Do EU procurement & State aid rules conflict on possibility for consortium members to 'go it alone'? (C-127/16 P)

In its Judgment of 7 March 2018 in SNCF Mobilités v Commission, C-127/16 P, EU:C:2018:165, in the context of the analysis of a measure of State aid for restructuring and recapitalisation involving a bidding process, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) indicated that it is not acceptable for the assets to be transferred to a bidder that had initially participated in the process as a member of a consortium but subsequently decided to 'go it alone' and submitted a solo bid for the assets. In establishing this principle, the CJEU seems to have taken a position that can potentially be functionally incompatible with its previous case law in the area of public procurement and, in particular, in its Judgment of 24 May 2016 in MT Højgaard and Züblin, C-396/14, EU:C:2016:347 (see here). This blog post discusses this potential functional contradiction in the case law of the Court.

 

SNCF Mobilités v Commission

In simple terms, this dispute concerned France's obligation to recover State aid given to SNCF (its national state-owned railway company) that was declared incompatible with EU law (Art 107 TFEU) by the European Commission. One of the possibilities that France had was to sell all assets of the relevant company within the SNCF group (Sernam) 'en bloc ... at market price through a transparent and open procedure to a company that has no legal link with SNCF' (C-127/16 P, para 7). The process for the sale of Sernam's assets en bloc was rather complicated, but the relevant part of the mechanism was as follows:

... Sernam’s economic situation failed to elicit any proposals based on a positive valuation in the call for tenders conducted on SNCF’s behalf by a bank. All the offers submitted under that procedure concluded that the value was very negative. As no firm offer had been submitted, the decision was taken to continue the discussions solely with the consortium established by candidate 5 who was associated with Sernam’s management team. On 15 June 2005, candidate 5 ultimately informed SNCF orally that it was not in a position to submit a takeover offer — not even a conditional one — before 30 June 2005. On 30 June 2005, SNCF took the decision to conclude the sale with Financière Sernam, which was wholly owned by Sernam’s management team (C-127/16 P, paras 8-9).

In the context of the dispute whether France met the requirements of the previous Commission decision requiring recovery of the State aid, one of the legal issues triggered by the French authorities' decision to enter into a sale agreement with Sernam's management team (through Financière Sernam) is whether it met the requirements for the transfer to result from 'a transparent and open procedure'. The Commission took the view that this was not the case. Before the CJEU considered this issue on appeal, the General Court (GC) had assessed the situation in its Judgment of 17 December 2015 in SNCF v Commission, T-242/12, EU:T:2015:1003.

In the relevant part of the Judgment (T-242/12, paras 162 and ff), the GC explains how, in the context of the procedure aimed at finding a buyer Sernam's assets en bloc, a final round of negotiations resulted in two offers. In simple terms, there was an offer by candidate 4 that valued the assets at - €65.2mn and an offer by a consortium composed of candidate 5 and Sernam's management team that valued the assets at -€56.4mn. In view of this, it was agreed to solely continue discussions with candidate 5 and Sernam’s management (para 164). During these discussions, as mentioned above, candidate 5 withdrew from the process and the management team submitted a solo offer that valued the assets at -€95.5mn (para 167). The acceptance of this offer by SNCF triggered two main issues.

First, given their significant divergence in the valuation of Sernam's assets, whether the solo offer submitted by Sernam's management team was comparable to the prior indicative offer of the consortium with candidate 5. The GC considered that 'the Commission was correct in not considering equivalent in terms of credibility and soundness the offer from a financial investor, candidate 5, who, moreover, was proposing to inject a significant amount of capital into Sernam, and the offer from 84 management and director employees financing a low amount, being EUR 2 million of the price, from their own resources' (T-242/12, para 168). Second, and more relevant for our discussion, there were concerns about the transparency and openness of the procedure for the sale of the assets en bloc. In that regard, the GC established that

... [SNCF] and the French Republic observe that the requirement that a procedure be transparent and open does not cease once the best bidder has been selected and the other candidates have, by definition, been rejected, and that the discussions continue with the ‘last interested party’.

The ‘last interested person’ in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4 ... the management team’s firm offer, for EUR ‑95.5 million, was also less attractive for the vendor than the preliminary second-round offer from candidate 4, with its negative price of EUR ‑65.2 million ... As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round.

The offer from the management team cannot be considered that of the ‘last interested party’, since it did not participate independently in the transparent and open procedure.

