading. And the litigation could in any case exist on the basis of the direct and indirect effect of the directives, which already enable a guerrilla strategy for savvy economic operators. Thus, what the Commission aims to achieve with this first salvo is unclear to me. And I am not sure that it has thought its strategy through to its ultimate consequences. Let's see if Member States hurry up to transpose (at least on paper).

Additional Austrian postal services to be exempted from compliance with EU (utilities) procurement rules (T-463/14) -- a warning of procedural rebalancing under dir 2014/25?

In its Judgment of 27 April 2016 in Österreichische Post v Commission, T-463/14, EU:T:2016:243 (not available in English), the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on judicial review of the Commission Implementing Decision exempting certain services in the postal sector in Austria from the application of Directive 2004/17 on utilities procurement, in particular as carried out by Österreichische Post AG (the Austrian national universal service provider, under public ownership of 52.8% of its capital).

The GC quashed the Commission's Decision regarding the denial of exemption for cross-border postal services for addressed (‘outbound’) business to business and business to consumer letters ('B2X letters'), as well as for addressed (‘outbound’) letters between private customers and between private customers and business customers ('C2X letters')--ie, in relation with the activities covered in paras [43]-[50].

The Commission's Decision was based on Art 30 Dir 2004/17, which allowed for utilities procurement linked to activities directly exposed to competition to be exempted from compliance with the otherwise applicable EU public procurement rules. The same regime is now foreseen in Art 34 of Directive 2014/25 on utilities procurement. Thus, the GC's Judgment in Österreichische Post v Commission is interesting in order to gain a better understanding of the procedure (and evidentiary requirements) for the exemption of activities directly exposed to competition from compliance with the revised EU utilities public procurement rules.

the contested decision

In its Implementing Decision, the Commission had considered that

(46) Competition for cross-border letter post is very different for private persons and for companies. Private persons generally have no real choice but to send international mail with their national universal service provider. The volumes sent by private persons are generally too low to offer incentives for new entrants into the market.

(47) It is noted that the competitive situation depends also on the size/population of each city due to the fact that cross-border service providers do not maintain a nationwide access network but generally collect the mail directly at the customer's premises. 

(48) Previous Commission practice... made a distinction between the cross-border postal services for addressed B2X letters market and the cross-border postal services for addressed C2X letters market. 

(49) There is no evidence that the situation is different in Austria,  therefore, for the purposes of this Decision and without prejudice to competition law, two separate product markets will be considered, namely the cross-border postal services for outbound B2X addressed letters and the cross-border postal services for outbound C2X addressed letters. 

(50) Austrian Post could not provide detailed information ... on its relevant shares in each market, nor the market shares of its main competitors. In the absence of information on the degree of competition in each of those markets, it is not possible to conclude that the conditions for granting an exemption under Article 30(1) of Directive 2004/17/EC to cross-border postal services for outbound B2X addressed letters and to cross-border postal services for outbound C2X addressed letters in Austria are met. Consequently, Article 30(1) of Directive 2004/17/EC does not apply to contracts intended to enable the pursuit of those activities in Austria (Implementing Decision 2014/184/EU, paras 46-50, references omitted).

In reviewing this argumentation, which seems to fundamentally rely on the ultimate ratio that Österreichische Post had not discharged the burden of proof imposed by Art 30 Dir 2004/17 (now Art 34 Dir 2014/25), the GC raises some important issues about the level of detail with which the Commission needs to assess estimated figures provided by applicants for exemption from compliance with EU public procurement rules:

(161) ... the applicant states that, following its own argument, the Commission should have exempted at least the B2X international market from the application of Directive 2004/17. It adds that, given that, according to paragraph 46 of the contested decision, its services were not substitutable in the C2X international market, its market share in the B2X international market should be significantly below [confidential]%, which it also corresponded with the Commission's assessment contained in paragraph 47 of the contested decision that the applicant's competitors were mainly in urban areas.

(162) This argument must be accepted. Indeed, on the one hand, the Commission did not dispute that the market share of the applicant in the market for postal services for addressed ['outbound'] B2X and C2X letters at international level was below [confidential]%, as stated in ... the application of the applicant. Moreover, as stated by the applicant, recital 46 of the contested decision shows that the services in question were not substitutable in the C2X international market, since, according to the Commission, private persons generally have no real choice but to send international mail with their national universal service provider. It follows that the market share of the applicant in the market for postal services for addressed B2X letters at international level should be well below [confidential]%, which the Commission did not take into account when considering that those postal services were not directly exposed to competition. In view of these considerations, it must be concluded that the Commission incurred in a manifest error of assessment in not exempting postal address for addressed B2X letters at international level from the application of Directive 2004/17.

(163) Accordingly, the fourth plea must be upheld in so far as it relates to the postal services for addressed B2X letters at international level and dismissed as regards postal services for addressed C2X letters at international level (T-463/14, paras 161-163, own translation from Spanish).

Cracking the specifics of the reasoning is complicated due to the confidential nature of the initial application for exemption under Art 30 Dir 2004/17, as well as the confidentiality of the market share data used by the GC. However, it seems clear that the Commission is subjected to a very demanding standard of data assessment and that it is obliged to use any information provided by the applicants in order to make educated guesses where market intelligence is insufficient to support a direct analysis. Looking to the future, this stringent approach highlights one of the differences between the 'old' regime of Art 30 Dir 2004/17 and the 'new' rules of art 34 Dir 2014/25, which may well make the Commission's life easier.

what Dir 2014/25 has changed

Under the procedural provisions of Art 30(6) Dir 2004/17, 'For the adoption of a Decision [exempting activities directly exposed to competition from compliance with Dir 2004/17] the Commission shall be allowed a period of three months commencing on the first working day following the date on which it receives the notification or the request. However, this period may be extended once by a maximum of three months in duly justified cases, in particular if the information contained in the notification or the request or in the documents annexed thereto is incomplete or inexact or if the facts as reported undergo any substantive changes'.

Conversely, Dir 2014/25 now has a new Art 35 on the procedure applicable for exemption decisions for activities exposed to competition under Art 34. And this is complemented by the additional rules in Annex IV, according to which second paragraph, 'The Commission may require the Member State or the contracting entity concerned or the independent national authority referred to under paragraph 1 or any other competent national authority to provide all necessary information or to supplement or clarify information given within an appropriate time limit. In the event of late or incomplete answers, the periods set out in the first subparagraph of paragraph 1 shall be suspended for the period between the expiry of the time limit set in the request for information, and the receipt of the complete and correct information'.

The change of the extension of the maximum period for a decision to exempt activities exposed to competition for a suspension of the period to adopt such decision is important because, both under the old [Art 30(4)(II) Dir 2004/17] and the new rules [Art 35(3)(II)(b) Dir 2014/25], in the absence of a decision within the specified time period (3 months in the old rules, and 90 working days under the new ones), the Directive ceases to apply to contracts intended to enable the activity exposed to competition. Consequently, a combination of a ticking time limit and the impossibility to reject claims based on what the Commission may have considered unreliable or insufficient evidence, would have resulted in significant pressure on the Commission under the old rules. Thus, it seems clear that, under the new rules and with the ability to 'stop the clock', the Commission will be able to relocate the burden of proof squarely onto the applicant's shoulders, which may well minimise or neutralise the tough approach indicated by the GC in its Österreichische Post v Commission Judgment.

CJEU rules on Greek Support to The Agricultural Sector under the 2008 and 2009 State Aid Frameworks: A Blow to the Commission's Waiver of Discretion? (C-431/14 P)

In its Judgment of 8 March 2016 in Greece v Commission (ELGA), C-431/14 P, EU:C:2016:145, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on the compatibility of certain measures of financial support to the Greek agricultural sector in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis with the EU rules on State aid--ie mainly, Art 107 TFEU and the Temporary Community Framework for State aid measures adopted by the Commission in 2008 (the 2008 TCF), as amended in 2009 (the 2009 amended TCF).

The Judgment is interesting because it assesses the boundaries of the temporary discretionary measures adopted by the Commission in order to flexibilise the enforcement of EU rules in times of economic and financial distress, on the basis that they aim 'to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State', ex Art 107(3)(b) TFEU. In particular, the ELGA Judgment assesses whether Member States can validly raise arguments based on Art 107(3)(b) TFEU directly, regardless of the Commission's delineation of its State aid policy based on that same legal basis. Or, in simple terms, whether a valid Art 107(3)(b) TFEU can exist outside of the (temporary) scope of the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. The case may seem very specific because of its link to the economic crisis. However, the CJEU makes some broader points about the Commission's discretion that are worth taking into careful consideration.

This discussion is relevant from a legal perspective, due to the clarification of the so far unknown exemption of the State aid prohibition of Art 107(1) TFEU on the basis of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU regarding aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State' [see P Nicolaides & IE Rusu, 'The Financial Crisis and State Aid' (2010) 55(4) The Antitrust Bulletin 759-782]. It is also relevant for the policy implications of the CJEU's support for the Commission's intervention [for discussion of a general framework, see H Kassim & B Lyons, 'The New Political Economy of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 1-21; and TJ Doleys, 'Managing the Dilemma of Discretion: The European Commission and the Development of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 23-38].

