ECJ extends justiciability of procurement infringements: No need to review the Remedies Directive? (C-391/15)

In its Judgment of 5 April 2017 in Marina del Mediterráneo and Others, C-391/15, EU:C:2017:268, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued another preliminary ruling on the scope of the Remedies Directive. The case required clarification on the concrete type of decisions that interested tenderers can challenge under the Remedies Directive.

In particular, the case sought clarification on whether the review procedures mandated by Art 2(1), and applicable to "decisions taken by the contracting authorities" (as per Art 1(1) Remedies Directive), had to allow a tenderer to challenge a decision by which the contracting authority allowed another economic operator to submit a tender in a public procurement procedure. That is, whether the Remedies Directive created standing to challenge exclusion and selection decisions that concerned other tenderers.

This issue can be seen as controversial because there are two ways in which the analysis can be framed. Firstly, it can be considered that a decision not to exclude (or to select) a competing tenderer does not necessarily produce adverse legal effects for other tenderers--and, consequently, there are no subjective rights to be protected at this stage. Secondly, and to the contrary, it can be considered that a decision that determines the number of competing tenderers among which the contracting authority needs to choose the awardee of the contract produces legal effects on all tenderers involved--and, consequently, there can be (soft?) subjective rights meriting protection both in decisions to exclude (vis-a-vis the excluded tenderer) and not to exclude (vis-a-vis all other tenderers).

The first approach to this issue would be closer to a strict interpretation of the procedural rights implicit in the participation in a procurement process--ie that unless a decision makes it impossible for a tenderer to continue its participation in the tender, there is no decision for which revision it has a legitimate interest / legal standing. The second approach is probably closer to a substantive interpretation of those same procedural rights, as well as supportive of a system of private oversight of compliance with (EU) public procurement law through private actions, where challenges on the basis of the illegality of exclusion and selection decisions are easier to accommodate.

In Marina del Mediterráneo, the relevant Spanish rules followed the first approach, and determined that: "the following acts may be the subject of the application [for judicial review]: (a) Contract notices, specifications and contractual documents laying down the conditions which will govern the procurement procedure; (b) Preparatory acts adopted in the tendering procedure, provided that they decide, directly or indirectly, the award of the contract, make it impossible to continue the procedure or to put up a defence, or cause irreparable harm to legitimate rights or interests. Acts of the procurement board which decide to exclude tenderers will be considered preparatory acts which make it impossible to continue the procedure; (c) Award decisions adopted by the contracting authorities" (C-391/15, para 11, emphasis added).

Thus, under Spanish law, a decision to exclude a tenderer can be challenged 'there and then' by the excluded tenderer, but a decision not to exclude (or to select) that tenderer can only be challenged by other tenderers at the end of the procedure (ie during standstill) and only on the basis of the illegality of the decision to award the contract to that particular tenderer and/or any of the preparatory acts for that decision. 

Therefore, by challenging the Spanish rule, the preliminary reference fundamentally--but rather implicitly--concerned the extent to which Arts 1(1) and 2(1) of the Remedies Directive can be transposed/interpreted in a way that limits the procurement decisions open to (separate, immediate) review to those that negatively affect the subjective rights of a tenderer (in a narrow construction), or whether those provisions create a catch-all category that makes (virtually) all decisions taken by the contracting authority along the procurement processes susceptible of (separate and particularised) review.

That not absolutely all decisions need to be subjected to the review procedures of the Remedies Directive was suggested on the basis of Commission v Spain (C‑214/00, EU:C:2003:276, para 80), where the Commission challenged the same Spanish rule for failing to ‘allow review to be sought of all decisions adopted by the contracting authorities, including all procedural measures, during the procedure for the award of public contracts’, and the ECJ rejected that maximalist approach on the basis that ‘the Commission has not established that that legislation does not provide adequate judicial protection for individuals harmed by infringements of the relevant rules of [Union] law or of the national rules transposing that law’. This could be seen as a decision purely on the (lack of) evidence adduced by the Commission. However, even if a wider reading of the ECJ decision is adopted to the effect that there may be procurement decisions that do not harm individual rights in a manner that merits (separate, immediate) review, the boundaries of the categories of decisions covered by the Remedies Directive remained all but fuzzy, and the extent to which Arts 1(1) and 2(1) of the Remedies Directive had to be interpreted in a restrictive or an expansive way required clarification.