... the applicant submits that it is not relevant to compare the management team’s firm offer with the non-binding offer from the consortium of which it was a part, as only the firm offer is valid, even if it is not the best bid.

That argument must be rejected, since the question here is whether the management team’s firm offer was the result of the tendering procedure, which necessarily involves an examination of the non-binding offers submitted during the tendering procedure.

Therefore, the argument aimed at establishing that the management team participated from the beginning of the tendering procedure must be rejected because it did not participate independently and did not submit alone the offer it had initially submitted with candidate 5. Its offer cannot therefore be considered to result from a transparent and open procedure (T-242/12, paras 169-174, emphases added).

Regardless of the issue of equivalence of the offers, the argumentation constructed by the GC in these passages (implicitly) relies on the principle that members of a consortium cannot be seen as participating both within the consortium and in their own name, which establishes an insurmountable impossibility against any decision to 'go it alone' if the other member(s) of the consortium withdraw.

This principle was directly challenged in the appeal before the CJEU. In short, the challenge was that '... candidate 5 and Sernam’s management team had, within a consortium, been associated with the tendering procedure from the start of that procedure and had proposed the least negative value for the assets en bloc. It was only after candidate 5 withdrew that Sernam’s management team decided to pursue the process and submit on their own the takeover offer initially put forward by the consortium. The applicant thus takes the view that such circumstances meet the requirements of an open and transparent tendering procedure as reflected in the Commission’s decision-making practice and the Court’s case-law' (C-127/16 P, para 62).

Remarkably, SNCF argued that 'it is possible to accept that the principles of openness and transparency in public procurement may be applicable by analogy to procedures involving transfers of assets. It is apparent from Directive 2014/24/EU ... and from Directive 2014/23/EU ... that EU law allows for awarding such a contract to an economic operator without prior advertising or competition following an unsuccessful first tendering procedure, including when the operator did not participate in that first procedure, without that constituting an infringement of the principles of openness and transparency. Those principles should a fortiori be deemed to have been observed where the assets have been transferred to the last interested party, the only one to have made a firm offer, when it has participated in the process in its entirety, initially as part of a consortium from which the other party withdrew in the course of the procedure' (C-127/16 P, para 64).

On this point, the CJEU reasoned as follows:

First of all, without it being necessary to rule on a potential analogy between the tendering procedure relevant to the present case and the principles that are applicable in public procurement ... it should be noted that the applicant’s argument concerning that potential analogy is based on the fact that, at the end of the tendering procedure, no bid or no appropriate bid had been submitted. That kind of argument can be successful only if it challenges the General Court’s findings of fact in paragraph 170 of the judgment under appeal, to the effect that ‘[t]he “last interested person” in the transparent and open tendering procedure in this case was candidate 4. … As observed by the Commission in its written pleadings, following candidate 5’s withdrawal, recourse should have been had to candidate 4, who had been part of the process since the beginning and had also indicated its interest at the end of the second round’. That argument, which asks the Court of Justice to substitute its analysis for the one carried out by the General Court as part of its sovereign assessment of the facts and evidence, is therefore inadmissible and must be rejected.

Next, the practice followed by the Commission in its decisions or its guidelines, even if that practice were to support the applicant’s argument cannot, in any event, bind the Court in its interpretation of the EU rules ...

In any event ... according the Court’s case-law, the question whether a tendering procedure has been open and transparent is determined on the basis of a body of indicia specific to the circumstances of each case ...

Accordingly, in the light of the facts of the present case, and having held in paragraphs 170 and 171 of the judgment under appeal, that the successful bid did not originate from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure, the General Court was correct in holding, in paragraph 174 of that judgment, that the requirement of an open and transparent procedure had not been observed (C-127/16 P, paras 66-69, references omitted).

Accordingly, the CJEU SNCF Mobilités Judgment explicitly upholds the fact that for a tenderer to be awarded the contract for the sale of assets en bloc as a result of an 'open and transparent procedure', it is an absolute requirement that the 'successful bid ... originate[s] from a candidate who had participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning of that procedure'. This is in functional conflict with the previous Judgment in MT Højgaard and Züblin, as discussed below.

MT Højgaard and Züblin

In this public procurement case based on the 2004 EU utilities procurement rules (Dir 2004/17/EC), the CJEU ruled on whether the principle of equal treatment of economic operators must be interpreted as precluding a contracting entity from allowing an economic operator that is a member of a group of two undertakings which was pre-selected and which submitted the first tender in a negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, to continue to take part in that procedure in its own name, after the dissolution of that group due to the bankruptcy of the other partner.