The case of the Greek support to the agricultural sector through ELGA

The specific case concerns a long-running action of the Greek State for the annulment of a 2011 Commission Decision concerning compensation payments made by the Greek Agricultural Insurance Organisation (ELGA) in 2008 and 2009, which the General Court (GC) upheld on appeal (T‑52/12, EU:T:2014:677). One of the difficulties with this case is the sequence of events. From the regulatory perspective, it is worth stressing that the 2008 TCF, which entered into force in 17 December 2008, did not cover aid to the agricultural sector. This was eventually made clear in the 2009 amended TCF, according to which

The possibility under [the TCF] to grant a compatible limited amount of aid does not apply to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products. Farmers, however, encounter increased difficulties to obtain credit as a consequence of the financial crisis ... it is appropriate to introduce a separate compatible limited amount of aid for undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products.

Specifically, the 2009 amended TCF provided that

The Commission will consider such State aid compatible with the common market on the basis of Article [107(3)(b) TFEU], provided all the following conditions are met: ... (h) … Where the aid is granted to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products ..., the cash grant (or gross grant equivalent) does not exceed EUR 15,000 per undertaking ...

This took effect on 28 October 2009, which raises a practical temporary difficulty because, '[f]ollowing protests in January 2009 by a large number of Greek agricultural producers about the losses suffered by them in 2008 as a result of adverse weather conditions..., the Hellenic Republic provided that compensation aid of EUR 425 million would be paid to producers on an exceptional basis by ELGA' (C-431/14 P, para 11). Upon investigation, the Commission found that most of that aid was incompatible with the internal market and, in particular, that '[t]he compensation aid of EUR [387.4 million] granted to producers on dates before 28 October 2009 is incompatible with the internal market' (C-431/14 P, para 14, emphasis added).

The issue is that, in plain terms, the Commission rejected Greece's claims that the exemption foreseen in Art 107(3)(b) TFEU could be directly applied in the case because of the economic difficulties that Greece had been experiencing. The Commission rejected such claim on the basis that Art 107(3)(b) TFEU had to be applied within the boundaries of the policy documents developed to that effect, ie the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF, which could only apply for the future--that is, only from their respective dates of entry into force--which, as the agricultural sector is concerned, was that of the 2009 amended TCF: 28 October 2009. The GC upheld the Commission's approach in the following terms

185 ... it is clear that, contrary to what the Hellenic Republic claims, the Commission had to base its decision on the [TCF] and not directly apply Article 107(3)(b) TFEU in order to assess the compatibility of the payments made by ELGA in 2009 on account of the economic crisis experienced in Greece.
186 It is clear from the case-law that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (see judgment[s] in Germany and Others v Kronofrance, [C‑75/05 P and C‑80/05 P, EU:C:2008:482], paragraph 60 and the case-law cited, and … Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, [EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 46).
187 ... in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines and notices that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the Treaty (see judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, [C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 47 and the case-law cited).
188 Therefore, it is necessary to reject the arguments of the Hellenic Republic to the effect that, on account of the serious disturbance in the Greek economy due to the economic crisis experienced in Greece since the end of 2008 and in 2009, the Commission should have declared the payments made by ELGA in 2009 compatible directly on the basis of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (T-52/12, paras 185-188, emphasis added).

The CJEU has now taken the same line of argument, but has introduced important nuances in determining that

69 ... as the General Court stated in paragraphs 186 and 187 of the judgment under appeal, the Court has also consistently held that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (judgments in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 46, and Banco Privado Português and Massa Insolvente do Banco Privado Português, C‑667/13, EU:C:2015:151, paragraph 69).
70 However, in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU, including, in particular, Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (see, to that effect, judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 47), and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State.
71      Consequently, first, the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU by adopting guidelines vitiated by an error of law or a manifest error of assessment, nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it. Further, when, in the exercise of that discretion, it adopts guidelines of that nature, these must be kept under continuous review for the purposes of anticipating any major developments not covered by those measures.
72      Secondly, the adoption of such guidelines does not relieve the Commission of its obligation to examine the specific exceptional circumstances relied on by a Member State, in a particular case, for the purpose of requesting the direct application of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU, and to provide reasons for its refusal to grant such a request, should the case arise.
73      In the present case, it is not in dispute that, precisely because of the effect of the economic crisis experienced by the Member States, and in particular, the Hellenic Republic, on the primary agricultural sector of the European Union, the Commission exercised the discretion conferred on it by Article 107(3)(b) TFEU by adopting the TCF and then the amended TCF, since both the former and the latter expressly mention that sector.
74      However, the fact remains that although the Hellenic Republic claimed before the General Court that Article 107(3)(b) TFEU ought to be applied directly to the facts of the case, notwithstanding the existence of the rules of conduct set out in the TCF and the amended TCF, it did not argue, in support of that claim, that there were, in the present case, specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned ...
75      Indeed, it is apparent from the documents in the file that the material that the Hellenic Republic put before the General Court was intended to establish the existence of a very serious disturbance affecting the Greek economy from the end of 2008 and in 2009, but it was not such as to prove to the requisite legal standard that that economy was faced with specific exceptional circumstances that ought, in this case, to have led the Commission to assess the aid at issue directly in the light of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (C-431/14 P, paras 69-75, emphasis added).

implications of the cjeu elga judgement

In my view, the implications of the case are two-fold, and they concern, first, the relationship between the Commission's disclosed State aid policy and the discretion that Art 107(3) TFEU gives it; and, second, the interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in particular.

Regarding the issue of the extent to which the Commission can deviate from adopted and publicised State aid policy, the CJEU has now made it clear that 'in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations' (para 69, emphasis added); and that 'the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU ... and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70, emphasis added). It is thus plain that 'the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU ... nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it' (para 71, emphasis added).

Somehow, the CJEU has made it clear that the Commission cannot hide behind its disclosed State aid policy if there are relevant circumstances that require a specific discretionary decision. This can be far reaching because the CJEU ELGA Judgment clearly opens the door to Member States' claims beyond the boundaries set by the Commission in its disclosed State aid policy, and may be the end of an era of increasing push for box-ticking exercises and for the Commission's reliance on its predetermined conditions for State aid exemption under block exemption regulations. This may well lead to an increase in litigation by Member States, which may be more willing to challenge the Commission's 'self-enforcement' approach in its recently adopted State aid 2.0 strategy [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement, forthcoming].

The bit that puzzles me is that, in the specific circumstances of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU and its use in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, the Commission had not disclosed any policy documents prior to the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. Thus, the issue whether the Commission could block any claims prior to the entry into force of those instruments could also have triggered an argument of retroactive application of beneficial discretionary measures, which I would have expected to read in a case like this. Somehow, the issue of the inter-temporal validity of policy and legal instruments in EU economic law continues to raise unresolved issues.

Regarding the specific interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, the implications of the ELGA Judgment are mixed. On the one hand, it seems clear that the CJEU recognises that Member States can claim the existence of specific circumstances in its economy, and this would tail up with the drafting of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which indicates that the exemption is available for aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State. On the other hand, though, the CJEU seems to require Member States to demonstrate that those circumstances 'distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70) and, in the specific case, 'specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned' (para 74). This seems problematic on two fronts.

First, it clearly goes beyond the wording of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which has no reference to specific sectors of the economy and seems to accept the possibility of exceptional rules aimed at a distressed economy as a whole. One is left with the doubt whether this requirement to have demonstrated specific exceptional circumstances in the agricultural sector derives from the CJEU's unwillingness to quash the Commission's decision--reading the case, it seems clear that the controversy about the existence of sufficient evidence in the file could have been a driver for this outcome--or, on the contrary, it is a purposeful interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in a way that reduces its scope. If the latter is the real reason, then the CJEU could have been more explicit in determining the parameters of such narrow interpreation, not least because of the absence of a sufficient volume of case law that interprets this provision.

And, second, it seems to create a significant limitation in the Member States' design of their macroeconomic (emergency) policies in a way that some could argue falls foul of the principle of subsidiarity. In that regard, the CJEU could have been more explicit as to the reasons for the imposition of a requirement of economic intervention in the specific sectors affected by the serious economic disturbance--which, in my view, would be relatively easy to support on the basis of the general requirements of suitability and proportionality applicable to State measures that aim to benefit from exemptions of Treaty prohibitions under EU economic law, generally.

Some thoughts on the European Commission's revised proposal for regulation on third-country access to public procurement

The European Commission has recently published a revised version of the proposed regulation on the access of third-country goods and services to the Union’s internal market in public procurement and procedures supporting negotiations on access of Union goods and services to the public procurement markets of third countries [for discussion of the initial proposal and its implications, see K Dawar, 'The Proposed "Buy European" Procurement Regulation: An Analysis'].