It is worth stressing that AG Bobek (Opinion of 8 September 2016, C-391/15, EU:C:2016:651) was convinced by the first approach outlined above (ie a restrictive interpretation of the Remedies Directive) because constructing the remedies system "in such a broad and rather limitless way would mean that every single decision, however marginal and ancillary, could be immediately attacked, and the award procedure effectively halted. Yet, ... a reasonable balance must be struck between the different interests at stake in public procurement procedures, namely, the right of access to court and judicial review to challenge aspects of the procedure, on the one hand, and effectiveness of the overall procedure and judicial expediency, on the other" (para 34, footnote ommitted). 

Therefore, in an Opinion that seemingly tried to avoid declaring the necessary justiciability of (every) exclusion and selection decision, invited the ECJ to declare that national procedural rules could avoid subjecting those decision to direct (and specific) review provided that: "(a) the national legislation does not hinder immediate review of preparatory acts that produce adverse legal effects on undertakings; and (b) a plea of illegality of preparatory acts that do not produce adverse legal effects on undertakings, such as a decision to admit a candidate to a tendering procedure, can be made in support of an action against the final decision awarding the contract taken on the basis of those preparatory acts" (para 67) . 

In short, the ECJ disagreed with AG Bobek and found that, where there are allegations that a decision allowing a tenderer to participate in a procurement procedure was adopted in breach of EU public procurement law or the national legislation transposing it, national rules must class such decision among the preparatory acts of a contracting authority which may be subject to an independent judicial review--or, in simpler terms, that exclusion and selection decisions concerning other tenderers are open to the review procedures of the Remedies Directive. the reasons given by the ECJ are primarily that:

[the] broad construction of the concept of a ‘decision’ taken by a contracting authority is confirmed by the fact that Article 1(1) of [the Remedies Directive] does not lay down any restriction with regard to the nature or content of the decisions it refers to. Moreover, a restrictive interpretation of that concept would be incompatible with the terms of Article 2(1)(a) of that directive which requires Member States to make provision for interim relief procedures in relation to any decision taken by the contracting authorities (para 27).

And that:

... although [the Remedies Directive] has not formally laid down the time from which the possibility of review, as provided for in Article 1(1), must be open, the objective of that directive, as referred to in the preceding paragraph, does not authorise Member States to make the exercise of the right to apply for review conditional on the fact that the public procurement procedure in question has formally reached a particular stage ...  the fact that the national legislation at issue ... requires, in all cases, a tenderer to wait for a decision awarding the contract in question before it may apply for a review of a decision allowing another tenderer to participate in that procurement procedure infringes the provisions of [the Remedies Directive] (paras 31 and 34).

In my view, even if there are issues of consistency with previous case law that may require some additional fine tuning, there is no question that the ECJ has taken a very expansive approach to the interpretation of the Remedies Directive on this occasion, and that the thrust of the Marina del Mediterráneo Judgment reflects a wide approach to the provision of procurement remedies.

This puts significant pressure on domestic review procedures to ensure that virtually all decisions taken by a contracting authority can be challenged, and that the challenge is available as soon as possible -- and definitely before the award of the contract because as expressed in the "first and second recitals, [the Remedies Directive] is intended to strengthen the existing mechanisms, both at national and EU levels, to ensure the effective application of the directives relating to public procurement, in particular at a stage when infringements can still be corrected" (para 30). This is particularly relevant in view of the (unnecessary) declaration by the ECJ that "Articles 1(1) and 2(1)(a) and (b) of [the Remedies Directive have direct effect" (para 41), which will provide robust legal foundation to challenges against existing domestic rules on access to review procedures.

This approach is bound to further judicialise public procurement oversight through expanded justiciability of (exclusion, but not only) decisions, and puts renewed pressure on the development of more robust procurement review procedures by the Member States--possibly requiring a reform of the Remedies Directives themselves, as I discuss at length in "'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 (forthcoming). In my view, this is not necessarily a blueprint for desirable regulatory reform and more thought needs to go into the balance between public compliance oversight and private enforcement of the EU public procurement rules. However, it seems out of the question that legal reform will be necessary (in Spain and elsewhere) and, in my view, that the European Commission abandoned the revision of the Remedies Directives too quickly.

ECJ creates randomness in right to challenge procurement decisions by excluded tenderers (C-355/15)

In its Judgment of 21 December 2016 in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, C-355/15, EU:C:2016:988, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) offered additional interpretation of the rules on active standing to challenge public procurement decisions under the Remedies Directive (RD) and, in particular, its Article 1(3), according to which 'Member States shall ensure that the review procedures are available, under detailed rules which the Member States may establish, at least to any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement'.