In that case, the contracting authority had indicated that it wanted to proceed to negotiations with between four and six candidates. It received expressions of interest from five candidates, which included interest by a consortium consisting of Per Aarsleff and E. Pihl og Søn A/S (‘the Aarsleff and Pihl group’). The contracting authority pre-selected all five candidates and invited them to submit tenders. One of the pre-selected candidates subsequently withdrew from the procedure. 

For the purposes of our discussion, the relevant fact is that Pihl entered into bankruptcy prior to the submission of the tender, which de facto implied the dissolution of the Aarsleff and Pihl group. Aarsleff decided to 'go it alone' and proceed as a solo tenderer. The contracting authority was thus left with two options: (a) to consider that Aarsleff was not qualified on its own merits (or, in the terms of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment (above) that it had not 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning') and to carry on with the negotiated procedure with 'only' three tenders; or, conversely, (b) to consider that Aarsleff could benefit from the qualification of the group to which it initially belonged and go forward with its desired minimum of four tenders. After some deliberation and information to all remaining candidates, Aarsleff was  allowed to submit a solo tender and, after a further round of best and final offers between the three better placed tenderers, it was awarded the contract.

In reviewing the compatibility of this decision with general principles of EU public procurement law, the CJEU established that, in the absence of specific rules on this subject, 'the question of whether a contracting entity may allow such an alteration must be examined with regard to the general principles of EU law, in particular the principle of equal treatment and the duty of transparency that flows from it, and the objectives of that law in relation to public procurement' (C‑396/14, para 36). In carrying out such analysis, the CJEU determined that

The principle of equal treatment of tenderers, the aim of which is to promote the development of healthy and effective competition between undertakings taking part in a public procurement procedure, requires that all tenderers must be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their tenders, and therefore implies that the tenders of all competitors must be subject to the same conditions ...

...  [the rules on qualitative selection] may be qualified in order to ensure, in a negotiated procedure, adequate competition ...

If, however, an economic operator is to continue to participate in the negotiated procedure in its own name, following the dissolution of the group of which it formed part and which had been pre-selected by the contracting entity, that continued participation must take place in conditions which do not infringe the principle of equal treatment of the tenderers as a whole.

In that regard, a contracting entity is not in breach of that principle where it permits one of two economic operators, who formed part of a group of undertakings that had, as such, been invited to submit tenders by that contracting entity, to take the place of that group following the group’s dissolution, and to take part, in its own name, in the negotiated procedure for the award of a public contract, provided that it is established, first, that that economic operator by itself meets the requirements laid down by the contracting entity and, second, that the continuation of its participation in that procedure does not mean that the other tenderers are placed at a competitive disadvantage
(C-396/14, paras 38, 41, 43-44 & 47, references omitted and emphases added). 

As is clear from these passages, in MT Højgaard and Züblin, the CJEU rejected the principle that transparency and equal treatment required that a tenderer had 'participated autonomously in the tendering procedure from the beginning'. It rather established a more nuanced approach that required that the 'going it alone' tenderer was in a position to meet all relevant requirements of previous phases of the procedure (in that case, qualitative selection) and that it gained no competitive advantage--or, conversely, that no other tenderer was placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Overall comments

In my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is problematic for the dogmatic principle that it sets out in terms of an absolute requirement of autonomous participation from the beginning. The MT Højgaard and Züblin Judgment can be criticised on other grounds (see here) but, from that perspective, its more nuanced approach towards tolerating decisions to 'go it alone' may be preferable in contexts where retention of a solo tender by the remaining member of a disbanded consortium can be determinative of the competitive tension within the tender procedure [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 339].

More importantly, in my view, the SNCF Mobilités Judgment could have reached the same conclusions if it applied the more nuanced approach of MT Højgaard and Züblin. Indeed, it is hard to argue against the view that, by continuing conversations solely with Sernam's management team and accepting an offer that valued the assets at a very significant value below the previous consortium offer as well as the previous offer by candidate 4, SNCF put Sernam's management team at a clear advantage. In view of the withdrawal of candidate 5, SNCF would have been better advised to go back to the immediate previous step of the procedure and compare whichever solo offer Sernam's management team could submit with that of candidate 4. Doing that would also respect the basic principles of stage rounds of negotiations, whereby ceteris paribus the offers presented in each of the rounds should improve upon previous offers.