As the Commission stresses, nothing in the revision of the instrument has altered the fact that
The new Instrument would allow the Commission to initiate public investigations in cases of alleged discrimination of EU companies in procurement markets. In case such an investigation would find discriminatory restrictions vis-à-vis EU goods, services and/or suppliers, the Commission will invite the country concerned to consult on the opening of its procurement market. Such consultations can also take place in the form of negotiations on an international agreement. As a last resort, the Commission could, after consultation with EU Member States, apply the new tool. This means that bids consisting of goods and services from the country concerned would, while compared to other bids, be considered as offering a higher price than the one they have put forward, thus providing European and non-targeted countries' goods and services a competitive advantage. To avoid the application of this tool, third countries have only to stop such discriminatory practices (see press release).
This is clearly an instrument of trade policy and, in my view, it is not much more than the stick the Commission is trying to get itself to be able to reinforce its push for international procurement agreements (notably, the GPA) in case some trading partners are not persuaded by the carrot of having enhanced access to the EU market. I am sceptical about the likely effectiveness of the instrument, or whether it actually adds anything in terms of the EU's external foreign (trade) policy, other than the possibility of imposing compliance with retaliatory trade measures internally, on Member States that may have different views, or simply want to benefit from cheaper or more competitive offers coming from blacklisted countries with which their 'own domestic' suppliers do not trade intensely. Oddly, the proposed regulation may have more teeth from this internal perspective than outwardly. 

What troubles me is the possibility that this trade instrument, if approved and implemented, triggers litigation from foreign non-GPA covered litigants in three fronts. First, regarding investment protection claims against the EU and its Member States by tenderers from countries that find themselves unable to continue tendering for contracts in the internal market due to the Commission's imposition of retaliatory measures under the proposed regulation. Second, regarding challenges in front of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the basis of Art 263(4)III TFEU and the negative impact that the European Commission's decision to blacklist countries create [in a similar fashion as recent cases such as Council v Manufacturing Support & Procurement Kala Naft, C-348/12 P, EU:C:2013:776], which will trigger disputes as to the locus standi of these companies. And third, regarding litigation in front of the national courts, both if the foreign companies are subjected to the price discrimination mechanisms or, counter-intuitively, even if they are not.

Overall, I am not sure that it is a good idea for the European Commission to be pushing for an instrument that is very likely to judicialize trade disputes. At the same time, if the instrument is as ineffective as I am inclined to think, maybe those risks are simply theoretical and not worth worrying after all. Which strengthens the doubts about the utility of the instrument even further...

CJEU implicitly rejects GC's views on subjective assessment of two-part State aid measures under Art 107(1) TFEU (C-15/14)

In its Judgment in Commission v MOL, C-15/14, EU:C:2015:362, the CJEU upheld the previous Judgment of the GC where the selectivity of two-part State aid measures was assessed with very generous deference towards the State's exercise of regulatory powers (which I criticised here). 
 
The CJEU assessed the criticism by the Commission of the GC's position (T-499/10, paras 64 and 65) that the presence of a selective advantage cannot be deduced from the mere fact that the operator is left better off than other operators when the Member State concerned justifiably confined itself to exercising its regulatory power following a change on the market. 
 
Remarkably, the Commission took issue with the fact that the General Court linked "the assessment of the selective nature of the ... agreement, and therefore the measure at issue, to whether or not the Member State concerned had the intention, at the time of concluding that agreement, of protecting one or more operators from the application of a new fee regime" (C-15/14, para 85, emphasis added). As the CJEU stresses
According to the Commission, the General Court thus disregarded the settled case-law of the Court of Justice to the effect that Article 107(1) TFEU defines State interventions on the basis of their effects, and independently of the techniques used by the Member States to implement their interventions (see, inter alia, judgments in Belgium v Commission, C‑56/93, EU:C:1996:64, paragraph 79; Belgium v Commission, C‑75/97, EU:C:1999:311, paragraph 25; British Aggregates v Commission, C‑487/06 P, EU:C:2008:757, paragraph 89; and Commission v Government of Gibraltar and United Kingdom, C‑106/09 P and C‑107/09 P, EU:C:2011:732, paragraphs 91, 92 and 98) (C-15/14, para 86).
I had also criticised the GC for the inclusion of the element of "intention" in its previous Judgment. However, I also expressed doubts as to the CJEU's willingness to side by the GC. In my view back then,
If Article 107(1) TFEU is meant to avoid distortions of competition in the internal market, when confronted with sequential, two-part or complex aid measures, the fact that they all formed part of a 'master plan' from the outset or are the 'random or supervening' result of discrete interventions should be irrelevant. Otherwise, the burden of proving 'distortive intent' from the outset may simply make it impossible to pursue these cases. However, it may well be that the remarks made by the GC in para 67 of MOL v Commission will remain a 'mere' obiter dictum and that the assessment of two-part or complex measures will remain much more objective in the future.
Consequently, I was hoping that the CJEU would quash this part of the Judgment in T-499/10. However, the CJEU rejected the argument of the Commission and determined that the GC's argumentation in paras 64 to 67 and 82 of the Judgment in T-499/10 was not vitiated by any error of law. I disagree with the CJEU's arguments to support the GC's position, which deserve close scrutiny (below). However, given that the CJEU has managed to uphold the GC's reasoning and at the same time stress that two-part or complex State aid measures must be assessed without any reference to the "intention" of the Member State, I agree with the outcome of the case.
 
According to the CJEU,
92 ... the General Court stated, in paragraph 67 of the judgment under appeal, that [under] the case-law of the Court of Justice, ... for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU, a single aid measure may consist of combined elements on condition that, having regard to their chronology, their purpose and the circumstances of the undertaking at the time of their intervention, they are so closely linked to each other that they are inseparable from one another (judgment in Bouygues and Bouygues Télécom v Commission and Others and Commission v France and Others, C‑399/10 P and C‑401/10 P, EU:C:2013:175, paragraphs 103 and 104 and the case-law cited).
93 In that context, the General Court emphasised, in paragraph 67 of the judgment under appeal, that a combination of elements such as that relied upon by the Commission in the decision at issue may be categorised as State aid when the State acts in such a way as to protect one or more operators already present on the market, by concluding with them an agreement granting them fee rates guaranteed for the entire duration of that agreement, while having the intention at that time of subsequently exercising its regulatory power, by increasing the fee rate so that other market operators are placed at a disadvantage, be they operators already present on the market on the date on which that agreement was concluded or new operators.
94 It was in the light of those considerations that the General Court, in paragraph 68 of the judgment under appeal, decided that it was necessary to examine whether, in those proceedings, the Commission was entitled to consider that the contested measure was selective.
95 It follows from the foregoing that, as MOL contends, paragraphs 64 to 67 of the judgment under appeal do not, as such, concern the examination of the selectivity of the 2005 agreement, but are preliminary explanations aimed at introducing the relevant framework in relation to which the General Court examined whether the Commission was correct in finding that the measure at issue was selective (sic).
96 As the Advocate General stated in points 107 and 114 of his Opinion, by those preliminary explanations, the General Court in fact sought to deal with the issue of the links existing between the 2005 agreement and the 2008 amendment, which the Commission had not specifically addressed in the decision at issue, and more particularly, to underline the fact that, given that there is no chronological and/or functional link between those two elements, they cannot be interpreted as constituting a single aid measure.
97 By those preliminary explanations, the General Court merely applied the case-law laid down by the Court of Justice in the judgment in Bouygues and Bouygues Télécom v Commission and Others and Commission v France and Others (C‑399/10 P and C‑401/10 P, EU:C:2013:175), to which the General Court also expressly referred in paragraph 67 of the judgment under appeal, and according to which, since State interventions take various forms and have to be assessed in relation to their effects, it cannot be excluded that several consecutive measures of State intervention must, for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU, be regarded as a single intervention. That could be the case, in particular when consecutive interventions, having regard to their chronology, their purpose and the circumstances of the undertaking at the time of those interventions, are so closely related to each other that they are inseparable from one another (C-15/14, paras 92 to 97, emphasis added).
I find the reasoning of the CJEU very poor. By artificially breaking up paragraph 67 of the GC's Judgment in paras 92 and 93 of its own Judgment, the CJEU attempts to limit the requirement of the element of "intention" to some mysterious "preliminary explanations" excluded from the selectivity assessment, and this is very unsatisfactory and unconvincing.

In my view, the CJEU should have plain and simply said that the GC would have been wrong to include an element of "intention" in the test applicable to two-part or complex State aid measures, which assessment needs to be carried out in view of objective factors such as 'their chronology, their purpose and the circumstances of the undertaking at the time of their intervention, [or whether] they are so closely linked to each other that they are inseparable from one another' as per Bouygues and Bouygues Télécom v Commission and Others and Commission v France and Others.

Allowing the GC to save face by limiting its erroneous interpretation of that case law in para 67 of T-499/10, or failing to stress the fact that it was an unfortunate expression made obiter dictum (if they wanted to remain deferential) pays lip service to legal certainty. In my view, the CJEU could have decided otherwise because the element of "intention" is actually not assessed at any point of the GC's Judgment and the CJEU was ready to accept the selectivity analysis carried out by the GC. Consequently, there was no need for the strange and convoluted analysis in paras 92 to 97 of the Judgment in C-15/14. 

Be it as it may, the silver lining is in the fact that the CJEU has clearly rejected that the test it progressively laid down for the analysis of two-part or complex State aid measures encompasses any subjective element of "intention" on the part of the granting Member State. Consequently, the analysis of the selectivity of measures closely connected will continue to have to be carried out on the basis of purely objective factors, such as 'their chronology, their purpose and the circumstances of the undertaking at the time of their intervention, [or whether] they are so closely linked to each other that they are inseparable from one another. All is well that ends well.