This provision had been interpreted in broad terms ('favor revisionis') in Fastweb (C‑100/12, EU:C:2013:448, see here), where the ECJ strengthened the right of non-compliant tenderers to challenge procurement decisions. It is in comparison to Fastweb that Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich raises some tricky issues--and, once more, it is surprising that this ECJ judgment was adopted without an Advocate General opinion.

In the case at hand, and given the wording of the Austrian transposition of Art 1(3) RD granting active standing to 'An[y] undertaking which had an interest in the conclusion of a contract...', the legal question for the ECJ concerned a new aspect of the concept of 'any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract', as it relates to economic operators that have participated in the tender, but are no longer under active consideration by the contracting authority.

The interpretive difficulty stemmed in part from the contrast between the open wording of Art 1(3) RD and the seemingly more limited concept that could be extracted from Art 2a(2) RD, when it establishes a standstill obligation in relation only to concerned tenderers, which are defined as those who 'have not yet been definitively excluded. An exclusion is definitive if it has been notified to the tenderers concerned and has either been considered lawful by an independent review body or can no longer be subject to a review procedure'. Given that Art 2a(1) RD establishes that 'Member States shall ensure that the persons referred to in Article 1(3) have sufficient time for effective review of the contract award decisions taken by contracting authorities, by adopting the necessary provisions respecting the minimum conditions set out in paragraph 2 of this Article', the link between the general rule on active standing in Art 1(3) RD and the more limited rule on standstill in Art 2a(2) that aims to make that active standing effective does raise some complex issues.

In Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, the question arose from the fact that the challenger of the procurement decision had been excluded from the procedure by a decision of the contracting authority that had become final (after two appeals) at the time of the challenge. The Austrian review courts considered that the finality of the exclusion extinguished the right to challenge the award decision because 'the rights of a tenderer whose bid has been properly excluded cannot be infringed by illegalities relating to the procedure followed to select another bid for the purposes of awarding the contract' (C-355/15, para 16).

In order to determine the compatibility of this position with EU law, the ECJ broke down the issue in two parts. It first distinguished the current case from Fastweb. It then proceeded to clarify the purpose of the challenge rights provided by Art 1(3) RD. While each of the two parts of the reasoning make some sense independently, their lack of coordination can create difficult cases under spurious circumstances.

In distinguishing the cases, the ECJ indicated that

29 ...  the judgment of ... Fastweb ... gave concrete expression to the requirements of the third subparagraph of Article 1(1) and Article 1(3) of Directive 89/665 in a situation in which, following a public procurement procedure, two tenderers bring an action for review, each seeking the exclusion of the other. In such a situation, both of the tenderers have an interest in obtaining a particular contract.
30      However, the situation at issue in the main proceedings is very clearly distinguishable from the situations at issue in the two cases giving rise to the judgments of ... Fastweb and ... PFE (C‑689/13, EU:C:2016:199).
31      First, the bids of the tenderers concerned in [Fastweb and PFE] had not been the subject of an exclusion decision of the contracting authority, unlike the bid submitted by the consortium in the main proceedings in the present case.
32      Secondly, it was in the course of the same, single set of review proceedings relating to the award decision that, in both cases, each tenderer challenged the validity of the other tenderer’s bid, each competitor having a legitimate interest in the exclusion of the bid submitted by the other, which may lead to a finding that the contracting authority is unable to select a lawful bid ... In the main proceedings in the present case, by contrast, the consortium brought an action, first, against the exclusion decision adopted in respect of it and, secondly, against the award decision, and it is in the course of that second set of proceedings that it contends that the successful tenderer’s bid is unlawful.
33      It follows that the principle of case-law stemming from the judgments of [Fastweb and PFE] does not apply to the procedure and litigation at issue in the main proceedings (C-355/15, paras 29-33, references omitted).

Despite being very formalistic and relying on procedural aspects of the litigation rather than on the material situation (ie, tenders with only two bidders in which each holds an interest in the exclusion of the other so that, in case of dual exclusion, the contracting authority is obliged to re-run the procedure and, thus, each has a fresh opportunity to participate), this is not an unreasonable approach and the ECJ seems clear in establishing an implicit condition for active standing that requires the contracting authority itself to not have excluded the tenderer (or its offer) at the time where the challenge of the award decision takes place. This is however a restriction of the (potential) widest interpretation of Art 1(3) RD. And this restriction brings complications in light of the second part of the analysis carried out by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich.