On the whole, then, I think that the SNCF Mobilités Judgment is a missed opportunity to have created more integration and compatibility between the procedural requirements applicable under EU State aid and public procurement rules. At the same time, given that the CJEU avoided engaging in the 'potential analogy between the tendering procedure [for the sale of assets en bloc] and the principles that are applicable in public procurement', it is to be hoped that the dogmatic approach of the SNCF Mobilités Judgment will not muddy the waters of the case law on modification of the composition of bidding consortia for the strict purposes of EU public procurement law.

Funding of in-house entities, CPBs and risks of state aid, some thoughts re Aanbestedingskalender (T-138/15)

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In its Judgment of 28 September 2017, Aanbestedingskalender & Others v Commission, T-138/15, EU:T:2017:675, the General Court (GC) rejected a complaint against a previous Commission decision (SA.34646) that the Netherlands had not breached EU State aid rules by funding TenderNed--an in-house e-procurement platform run by PIANOo, the tendering expertise centre for the Dutch government. The complaint derived from the fact that, prior to the creation of TenderNed, private providers of e-procurement services had been offering their services to Dutch contracting authorities. The creation of TenderNed and the offering of services free of charge to contracting authorities by this in-house entity logically killed the e-procurement services industry (or a part of it), which triggered the complaint. The circumstances of the case raise some issues that would be common to any intervention by a Member State that in-sourced (or nationalised) previously outsourced services, but the legal challenge was limited to State aid considerations.

In a nutshell, the GC decided that the Netherlands was not in breach of EU State aid law because TenderNed is not an undertaking, in the sense that it is not engaged in an economic activity because its services are closely linked to the exercise of public powers by the Dutch State and the Dutch contracting authorities that use this service. The State aid aspects of the Judgment are insightfully discussed in more detail by Prof Nicolaides.

Reading the case, one of the statements by the GC that caught my attention was that "e-procurement was a service of general interest, and not an inherent economic activity, which could be commercially exploited so long as the State did not offer that service itself" (para 108). In this post, I offer some thoughts on the potential implications of this finding for the funding of in-house entities and of central purchasing bodies (CPBs), in particular if the EU Courts were to take further steps down the road of considering the exercise of the procurement function non-economic and/or a service of general economic interest (SGEI)--and, in so doing, I pick up on some of the issues discussed in more detail in A Sanchez-Graells & I Herrera Anchustegui, 'Impact of Public Procurement Aggregation on Competition: Risks, Rationale and Justification for the Rules in Directive 2014/24', in R Fernández Acevedo y P Valcárcel Fernández (eds), Centralización de compras públicas (Madrid, Civitas, 2016) 129-163.

The consideration of e-procurement as an SGEI

In its Judgment, the GC arrived to the position that e-procurement is an SGEI on the basis of the following:

... the claim that, because commercial platforms offer services similar to those of TenderNed, the Commission should have concluded that TenderNed’s activities are economic in nature, does not take into consideration the developments that have taken place in the e-procurement market.

In that respect, it must be noted that that market had developed before Directives 2014/24 and 2014/25 were adopted and imposed an obligation on the Member States to implement e-procurement in those States. The fact that that obligation was decided upon at EU level implies that it was considered important to put in place mechanisms which would ensure greater effectiveness and transparency in public procurement. As the Slovak Republic indicated in its statement in intervention, the trend in the development of public procurement systems in Europe is towards e-procurement. The fact that Directives 2014/24 and 2014/25 were adopted is indicative of the intention to harmonise public procurement within the European Union, through actions by the Member States, so that it is carried out electronically throughout the European Union.

In addition, the Netherlands authorities stated ... that the existing commercial platforms did not offer the conditions relating to price, objective quality characteristics, continuity and access to the services provided that would be necessary to fulfil the general interest objectives established by those authorities.

Thus, in the light of those developments in public procurement rules, driven by public interest considerations, the Commission was entitled to state ... that e-procurement was a service of general interest, and not an inherent economic activity, which could be commercially exploited so long as the State did not offer that service itself (T-138/15, paras 105-108, emphases added).