A 'private tax-payer test' for State aid? ... or how the Commission is not getting it (about the Apple APA case)

Thanks to @Detig's twitter encouragement, I have finally set out to read the recently released 11 June 2014 Decision of the European Commission SA.38373 in the case of alleged Irish aid to Apple due to the treatment of its advanced pricing arrangements (APAs). Generally, this is a case that pushes the boundaries of State aid law as tax sovereignty is concerned and may force some interesting developments. However, in the particulars, its seems that some of the foundations of the Commission's position are rather shaky.
 
In my view, one of the points where the Commission's logic is particularly flimsy comes when it tries to justify the application of the private operator/investor test in this context, in what should be rebranded as 'private tax-payer' test, by stressing that 'to avoid this type of advantage [ie the allocation of profit to subsidiaries in low tax jurisdictions] it is necessary to ensure that taxable income is determined in line with the taxable income a private operator would declare in a similar situation' (para 9, emphasis added). This just does not make sense and incorrectly focusses on the incentives of the economic operator (tax payer) instead of those of the tax authority (which, in the end, is the one that may have accepted APAs that granted an undue economic advantage to the former).
 
 As the Commission had itself very clearly indicated (para 8 of the same document), the financial incentives that (multinational) private operators have are exactly in line with Apple's behaviour. Hence, the Commission should have stuck to the simple truth that, from an economic perspective, the only rational behaviour that can be expected from economic (corporate) operators is to try to minimise fiscal pressure and to incentivise their tax directors to do so [Armstrong, Blouin & Larcker, 'The incentives for tax planning' (2012) 53(1) Journal of Accounting and Economics 391-411].
 
This may not be the socially desirable behaviour, and precisely that is why tax law is there [as, indeed, 'if we were ideally virtuous, there would be no need to study what people should pay in taxes to finance subsidies to the poor, the employment of a police force, and provision of an urban infrastructure, or to find ways of reducing the environmental damage we do'; J Mirrlees, Welfare, Incentives, and Taxation (Oxford, OUP, 2006) iv]. 
 
If the Commission is of the view that the activity of the (Irish) tax authorities was not in line with rational behaviour, it should not try to find a justification in the behaviour that could be expected from the tax payer, but rather on the rationality of the decision of the tax authorities on the basis of the existing knowledge on optimal taxation--an issue discussed by Mirrlees (131-73) and many others, without having necessarily reached a final conclusion so far [see an interesting discussion of the main insights achieved so far in NG Mankiw, M Weinzierl and D Yagan, 'Optimal Taxation in Theory and Practice', (2009) 23(4) Journal of Economic Perspectives 147-74].
 
Trying to conflate this insight and to word the criterion for the assessment of Apple's APAs as a 'private tax-payer' test does not make sense and risks damaging the consistency and logic behind the principle of private operator/investor test as a general principle for the assessment of State aid [for discussion, see A Sanchez Graells, 'Bringing the ‘Market Economy Agent’ Principle to Full Power' (2012) 33 European Competition Law Review 35-39].
 
In my view, this is plain to see in the oddity of the detailed reasoning in which the Commission engages, when it establishes that
When accepting a calculation method of the taxable basis proposed by the taxpayer, the tax authorities should compare that method to the prudent behaviour of a hypothetical market operator, which would require a market conform remuneration of a subsidiary or a branch, which reflect normal conditions of competition. For example, a market operator would not accept that its revenues are based on a method which achieves the lowest possible outcome if the facts and circumstances of the case could justify the use of other, more appropriate methods (SA.38373, para 56, emphasis added).
Quite honestly, it is very difficult to understand what the Commission exactly means by this--and this is the more worrying because '[i]t is in the light of these general observations that the Commission will examine whether the contested rulings comply with the arm’s length principle' (para 57). If what the Commission indicates is that for the purposes of taxation, a rational/prudent economic operator would not accept a method that results in the lowest possible tax base, this just does not make sense. Differently, if what the Commission means is that for purposes other than taxation (which would those be?) the rational/prudent economic operator would equally oppose that method, then much more detailed explanation of why and how that is the case would be needed.
 
Worse of all, the Commission has a strong cases on the facts. The Irish tax authorities entered into negotiations with Apple and allowed the company to deviate very significantly from the applicable (general) tax rules. Moreover, despite the very significant development of international standards on transfer pricing, a 1991 ruling was used until 2007 with no revision. This sweet deal for Apple was clearly linked to an objective of keeping (regional) employment and ensruring some tax income. These may be rational (?/justifiable?) political decisions, but they do not meet any acceptable standard of objectivity, professionalism and transparency and, consequently run against the basic requirements of good (tax) administration. And, what is more important, clearly point towards a selectivity in the application of the tax system that makes the whole deal fall foul of the prohibition in Art 107(1) TFEU [the important legal point is, indeed, made at para 70 of the Decision].
 
 
In view of all this, one cannot but wonder why would the Commission base its case on such unfocussed and difficult to share (to put it mildly) points of departure. One possible option, of course, is the rebalancing of powers in tax matters derived from the Treaty of Lisbon and the very limited space for action in the front of direct taxation that is not supported unanimously by the 28 Member States (see art 115 TFEU) [for discussion, see TA Kaye, 'Direct taxation in the European Union: from Maastricht to Lisbon' (2012) 35(5) Fordham International Law Journal].
 
Another possible option is that the Commission is trying to deflect the bad publicity from the Member State concerned (Ireland) towards the multinational (Apple), hoping to find less resistance (or to trigger support) at Member State level. There can be a myriad other reasons, of course. But none of them seems to justify risking a case (and a principle of enforcement of State aid law) in an attempt to get the prohibition decision through.

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.

GC rules on two-part State aid measures and selectivity under Art 107(1) TFEU (T-499/10)

In its Judgment of 12 November 2013 in case T-499/10 MOL v Commission, the General Court has found that an authorisation agreement that froze the mining fees payable for the explotaition of hydrocarbon reserves and that exempted the beneficiary from complying with a posterior law that increased the applicable mining fees does not constitute State aid incompatible with the internal market. In my view, the Judgment is interesting for the guidance it provides regarding the analysis of two-part or complex State aid measures.
 
In the case, MOL and the Hungarian State entered into an authorisation agreement in 2005 whereby the mining rights assigned to MOL were extended and the mining fees payable in return were determined on a non-revisable basis for the period 2005-2020. Later, a 2008 law reform significantly increased the mining fees that would have been payable for the exploitation of those same fields. However, in view of the 2005 agreement, MOL was exempted from topping up the mining fees it was liable to pay. Competitiors and potential new entrants were subject to the revised (higher) fees.
 
The Commission took the view that, given the way the 2005 agreement and the provisions of the 2008 amendment had been designed, they should be regarded as part of the same measure and it concluded that their combined effect conferred an unfair advantage to MOL.
 
According to the Commission, even if the 2005 agreement was concluded in accordance with the Mining Act then in force and even if it was up to the Member State to set the mining fees, the effects produced were not necessarily compatible with the State aid rules of the Treaty, although, taken in isolation, neither the 2005 agreement nor the 2008 amendment was contrary to these rules.
 
It is important to stress that MOL was the only operator in the hydrocarbons sector to have obtained an extension of its mining rights, since other extension agreements concerned undertakings extracting solid minerals, for which mining fees were not amended.  The Commission considered that the measure fulfilled the criteria enshrined in Article 107(1) TFEU and should be considered as State aid, and that there was nothing to indicate that it could be compatible with the internal market.
 
The Hungarian authorities challenged the Commission's position arguing that the measure did not constitute State aid, since the 2005 agreement conferred MOL no advantage and was not selective, as the company received no preferential treatment resulting from that agreement. Hungary further stressed that undertakings making large investments in mining projects require long‑term certainty in respect of the applicable mining fees and charges and that, consequently, mining fees subject to agreement should be fixed and stable for the entire duration of the respective agreement.
  
 
The GC has reviewed the Commission's decision and, mainly on the basis of the 'selectivity' requirement under Article 107(1) TFEU, has found that:
46 [...] although the Commission considered that the contested measure had, in those two constituent elements, favoured the applicant, it drew attention to the fact that the extension agreement was, by itself, selective, on account of the manner in which it had been negotiated and concluded [...]. In stating that the 2005 agreement and the 2008 amendment had resulted in the applicant’s benefiting from lower mining fees than those of the other operators until 2020, the Commission drew attention to the selective nature of the 2005 agreement vis-à-vis the applicant only [...], since the benefit of such mining fees stems solely from the agreement, which sets the rate of the increased mining fee for each of the fifteen years of duration of the agreement, and which provides that the rates thus set will be determined solely in accordance with its provisions and that those rates will stay unchanged [...]. Moreover, by concluding that the applicant was subject to a specific regime shielding it from any increase in mining fees [...], the Commission necessarily took the view that the criterion of selectivity of the contested measure had been met, on the ground that, in the light of its characteristics mentioned above, the 2005 agreement was selective. [...]

54 With respect to the selective nature of the aid measure, it must also be observed that Article 107(1) TFEU does not distinguish between measures of State intervention by reference to their causes or their aims but defines them in relation to their effects (Case C‑409/00 Spain v Commission [2003] ECR I‑1487, paragraph 46). It follows that the application of that provision only requires it to be determined whether under a particular statutory scheme a State measure is such as to favour ‘certain undertakings or the production of certain goods’ over others which are in a legal and factual situation that is comparable in the light of the objective pursued by the measure in question (see Spain v Commission, paragraph 47 and the case-law cited). If so, the aid measure satisfies the condition of selectivity which defines State aid as laid down by that provision. [...]