Indeed, in addressing the specific issue of the finality of exclusion decisions that exclude the right to challenge under Art 1(3) RD, the ECJ considered that

34 ... as is apparent from Article 1(3) and Article 2a of Directive 89/665, that directive ensures effective review of unlawful decisions adopted in the context of a public procurement procedure, by enabling any excluded tenderer to challenge not only the exclusion decision, but also, as long as that challenge has not been resolved, the subsequent decisions which would harm it if its exclusion were annulled.
35 In those circumstances, Article 1(3) of that directive cannot be interpreted as precluding a tenderer such as the consortium from being refused access to the review of the award decision, provided that it must be considered a definitively excluded tenderer within the meaning of the second subparagraph of Article 2a(2) of that directive (C-355/15, paras 29-33, emphases added).

In my view, this interpretation is criticisable both in own terms, and due to the effects it creates. The ECJ has adopted an interpretation of Art 1(3) that is conditioned by Art 2a(2)--that is, a sort of systemic interpretation where the special rule may be seen to exclude or restrict the general rule--without first addressing the possible coordination of both provisions without the second altering the scope of application of the first one--ie, in a true systemic interpretation.

This excludes an alternative, broader interpretation of the rules on active standing in the Remedies Directive that I would have much rather preferred, which would have determined that all economic operators having had an interest in the award of the contract (included definitely excluded ones) have the right to challenge the award decision under Art 1(3) RD, even if only those that are concerned tenderers or candidates benefit from the facilitative procedural measures derived from standstill under Art 2a(2) RD [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 439-441]. This would have respected the fact that, in the revision of the RD in 2007 (when Art 2a(2) was introduced), the wording of the relevant part of Art 1(3) was not amended. It would also not diminished or altered the effectiveness of Art 2a(2) RD, as the standstill period would in any case not benefited excluded tenderers ro candidates, who would have to overcome the additional burden of following the tender procedure very closely when they intended to challenge the final award decision.

Additionally, the position adopted by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich creates an element of randomness derived from the uncertainty around decision times for challenges, appeals (and further appeals) of exclusion decisions. Thus, in swift jurisdictions where exclusion decisions can very quickly become final, the rights to challenge award decisions by tenderers excluded by the contracting authority can be effectively suppressed. In contrast, in slower jurisdictions where finality of exclusion decisions takes longer to reach, tenderers excluded by the contracting authority will still have the opportunity to challenge award decisions. In either case, there is no requirement for a coordination of both procedures, so it could well be that the challenge brought by an excluded tenderer is decided before an eventual confirmation of the exclusion decision, which seems to create an undesirable situation under the logic of the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich. Overall, this Judgment creates this element of randomness in the recognition or not of active standing to challenge award decisions to tenderers excluded by the contracting authority, which is undesirable.

More generally, this case indicates once more the shortcomings of the system created by the Remedies Directive, which is patchy and incomplete, and requires a fundamental revision [see A Sanchez-Graells, "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts", S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming]. If nothing else, to clarify whether this is solely about justiciability of review rights of economic operators that can have an interest in being awarded that specific contract under the conditions in which it is tendered (a narrow interpretation), or whether it serves broader purposes of control and review of procurement activity, as a substitute for faltering public oversight of this important public sector function (a broad interpretation). There are arguments both ways, but not having this very basic and foundational aspect clear does create problems as the case law of the ECJ continues shaping the system one preliminary reference at a time...

New paper on the need to review the Remedies Directive

I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN: ‘If it Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It’? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts, to be published in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming.

As detailed in the abstract: 

EU public procurement law relies on the specific enforcement mechanisms of the Remedies Directive, which sets out EU requirements of administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts. Recent developments in the case law of the CJEU and the substantive reform resulting from the 2014 Public Procurement Package may have created gaps in the Remedies Directive, which led the European Commission to publicly consult on its revision in 2015. One year after, the outcome of the consultation has not been published, but such revision now seems to have been shelved. This chapter takes issue with the shelving of the revision process and critically assesses whether the Remedies Directive is still fit for purpose. 

The chapter focuses on selected issues, such as the interplay between the Remedies Directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and with the general administrative law of the Member States. It also assesses the difficulties of applying the Remedies Directive ‘as is’ to some of the new rules of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, which creates uncertainty as to its scope of application, and gives rise to particular challenges for the review of exclusion decisions involving the exercise of discretion. The chapter also raises some issues concerning the difficulties derived from the lack of coordination of different remedies available under the Remedies Directive and briefly considers the need to take the development of ADR mechanisms into account. Overall, the chapter concludes that there are important areas where the Remedies Directive requires a revision, and submits that the European Commission should relaunch the review process as a matter of high priority.

The paper is freely downloadable at As always, comments welcome.