In my view, this part of the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment is particularly weak because the arguments of EU harmonisation and unsatisfactory private supply can hardly be considered determinative of the nature of SGEI of a given service. The 2014 Public Procurement Package imposes an obligation to carry out e-procurement, but that does not make this an SGEI, as the competence to establish what an SGEI lies with the Member States (see Art 14 and Protocol No 26 TFEU). Moreover, if private provision is unsatisfactory, the Member State could opt to regulate minimum standards mandatory for all private (or public) providers. The Member State could also have established a framework agreement or other mechanism for the provision of the services by a non-in-house entity, or created public service obligations linked to the provision of e-procurement services. Thus, the conclusion that the evolution of the regulation of e-procurement at EU level implies its treatment as an SGEI is far from justified.

The original reasoning of the European Commission is equally unconvincing

Such services might have previously been needed because of the complexity of legislation, the lack of user-friendliness of analogue or digital tools offered by the government services, or because companies find it more convenient to outsource such activities. However, the State does not forego the right to carry out an activity that it deems necessary to ensure its public bodies comply with their statutory obligations by acting at a point in time when private operators – perhaps due to lack of prior action by the State – have already taken the initiative to offer services to the same end. Ensuring public authorities comply with their statutory obligations by channelling public procurement may be an economic activity for the complainants. It is not, however, an inherent economic activity, but rather a service of general interest, which can be commercially exploited only so long as the State fails to offer that service itself (SA.34646, para 68, reference omitted and emphasis added).

This fails to properly characterise the nature of the activities, which I think are better understood as the provision of the IT services and infrastructure necessary to carry out e-procurement, rather than as a public power of channelling procurement to an electronic platform (which is what the 2014 Public Procurement Package has done, or tried to do).

Moreover, this is functionally contrary to the position taken in the 2016 Notice on the notion of State aid, which explicitly establishes that '[t]he decision of a public authority not to allow third parties to provide a certain service (for example, because it wishes to provide the service in-house) does not rule out the existence of an economic activity. In spite of such market closure, an economic activity can exist where other operators would be willing and able to provide the service in the market concerned. More generally, the fact that a particular service is provided in-house has no relevance for the economic nature of the activity' (para 14). In this case, it seems clear that the creation and funding of TenderNed is functionally equivalent to the reservation of activity (which contracting authority would pay a private provider for the services it can get for free from TenderNed?) and it is obvious that there are third parties willing to provide those services (the complainants). Consequently, the position reached in the case at hand does not make much sense.

The functional incompatibility is even larger when contrasted with a different passage of the same Notice on notion of State aid, which foresees that

The fact that the authorities assign a public service to an in-house provider (even if they were free to entrust that service to third parties) does not as such exclude a possible distortion of competition. However, a possible distortion of competition is excluded if the following cumulative conditions are met: (a) a service is subject to a legal monopoly (established in compliance with EU law); (b) the legal monopoly not only excludes competition on the market, but also for the market, in that it excludes any possible competition to become the exclusive provider of the service in question; (c) the service is not in competition with other services; and (d) if the service provider is active in another (geographical or product) market that is open to competition, cross-subsidisation has to be excluded. This requires that separate accounts are used, costs and revenues are allocated in an appropriate way and public funding provided for the service subject to the legal monopoly cannot benefit other activities (para 188, references omitted).

In the TenderNed case, it was clear that 'while contracting authorities and special sector entities may ultimately be obliged to publish their offers via TenderNed, they are not prohibited from using other platforms like those of the complainants in parallel. Likewise, the Dutch authorities have emphasised that private e-procurement platforms can export TenderNed notifications on their own portal as well as import their notices to TenderNed. Commercial operators are, in other words, free to develop a differentiated offer of public procurement-related services in terms of quality or added value' (SA.34646, para 69, reference omitted and emphasis added). Therefore, the existence of a situation with potential anticompetitive effects derived from the public funding of TenderNed would hve required careful analysis, but for the finding that its activities are covered by the public power exemption (ie are non-economic, and thus TenderNed is not an undertaking; and not so much for their potential classification as an SGEI).

In my view, these functional inconsistencies are problematic. The simple reasoning that because EU procurement law mandates (or encourages) a specific form or modality of procurement, this means that it is an SGEI or a non-economic activity (which is also unclear in the reasoning highlighted above) is tricky and potentially problematic. In a case such as TenderNed, and even if TenderNed does not offer services to private buyers and does not receive any payments from contracting authorities and is centrally funded by the Dutch government, this is problematic because it has the impact of wiping out an entire industry (or category of services within an industry). And, in other cases where the entity considered to be carrying out an SGEI offers other types of non-SGEI services to the public or private sector, because of the potential additional distortions of competition in those neighbouring markets. The latter case would concern in-house and CPB if they were to be classed as SGEIs.