62 As a preliminary point, it should be recalled that the contested measure consists of two elements, namely the 2005 agreement, which sets mining fee rates for all the applicant’s fields, whether in production or the subject of extension, for each of the fifteen years of duration thereof, and the 2008 amendment, which increases mining fee rates for all hydrocarbon fields under authorisation, but does not contain any provisions relating to fields that have already been the subject of an extension agreement.

63 In that regard, it should be noted at the outset that the Commission was right to state
[...] that the 2005 agreement is not contrary to the State aid rules. Since the fees stipulated by the 2005 agreement, which were applicable to both fields already in production and fields concerned by extension of authorisation, were higher than the statutory fees applicable at the time of its conclusion, that agreement did not involve any State aid element for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU.

64 Next, the Court considers that, where a Member State concludes with an economic operator an agreement which does not involve any State aid element for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU, the fact that, subsequently, conditions external to such an agreement change in such a way that the operator in question is in an advantageous position vis‑à‑vis other operators that have not concluded a similar agreement is not a sufficient basis on which to conclude that, together, the agreement and the subsequent modification of the conditions external to that agreement can be regarded as constituting State aid.

65 In the absence of such a principle, any agreement that an economic operator might conclude with a State which does not involve any State aid element for the purposes of Article 107 TFEU would always be open to challenge, where the situation on the market on which the operator party to the agreement is active evolves in such a way that an advantage is conferred on it
[...] or where the State exercises its regulatory power in an objectively justified manner following a market evolution whilst observing the rights and obligations resulting from such an agreement.

66 However, a combination of elements such as that observed by the Commission in the contested decision may be categorised as State aid where the terms of the agreement concluded were proposed selectively by the State to one or more operators rather than on the basis of objective criteria laid down by a text of general application that are applicable to any operator. In that regard, it must be pointed out that the fact that only one operator has concluded an agreement of that type is not sufficient to establish the selective nature of the agreement, since that may result inter alia from an absence of interest by any other operator.

67 Moreover, it should be recalled that, for the purposes of Article 107(1) TFEU, a single aid measure may consist of combined elements on condition that, having regard to their chronology, their purpose and the circumstances of the undertaking at the time of their intervention, they are so closely linked to each other that they are inseparable from one another (see, to that effect, Joined Cases C‑399/10 P and C‑401/10 P Bouygues and Bouygues Télécom v Commission and Others and Commission v France and Others [2013] ECR I‑0000, paragraphs 103 and 104). In that context, a combination of elements such as that relied upon by the Commission in the contested decision may be categorised as State aid where the State acts in such a way as to protect one or more operators already present on the market, by concluding with them an agreement granting them fee rates guaranteed for the entire duration thereof, whilst having the intention at that time of subsequently exercising its regulatory power, by increasing the fee rate so that other market operators are placed at a disadvantage, be they operators already present on the market on the date on which the agreement was concluded or new operators.

68 It is in the light of those considerations that it is necessary to examine whether, in the present case, the Commission was entitled to consider that the contested measure was selective, on the ground that, in so far as the 2005 agreement sets the rate of the increased mining fee for each of the fifteen years of its duration and provides that the rates thus set would remain unchanged, it was selective
(T-499/10 at paras 46-68, emphasis added).
On the basis of the very specific circumstances of the case, the GC finds that the 2005 agreement was not selective that its combination with the 2008 amendment does not alter this finding and, consequently, annuls the Commission's incompatibility Decision.
 
Beyond the specific circumstances of the case, I think that the analytical framework sketched by the GC includes some useful guidance [such as the stress on the close chronological requirement, or the selectivity element (implicitly) required in all the components of a two-stage or complex State aid measure] but also some troubling hints at a less than objective assessment.
 
In that respect, regardless of the emphasis put on the standard legal position that 'Article 107(1) TFEU does not distinguish between measures of State intervention by reference to their causes or their aims but defines them in relation to their effects' (para 54), the GC goes on to stress that 'a combination of elements such as that relied upon by the Commission in the contested decision may be categorised as State aid where the State acts in such a way as to protect one or more operators already present on the market, by concluding with them an agreement granting them fee rates guaranteed for the entire duration thereof, whilst having the intention at that time of subsequently exercising its regulatory power, by increasing the fee rate so that other market operators are placed at a disadvantage' (para 67). Therefore, the GC does build in an element of (reverse) causality or, probably more accurately, of volition or intention that seems extraneous to the State aid control system.
 
If Article 107(1) TFEU is meant to avoid distortions of competition in the internal market, when confronted with sequential, two-part or complex aid measures, the fact that they all formed part of a 'master plan' from the outset or are the 'random or supervening' result of discrete interventions should be irrelevant. Otherwise, the burden of proving 'distortive intent' from the outset may simply make it impossible to pursue these cases. However, it may well be that the remarks made by the GC in para 67 of MOL v Commission will remain a 'mere' obiter dictum and that the assessment of two-part or complex measures will remain much more objective in the future (as indeed, is the case with the rest of the Judgment).

Missed opportunity for the CJEU to confirm 'non bis in idem' in State aid enforcement (C-560/12 P and C-587/12 P)

In contrast to its very recent Judgment in case C-77/12 P Deutsche Post, where the CJEU clearly barred the European Commission from adopting an indefinite number of 'follow up' decisions concerned with a single State aid investigation (in what I read as an incipient 'ne bis in idem principle' in State aid enforcement); in its  twin Judgments of 7 November 2013 in case C-560/12 P Wam Industriale v Commission and in case C-587/12  P Italy v Commission (only available in French and Italian), the CJEU has brushed aside a similar argument on the basis of its insufficient development by the appellant (C-560/12 P) and (implicitly) on the basis of the lack of independent legal effects of the fresh assessment carried out by the European Commission of the evidence on file after the initial decision had been quashed at judicial review (C-587/12 P). In my view, the Deutsche Post and (the set of) Wam Judgments are difficult to reconcile
 
In Wam, the European Commission had adopted a 2004 decision declaring the unlawfulness of State aid granted by the Italian State to support market expansion projects in Japan, Korea and China. After the quashing of the Commission's 2004 Decision by the GC in 2006 (T-304/04 and T-316/04) and the confirmation of that decision in 2009 by the CJEU (C-494/06), the Commission adopted a new incompatibility Decision in 2010.
 
In its challenge against the Commission's 2010 Decision (C-560/12 P), Wam argued that
the contested [2010] decision is not [merely] vitiated either by a 'procedural irregularity' or a 'formal defect', since the failure to state reasons does not constitute such a defect, but it rather lacks an "essential element", which effectively determines its nullity. In this case, therefore, there is a subjective claim preclusion between the parties [res iudicata] and, accordingly, the Commission, being under the obligation to give effect to the judgments of the Court in Italy and Wam v Commission [T-304/04 and T-316/04] and Commission v Italy and Wam [C-494/06]could not "in any way have adopted a new decision on the matter". The Court should therefore "for this [reason] only", have annulled the contested decision (C-560/12 P, para 6, own translation from Italian).
The argument sounds very similar to the one raised by Deutsche Post (although in that case the 'follow up' decision was not concerned with a full reassessment of the same measures, but with a fresh assessment of measures not expressly considered in the initial Decision eventually quashed), which the CJEU analysed in detail and actually backed in C-77/12 P.