The consideration of in-house provision and/or CPB activities as SGEIs

Together with e-procurement, two other main areas of reform in the 2014 Public Procurement Package concerned the expansion of the in-house exemption (Art 12) and the more detailed and expansive regulation of the activities of central purchasing bodies (CPBs, Art 37). In both cases, the fact that contracting authorities assign contracts directly to these entities raises important risks of distortions of competition where there is private provision for the relevant works, goods or services. Thus, the award of public contracts under the exemptions foreseen in Arts 12 and 37 of Directive 2014/24/EU generates risks of State aid (see G S Ølykke, 'Commission Notice on the notion of state aid as referred to in article 107(1) TFEU - is the conduct of a public procurement procedure sufficient to eliminate the risk of granting state aid?' (2016) 25(5) Public Procurement Law Review 197-212), and the continued stream of revenue derived from reserved or directly awarded public business can put the undertaking in a favourable position when competing with other entities for private or non-in-house public business.

One potential defence against claims of violation of EU competition law and/or State aid law by in-house entities or CPBs would thus concern the possibility of classifying their activities as SGEIs (regarding CPBs, this is a claim Ignacio Herrera and I dispelled in the article referred to above, and similar arguments apply for in-house entities). And, if the thrust of the approach in the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment was to be followed, the European Commission and national competition authorities could be tempted to consider that in-house provision or CPB activities are SGEIs, solely on the basis that these are activities promoted or facilitated in the 2014 Public Procurement Package and, concerning CPBs, in subsequent Commission policy. However, in my view, this would be a wrong justification for the classification of those activities as SGEIs.

What would be the implications?

The main implication of classing an activity as an SGEI is that it both (i) allows the Member State to shield the entity providing the SGEI from compliance with competition rules "in so far as the application of such rules does not obstruct the performance, in law or in fact, of the particular tasks assigned to them" (Art 106(2) TFEU, and (ii) Member States have increased freedom for the funding of SGEIs than for the granting of other types of State aid [see generally, A Sanchez-Graells, 'The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI', in E Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds) Financing Services of General Economic Interest: Reform and Modernization, Legal Issues of Services of General Interest Series (The Hague, TMC Asser Press / Springer, 2012) 161-181]. A fundamental element in this extended discretion for the funding of SGEIs is that an EU-compliant procurement exercise excludes the existence of State aid under the so-called Altmark fourt condition. This has been developed in some more detail in the 2016 Notice on the concept of State aid (paras 89 and ff), but it still assumes that an EU-compliant procurement is, for these purposes, one where there is a public tender and an element of competition--a position that the 2013 Guide to the application of the European Union rules on state aid, public procurement and the internal market to services of general economic interest, and in particular to social services of general interest does not completely clarify.

Therefore, the conundrum that a broad classification of in-house or CPB activities as SGEIs would create is that, in a setting where the direct award of contracts (however lucrative or benefitial) to in-house entities or CPBs is compliant with the rules in Directive 2014/24/EU (Art 12, Art 37(1), Art 37(4)) despite not having involved any element of competition, and where the conditions of those contracts cannot be tested against EU State aid rules because a very broad understanding of the public power exclusion of the classification of an activity as economic, and therefore of the in-house entity or CPB as an undertaking for the purposes of Art 107(1) TFEU, there may be no rule capable of controlling the channelling of public funds to these entities, regardless of the distortions in the market that their activities would create--which would also be excluded from assessment under the core competition rules of Arts 101 and 102 TFEU precisely for the same reason of the entities not being classed as undertakings due to the non-economic nature of their activities.

On the whole, then, I think that the greatest threat that results from the thrust of the Aanbestedingskalender Judgment is that too broad an understanding of what procurement activities imply the exercise of public powers, and an overlapping consideration of procurement activities as SGEI would lead to a complete exclusion of the applicability of all EU competition law mechanisms in this large sector of the economy. This would be an expansion of the problems derived from the FENIN-Selex doctrine, and one which I think requires urgent reconsideration by competition enforcers and, in particular, the European Commission [for in-depth discussion of the shortcomings of the FENIN-Selex doctrine, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) ch 4].