However, in Wam the CJEU does not show the same appetite for the development of a strong limit on the Commission's ability to reopen a case after losing it on appeal (a sort of procedural estoppel or ne bis in idem), and dismisses the argument on the (very formal basis) that
15 By the first part of the first plea, it should be noted that the applicant merely submits that, for the mere fact [of the existence of] the judgments of the Court in Italy and Wam v Commission and Commission v Italy and Wam, the Commission would have been in any case precluded from adopting a new decision.
16 In that regard it should be noted that the argument concerning that matte is limited to a dozen lines on pages 26 and 27 of the appeal, the substance of which is taken up in paragraph 7
[sic, 6] of this judgment.
17 However, such an argument, marred by a lack of precision, clearly does not fulfill the conditions laid down in Article 169, paragraph 2, of the Rules of Procedure of the Court. Consequently, it must be rejected as inadmissible
(C-560/12 P, paras 15-17, own translation from Italian).
In my view, in adopting this approach, the CJEU has been too keen to take an easy way out and has missed an opportunity to reaffirm and give further guidance on the limits applicable to the reopening of State aid investigations by the European Commission. However, the CJEU does look into more detail to a similar submission made by Italy in the other Judgment concerned with the same State aid measures, of the same date (C-587/12 P).
According to the Italian Republic,
7 [ ...] the Court erred in holding that the Commission did not have an obligation to open a new contradictory investigation procedure with the national authorities. Contrary to what the Court found, the point would not have been to establish, in general and in theory if, after a judgment of annulment for failure to state reasons, the Commission could or could not take up the procedure from the adoption of the [annulled] act.
8 The Italian Republic considers that, given that the Commission has "renew[ed] completely" the examination of all matters in the contested decision, introducing new facts, it has hence recognized that the "defects criticized", despite being considered as defects of the duty to state reasons, actually had substantial implications that made it necessary to "redo from scratch" the 2004 decision.
9 The Italian Republic considers that the
[...] factual elements consisting of the alleged "relative strengthening" of Wam and the alleged "freeing up of resources" could never have been deducted from the [initial] investigation procedure. Consequently, them being decisive elements for the demonstration of the existence of aid, the Commission should have opened a new adversarial procedure with the parties concerned [...]
10 The Commission claims that the first part of the first plea is unfounded. It points out that the annulment of the 2004 decision was based on a lack of motivation because [...] that decision did not explain in what way the aid in question could affect competition and trade between Member States. On the contrary, the Court failed to criticize the inquiry into the matter as carried out during the administrative procedure, nor did it identify any deficiency in this regard (C-587/12 P, paras 7-10, own translation from Italian).
The CJEU sides with the European Commission in the following terms:
11 It should be remembered that in the judgment of the Court in Italy and Wam v Commission as well as in the judgment in Commission v Italy and Wam, the investigation conducted by the Commission on the aid in question was not at all criticized.
12 
[...] the General Court correctly pointed out that, according to settled case-law, the procedure for replacing an unlawful act that has been cancelled can be resumed at the point at which the illegality occurred, that the cancellation of a Union act does not necessarily affect the preparatory acts and, furthermore, that the annulment of an act that puts an end to an administrative proceeding which comprises several stages does not necessarily entail the annulment of the entire procedure prior to the adoption of  the contested measure for whatever reason, procedural or substantive, taken into account in the judgment of annulment.
13
 [...] the Court also correctly pointed out that if, despite of the investigations that enable a comprehensive analysis of the compatibility of the aid, the Commission's analysis is found to be incomplete, and it involves the illegality of the decision, the procedure for replacing such a decision may be resumed at that point making a new analysis of the investigatory measures.
14 As regards the present case
[...] the Court stated that the illegality of the 2004 decision [...] concerned the inadequate statement of reasons thereof. [...] the Court has, in fact, merely stated that this decision did not contain sufficient arguments that would allow the conclusion that they met all the conditions for the application of Article 107, paragraph 1, TFEU which was confirmed by the Court in its judgment in Commission v Italy and Wam. The illegality of the 2004 decision did not affect the proceedings before it. No argument leads to the conclusion that that procedure was, in itself, vitiated by any illegality.
15 As to the argument put forward by the applicant's claim that the Court failed to take account of the fact that the Commission has completely revisited the examination of all the evidence in the file and introduced new elements, it should be noted that this argument is not supported by anything which could demonstrate a misrepresentation of the facts relating to it by the Court.
16 As regards the applicant's claim that the Court, in the remainder of its reasoning, ignored any arguments to refute the conclusion set out in paragraph 50 of the judgment under appeal, the Court notes that, in paragraph 57 of that judgment, the Court stated that the circumstances relating to the strengthening of Wam's position and the release of resources were correctly assessed in the contested decision. The Court added in such a point that, in any case, it was not new factual circumstances, but considerations arising from the analysis of the Commission, based on elements with respect to which nothing allowed it to believe that they were not known at the time when the decision was taken in 2004.
[...]
19 In these conditions [...] the General Court correctly concluded that the execution of the judgment of the Court in Italy and Wam v Commission and the judgment in Commission v Italy and Wam did not require the Commission to take on again the whole process provided for in Article 108 TFEU and that the Commission had erred, as a result of the same judgment, by not initiating a new formal investigation procedure.
20 The first part of the first plea is therefore unfounded
(C-587/12 P, paras 11-20, own translation from Italian, emphasis added).
In my view, this is contradictory with Deutsche Post. There, the CJEU basically prevented the Commission from conducting a fresh (additional) assessment of the facts already contained in the file because, even if they were present from the beginning and known by the parties, because the initial decision adopted had exhausted the procedure and closed the investigation completely. Following the same line of reasoning, the Judgment in Wam should have been pointing in that direction by preventing the Commission from adopting a fresh 'theory of harm' on the basis of the facts already on file, as that would equally alter the legal position of the parties and would disregard the fact that the Commission had completely closed the investigation when adopting the initial (now quashed) incompatibility decision.
 
Effectively, Deutsche Post denied the Commission a second bite of the cherry, whereas Wam basically (potentially) allows for multiple bites. I find this inconsistency insatisfactory and, as I said already I would advocate for an approach where once a measure has been analysed and the Commission reaches a final decision, then the same measure should not be subjected to additional enquiries and no new findings of incompatibility should be acceptable.
 
In maybe more blunt terms, the Commission should have one shot (and only one) at each controversial State aid measure, in order to protect legal certainty and as an (implicit) requirement of the principle of good administration.
 
Overall, I would consider such a general principle a positive development in EU State aid law. It remains to be seen, however, whether there is true CJEU appetite for such a development.

"Ne bis in idem" in State aid control? CJEU quashes Deutsche Post decision (C-77/12 P)

In its Judgment of 24 October 2013 in case C-77/12 P Deutsche Post v Commission, the Court of Justice of the EU quashed a Judgment of the General Court (T-421/07) and (indirectly) questioned a decision taken by the European Commission concerning the State aid granted by Germany to Deutsche Post in the 1990s. The Commission had adopted an initial negative decision in 2002 (ultimately quashed by the CJEU in C-399/08 P) and, following a request by the initial complainants to look into the matter in more detail, it decided to extend the scope of the original investigation in a 'follow-up' enquiry carried out in 2007 (while the GC was still considering the legality of the original negative decision).
 
Germany challenged the decision of the European Commission on the general basis that, contrary to its allegations, this 'follow-up' enquiry would alter the legal effects of the initial decision (now annulled) and that such an enforcement strategy would be against the most fundamental principles of due process and good administration.
 
The GC (T-421/07) took no issue with the opening of the 'follow-up' investigation, as it considered that such a decision did not alter the legal standing of the State aid measures under investigation, since they had already been flagged as potentially illegal in the initial decision to open an investigation that the Commission adopted in 1999 (and regardless of the fact that they were not included in the original negative decision of 2002). In even more controversial terms, the GC brushed aside the argument that the annulment of the 2002 negative decision should also be taken into consideration in order to bar any 'follow-up' investigation that ultimately had the same origin. As the CJEU summarises,
In addition, the [General] Court observed in paragraphs 77 and 79 of the contested judgment, that this conclusion is not undermined by the judgment in Deutsche Post / Commission [...]. Indeed, this decision did not rule on the question whether the formal investigation procedure initiated in 1999 in respect of the disputed measures has been closed. The Court further considersed that this decision had the effect of retroactively eliminating the 2002 negative decision, so that "this decision can in no way affect the conclusion that the 2002 [negative] decision had no impact on the existence of any independent legal effects generated by [the contested decision] (C-77/12 P at para 37, own translation from French).
On the basis of those considerations, the GC considered that the 2007 decision to carry out a 'follow-up enquiry' was not open to an annulment action under Article 263(4) TFEU and, consequently, dismissed Deutsche Post's challenge. The CJEU has taken a different view.
 
I find it interesting to stress that the CJEU has argued that:
52 As regards, in particular, the binding legal effects of a decision to initiate the procedure provided for in Article [108], paragraph 2 [TFEU] with respect to a measure running and qualified as new aid, such a decision necessarily changes the legal status of the measure, as well as the legal position of the beneficiaries, particularly in regard to its implementation. After the adoption of such a decision, there is at least a significant doubt about the legality of this measure, which must lead the Member State to suspend the payment, since the opening of the procedure laid down in Article [108], paragraph 2 [TFEU] excludes an immediate decision on the compatibility with the common market that would allow for the regular execution of the measure. Such a decision could be invoked before a national court called upon to draw all the consequences of the violation of Article [108], paragraph 3, last sentence, [TFEU]. Finally, it is likely to lead beneficiaries of the measure to refuse in any event new payments or to provision the necessary funds for any subsequent repayments. The beneficiaries will also be affected in their relations with other agents, which will take into consideration the weakened legal and financial situation of the former (see judgment of 9 October 2001, Italy / Commission, C-400/99, Rec . P. I- 7303, paragraph 59).
53 It should be added that […] such a decision to open an investigation with respect to a measure that the Commission describes as new aid is not simply a preparatory step in that it has independent legal effects, particularly with regard to the suspension of the measure under consideration.
54 In this case, it should be noted that […] in the contested decision, the Commission qualified as new aid the transfer payments made by DB-Telekom and the system of public guarantees. Furthermore, as regards the public pension fund, this institution has expressed its doubts about the extent to which this funding granted an economic advantage to [Deutsche Post]. The Commission also pointed out […] that Germany was under the obligation to suspend the measures challenged by the decision.
55 It follows that the 2007 opening decision is an act that is likely to affect the interests of [Deutsche Post] by altering its legal status and, therefore, it meets all the elements of an act within the meaning of Article [263 TFEU].
56 Contrary to what the Court considered […] that finding is not challenged by the existence of the decision to open an investigation in 1999, by which the Commission opened the procedure laid down in Article [108], paragraph 2 [TFEU] in respect of a series of measures being implemented.
57 Indeed, it is clear that, in any event, the Commission, by its negative decision of 2002, closed the formal investigation procedure in 1999.
58 In this regard, it should be noted that the Commission dealt in its negative decision of 2002, of all the measures challenged by the opening 1999 decision, as argued rightly [Deutsche Post] (C-77/12 P at paras 52-58, own translation from French, emphasis added).

Even if this may not be the end of the story in this particular case, which has been sent back to the GC, I think that the principle established by the CJEU could be read as a sort of 'ne bis in idem' in the area of State aid enforcement. Once a measure has been analysed and the Commission reaches a final decision, then the same measure should not be subjected to additional enquiries and no new findings of incompatibility should be acceptable.
 
In maybe more blunt terms, the Commission has one shot (and only one) at each controversial State aid measure, in order to protect legal certainty and as an (implicit) requirement of the principle of good administration.
 
Overall, I would consider such a general principle a positive development in EU State aid law. It remains to be seen, however, whether this reasoning is only case-specific or the CJEU is willing to flesh out such a general principle in even clearer terms, should the opportunity arise in the future.

CJEU 'warns' against tax breaks based on employment goals: State aid rules (may) oppose them (C-6/12)

In its Judgment of 18 July 2013 in case C-6/12 P Oy, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) assessed the compatibility with EU State aid rules of the Finnish regime of deduction of tax losses by undertakings subjected to corporate control changes (see a Finnish comment here). 

In my view, the most interesting part of the CJEU Judgment in the case lies not with the "boilerplate" analysis of the Finnish tax law provisions but, remarkably, with the not so concealed warning it has sent out to Member States that may be tempted to create 'too soft' tax regimes for companies which activities may have a "particular impact on employment".

Basically, Finnish tax rules allow companies to carry their losses forward up to 10 years after incurring them for the purposes of compensating their benefits and diminishing their tax burden. However, in order to prevent strategic acquisitions of 'bags of losses' within the shields of inactive companies, the Finnish tax code establishes a special regime in case of changes of corporate control. According to the relevant provisions, "losses sustained by a company are not deductible if, during the year in which they arise or thereafter, more than half of the company’s shares have changed ownership otherwise than by way of inheritance or will, or more than half of its members are replaced." However, "the competent tax office may, for special reasons, where it is necessary for the continuation of the activities of the company, authorise the deduction of losses when such an application is made" (emphasis added). 

By way of a guidance letter, the Finnish Tax Directorate interpreted the concept of "special reasons" and considered that, inter alia, could include the fact that the company requesting permission to carry fiscal losses forward despite a change of corporate control had "particular impact on employment". Indirectly, this raised the issue whether the granting of such an authorisation based on (non-strictly) tax reasons would meet the selectivity requirement of Article 107(1) TFEU and, consequently, could be challenged under the EU State aid rules.

In a very clear manner (despite the non-binding general tone of the Judgment, where the CJEU claims not to have sufficient information to reach a final position), the CJEU has indicated that:
26 […] the application of an authorisation system which enables losses to be carried forward to later tax years, such as that in question in the present case, cannot, in principle, be considered to be selective if the competent authorities have, when deciding on an application for authorisation, only a degree of latitude limited by objective criteria which are not unrelated to the tax system established by the legislation in question, such as the objective of avoiding trade in losses.
27 On the other hand, if the competent authorities have a broad discretion to determine the beneficiaries or the conditions under which the financial assistance is provided on the basis of criteria unrelated to the tax system, such as maintaining employment, the exercise of that discretion must then be regarded as favouring ‘certain undertakings or the production of certain goods’ in comparison with others which, in the light of the objective pursued, are in a comparable factual and legal situation (see, to that effect, C‑107/09 P Commission and Spain v Government of Gibraltar and United Kingdom [2011] ECR I‑0000,  paragraph 75). […]
30 […] if the competent authorities were to be able to determine the beneficiaries of the deduction of losses on the basis of criteria unrelated to the tax system, such as maintaining employment, such an exercise of that power should then be regarded as favouring ‘certain undertakings or the production of certain goods’ in comparison with others which, in the light of the objective pursued, are in a comparable factual and legal situation (C-6/12 at paras 26 to 30, emphasis added).
In my view, the CJEU has gone out of its way in this case (where it could have simply declined to provide an answer on the basis of the lack of information submitted by the referring court) with the aim of sending out a clear message to the governments of all Member States: if they intend to use (selective) tax measures to prevent negative impacts on employment, they need to obtain approval by the European Commission first.

This is not a revolution and may even have a second order of importance but, in my view, the CJEU has clearly backed the European Commission's efforts to control Member States' measures to (continue trying to) react to the economic crisis and has clearly indicated that corporate taxation cannot be used as a tool for these purposes. We shall see if the message reaches the intended ears...

#CJEU disagrees with AG Jaaskinen on access to #leniency files for damages claims purposes (C-536/11)

In its Judgment of 6 June 2013 in case C-536/11 Donau Chemie and Others, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has disagreed with the Opinion of Advocate General Jääskinen on the need for an (almost) absolute protection of leniency applications from disclosure to third parties interested in claiming damages (which was criticised here). 

In my opinion, this development should be most welcome and puts pressure on the European Commission to change its own position regarding the disclosure of leniency applications for the purposes of damages actions before the national courts of the Member States.

It should be recalled that AG Jääskinen tried to carve out a truly significant exception for leniency applications not to be subjected to general rules on disclosure of evidence to potential damages claimants. In his opinion, he indicated that, on the one hand, and on the basis of the general requirements of the principle of effectiveness (effet utile) of EU law
51. […] subjecting access to public law competition judicial files to the consent of the infringer of the competition rules amounts to a significant deterrent of the exercise to a right to claim civil damages for breach of EU competition law. The Court has ruled that if an individual has been deterred from bringing legal proceedings in good time by the wrong-doer, the latter will not be entitled to rely on national procedural rules concerning time limits for bringing proceedings. I can see no reason for confining the application of this principle to limitation periods, and would advocate its extension to onerous rules of evidence that have an analogous deterrent effect. I would further query the compliance of remedies that deter enforcement of EU law rights with Article 19(1) TEU (footnotes omitted, emphasis added).
On the other hand, however, the AG considered that
55. Article 47 [of the Charter of Fundamental Rights] is also relevant to the case to hand because it guarantees the fairness of hearings, which serves to protect the interests of the undertakings that have participated in the cartel. In my opinion, access by third parties to voluntary self-incriminating statements made by a leniency applicant should not in principle be granted. The privilege against self-incrimination is long established in EU law, and it is directly opposable to national competition authorities that are implementing EU rules.
56. It is true that leniency programmes do not guarantee protection against claims for damages and that the privilege against self-incrimination does not apply in private law contexts. Despite this, both public policy reasons and fairness towards the party having given incriminating declarations within the context of a leniency programme weigh heavily against giving access to the court files of public law competition proceedings where the party benefiting from them has acted as a witness for the prosecuting competition authority (footnotes omitted, emphasis added). 
As I said, in my view, both positions are logically irreconcilable in that leniency applicants would have (by definition) prevented by their own unilateral will, access by third parties to the parts of the file that could be used to claim damages against them (something the AG rightly criticises at para. 51 of his Opinion).

In light of that debate, I think that the Donau Chemie Judgment should be welcome for the more balanced approach that the CJEU adopts:
39 […] in so far as the national legal measure or rule at issue in the main proceedings allows the parties to the main proceedings having infringed Article 101 TFEU the possibility of preventing persons allegedly adversely affected by the infringement of that provision from having access to the documents in question, without taking account of the fact that that access may be the only opportunity those persons have to obtain the evidence needed on which to base their claim for compensation, that rule is liable to make the exercise of the right to compensation which those persons derive from European Union law excessively difficult.
40 That interpretation is not called into question by the Austrian Government’s argument to the effect that such a rule is especially necessary in respect of documents lodged by parties in a file relating to proceedings under a leniency programme, in order to ensure the effectiveness of such a programme and therefore also that of the application of Article 101 TFEU.
41 Admittedly [...] Member States must not apply the rules on file access in such a manner as to undermine public interests such as the effectiveness of anti-infringement policies in the area of competition law.
42 The Court has recognised that leniency programmes are useful tools if efforts to uncover and bring an end to infringements of competition rules are to be effective and thus serve the objective of effective application of Articles 101 TFEU and 102 TFEU. The effectiveness of those programmes could be compromised if documents relating to leniency proceedings were disclosed to persons wishing to bring an action for damages. The view can reasonably be taken that a person involved in an infringement of competition law, faced with the possibility of such disclosure, would be deterred from taking the opportunity offered by such leniency programmes (C-360/09 Pfleiderer [2011] ECR I-5161, paragraphs 25 to 27).
43 It is clear, however, that although those considerations may justify a refusal to grant access to certain documents contained in the file of national competition proceedings, they do not necessarily mean that that access may be systematically refused, since any request for access to the documents in question must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all the relevant factors in the case (see, to that effect, Pfleiderer, paragraph 31).
44 In the course of that assessment, it is for the national courts to appraise, firstly, the interest of the requesting party in obtaining access to those documents in order to prepare its action for damages, in particular in the light of other possibilities it may have.
45 Secondly, the national courts must take into consideration the actual harmful consequences which may result from such access having regard to public interests or the legitimate interests of other parties.
46 In particular, as regards the public interest of having effective leniency programmes referred to by the Austrian Government in the present case, it should be observed that, given the importance of actions for damages brought before national courts in ensuring the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union (see C‑453/99 Courage and Crehan [2001] ECR I‑6297, paragraph 27), the argument that there is a risk that access to evidence contained in a file in competition proceedings which is necessary as a basis for those actions may undermine the effectiveness of a leniency programme in which those documents were disclosed to the competent competition authority cannot justify a refusal to grant access to that evidence.
47 By contrast, the fact that such a refusal is liable to prevent those actions from being brought, by giving the undertakings concerned, who may have already benefited from immunity, at the very least partial, from pecuniary penalties, an opportunity also to circumvent their obligation to compensate for the harm resulting from the infringement of Article 101 TFEU, to the detriment of the injured parties, requires that refusal to be based on overriding reasons relating to the protection of the interest relied on and applicable to each document to which access is refused.
48 The mere risk that a given document may actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme is liable to justify the non-disclosure of that document (C-536/11 at paras 39-48, emphasis added).
By rejecting the general criterion proposed by AG Jääskinen that leniency documents should in principle be protected from disclosure, the CJEU has preserved the potentiality for  damages actions to actually develop in the EU. 

However, the conditions under which the considerations regarding the circumstances in which the mere risk of disclosure of a specific document can be sufficient to prevent it on the basis that it could 'actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme' (para 48) could have been explored in some more detail. A comparison of the English and the French, Spanish and Italian versions supports, in my view, the need for a very restrictive interpretation of this 'escape clause' created by the CJEU--which should only be applied under relatively extreme circumstances where the potential damage to the leniency system could be so great as to render it practically useless.

In view of the Donau Chemie Judgment, it may now be time for the European Commission to revise its own approach to the disclosure of leniency applications and to modify the policy adopted in the Notice on Cooperation with the National Courts, where it is clearly established that
the Commission may refuse to transmit information to national courts for overriding reasons relating to the need to safeguard the interests of the Community or to avoid any interference with its functioning and independence, in particular by jeopardising the accomplishment of the tasks entrusted to it(45). Therefore, the Commission will not transmit to national courts information voluntarily submitted by a leniency applicant without the consent of that applicant (para 26, emphasis added).
Such an absolute protection seems clearly at odds with the approach adopted by the CJEU and, consequently, a revision seems in order as a matter of institutional loyalty. Let's see how quickly it can take place... 

#CJEU does not tolerate a slacker @EU_Commission in #Stateaid control (C-615/11): Commission counter-attacks with 'case management' excuses

In its Judgment of 16 May 2013 in case C-615/11 Commission v Ryanair, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has dismissed the Commission's appeal against the prior Judgment of the General Court where it was found that the Commission failed to fulfill its obligations under the Treaty by not adopting a decision following a complaint lodged by Ryanair. 

Building up on the prior case law in Athinaïki Techniki AE v Commission (C-521/06), the CJEU has imposed upon the European Commission a clear duty to act when it is put in possession of information regarding alleged unlawful aid and called upon to to define its position within the meaning of Article 265(2) TFEU. In the view of the CJEU
27 As a preliminary point, it should be borne in mind that, under Article 20(2) of Regulation No 659/1999, any interested party may inform the Commission of any alleged unlawful aid and of any alleged misuse of aid.

28 Where it has in its possession information, from whatever source, regarding alleged unlawful aid, the Commission is required, under Article 10(1) of Regulation No 659/1999, immediately to examine the possible existence of aid and its compatibility with the internal market. The examination of such information, on the basis of that provision, gives rise to the initiation of the preliminary examination stage under Article 108(3) TFEU (see, to that effect, Case C‑322/09 P NDSHT v Commission [2010] ECR I‑11911, paragraph 49 and the case-law cited).

29 At that stage, and where it considers that there are insufficient grounds for taking a view on the case, the Commission, in accordance with the second sentence of Article 20(2) of Regulation No 659/1999, must communicate that finding to the interested parties which have sent it the information in question and must also allow those parties to submit additional comments within a reasonable period (see, to that effect, Athinaïki Techniki v Commission, paragraph 39).

30 Article 13(1) of Regulation No 659/1999, which is applicable in the context of an examination of alleged unlawful aid, obliges the Commission to close that preliminary examination stage by adopting a decision pursuant to Article 4(2), (3) or (4) of that regulation, that is to say, a decision finding that aid does not exist, raising no objections or initiating the formal investigation procedure, since that institution is not authorised to persist in its failure to act during the preliminary examination stage (Athinaïki Techniki v Commission, paragraph 40).

31 It follows […] that the preliminary examination stage, which ultimately obliges the Commission to take a position, requires that, where that examination is carried out on the initiative of an interested party, information concerning alleged unlawful aid be sent to the Commission by that party (C-615/11 at paras 27 to 31, emphasis added).
The extent of the Commission's duties is crystal clear and, consequently, the Institution should better internalize this obligation--which, more generally, is not much more than a specific expression of the duty of good administration that is increasingly recognised as a general principle of EU (Administrative) Law.

Indeed, this Judgment should seriously be taken into consideration in the current State Aid Modernisation (SAM) initiative--which the Commission should use to streamline its procedures as necessary to discharge the (raised) duty of diligence that derives from the CJEU's Ryanair Judgment. In this regard, it is positive to see that, as part of SAM (and probably in view of the defeat suffered before the GC and the likely, now actual, defeat before the CJEU), the Commission is already proposing to modernise the Procedural Regulation (659/1999) with regard to complaint-handling and market information tools. According to the Commission's proposal:
The Commission is required to conduct a diligent and impartial examination of complaints submitted from interested parties and take a decision thereon without undue delay. Where the Commission takes a decision finding that there exists no State aid as alleged by a complainant, the Commission must at least provide the complainant with an adequate explanation of the reasons for which the facts and points of law put forward in the complaint have failed to demonstrate the existence of State aid [COM(2012)0725 final, Explanatory Memorandum].

This begs the question why did the Commission not desist from the appeal in case C-615/11 if it had, itself, already assumed that it was in the wrong in the Ryanair case? (although the potential Art 340 TFEU claim for non-contractual liability of the European Commission that may follow today's CJEU Judgment seems the obvious explanation...).

Going back to the specific proposals of the Commission to improve the way it handles State aid complaints, the positive impression disappears when one realizes that the December 2012 proposal aims to modify Regulation 659/1999 to expressly regulate the way in which complaints need to be lodged--and, consequently, the reform is largely a 'self-defence' instrument for the European Commission, which feels overburdened by State aid complaints. As explained (excusation non petita...)
the Commission receives on average more than 300 complaints every year, whether lodged by interested parties or not, among which many are either not motivated by genuine competition concerns or not sufficiently substantiated. Most complaints are not treated as a priority and the average duration of those cases therefore tends to increase. Therefore, the complaints handling procedure is sometimes perceived by Member States and complainants as unpredictable and lacking transparency [COM(2012)0725 final, Explanatory Memorandum].
Hence, the Commission is proposing to consolidate in the regulation some of the 2009 Code of Best Practices for the conduct of State aid procedures, which expected benefits 'of shorter duration, increased efficiency and greater predictability – have not fully materialised [Moreover] Best Practices could not address some of the main shortcomings of the current system, since they directly stem from the Procedural Regulation. That is why a reform of the Procedural Regulation itself is proposed to address those issues.' Therefore, the European Commission proposed the following modifications:
In the interests of transparency and legal certainty (sic), the conditions to lodge a complaint which put the Commission in possession of information regarding alleged unlawful aid and thereby set in motion the preliminary examination should therefore be clarified. Indeed it is appropriate to require that:
complainants submit a certain amount of compulsory information. To that end, it is appropriate to empower the Commission to adopt implementing provisions to define the form and the content of a complaint.
complainants demonstrate that they are interested parties within the meaning of Article 108(2) TFEU and Article 1(h) of the Procedural Regulation and that they therefore have a legitimate interest to lodge a complaint. To reach that objective, it is proposed to specify in Article 20(2) on the "rights of interested parties" that "any interested party may lodge a complaint".
In cases where the information received will not be classified as a complaint since it will not have passed the admissibility criteria, the Commission will no longer be under an obligation to adopt formal decisions. Those submissions will be registered as market information and could be used at a later stage to conduct ex officio investigations.
To complete the staged procedure introduced by the Best Practices Code, the Procedural Regulation should formalise the possibility for the Commission to deem complaints withdrawn if the complainant does not return to it with meaningful information or otherwise fails to cooperate during the procedure. In that way, the treatment of complaints could be streamlined and improved (emphasis added and references omitted).
In my view, these changes are self-serving and would simply (aim to) deactivate the functional approach and the high duty of administrative diligence stressed by the CJEU in the Ryanair Judgment and, consequently, may diminish significantly the effectiveness of the complaints mechanism, sacrificing it in the altar of workload allocation and Commission liability-proofing. The trade-off may likely reduce the effectiveness of State aid control in the long run. 


Interestingly, these proposals were the object of a consultation and, hopefully, the Commission will issue a revised proposal in view of those and other considerations. In my opinion, given the very clear approach followed by the CJEU in Ryanair, the European Commission should abandon its self-centered approach to the reform of the rules on the handling of complaints in State aid cases and, in the spirit of institutional loyalty and in with the aim to keep (or develop) a well-functioning State aid control system, introduce more flexibility in the criteria for the lodging of complaints by (non)interested parties.