Again, on the 'tricky' concept of State resources under EU State aid law: GC rules on German financial support for renewable energy (T-47/15)

In its Judgment of 10 May 2016 in Germany v Commission, T-47/15, EU:T:2016:281, the General Court (GC) has revisited once more the tricky issue whether publicly-mandated payments between private economic operators can constitute State aid. The GC has followed the functional approach of the Court of Justice (ECJ) in Vent De Colère and Others (C-262/12, EU:C:2013:851, see here), continuing a line of case law that distinguishes PreussenElektra (C-379/98, EU:C:2001:160, see here), and further minimising the 'outlier' decision in Doux Élevages and Coopérative agricole UKL-AREE (C-677/11, EU:C:2013:348, see here).

In the case at hand, the relevant German scheme of financial support for the production of renewable energy created both mandatory purchase obligations of energy from renewable sources ('EEG energy') at above-market prices (the 'support scheme'), and reductions in such surcharges for certain types of electric-intensive undertakings in the manufacturing sector (or 'EUIs') (the 'compensation scheme'). Thus, the EEG energy financial scheme included both measures in support of producers and of 'heavy-users' of electricity. Importantly, all these financial measures were managed by intermediaries in the energy markets. The Commission had found this scheme in breach of EU State aid rules, unless stringent conditions applied.

One of Germany's main submissions against the application of State aid rules by the Commission (mainly, Art 107 TFEU) to prohibit was that the EEG energy support and compensation schemes was that 'according to the case-law, payments between individuals which are ordered by the State without being imputable to the budget of the State or of another public body and in respect of which the State does not relinquish any resources, in whatever form (such as taxes, duties, charges and so on), retain their private-law nature' (para 73).

This submission triggers an analysis of whether such payments qualify as State resources, which mainly hinges on whether the State has control over those funds. Seeking to rely on PreussenElektra and Doux Élevages, the arguments submitted by Germany focused on the fact that the aid was administered 'at arms length' by the energy intermediaries. On the contrary, seeking to rely on a functional approach to the assessment of 'public control' of the private funds that derived from the EEG energy financial scheme, the Commission's arguments were closer to the position of the ECJ in Vent De Colère.

In order to assess these issues, the GC reiterated consolidated case law of the ECJ and stressed that 'Article 107(1) TFEU covers all the financial means by which the public authorities may actually support undertakings, irrespective of whether or not those means are permanent assets of the public sector. Therefore, even if the sums corresponding to the measure in question are not permanently held by the Treasury, the fact that they constantly remain under public control, and therefore available to the competent national authorities, is sufficient for them to be categorised as State resources' (para 83).

In the assessment of the EEG energy support and compensation schemes, the GC engaged in a reasoning that, fundamentally, relied on two main issues: 1) the fact that German law imposed on specific energy intermediaries (in the case, on transmission system operators, or TSOs) obligations oriented towards the administration of the EEG energy financial schemes that 'can be assimilated, from the point of view of their effects, to a State concession' (para 93); and 2) the fact that the funds raised through the EEG energy financial schemes are ring-fenced by law or, in other words, 'the funds are not paid into the TSOs’ general budget or freely available to them, but are subject to separate accounting and allocated exclusively to the financing of the support and compensation schemes, to the exclusion of any other purpose' (ibid).

As a result of these two circumstances, the GC concludes that 'the funds generated by the EEG surcharge and administered collectively by the TSOs remain under the dominant influence of the public authorities in that the legislative and regulatory provisions governing them enable the TSOs, taken together, to be assimilated to an entity executing a State concession' (para 94, emphasis added). Or, even more clearly, that 'the fact that the State does not have actual access to the resources generated by the EEG surcharge, in the sense that they indeed do not pass through the State budget, does not affect ... the State’s dominant influence over the use of those resources and its ability to decide in advance, through the adoption of the EEG 2012, which objectives are to be pursued and how those resources in their entirety are to be used' (para 118).

The second key element in the analysis, in my view, is that the GC gives significant relevance to the fact that the payments ultimately required from consumers derived necessarily from the existence of the German law enacting the . In other words, the GC relied heavily on the fact that the surcharges amounted to '20% to 25% of the total amount of an average final consumer’s bill. Having regard to the extent of that burden, its passing on to final consumers must therefore be regarded as a consequence foreseen and organised by the German legislature. It is thus indeed on account of the EEG 2012 that final electricity consumers are, de facto, required to pay that price supplement or additional charge. It is a charge that is unilaterally imposed by the State in the context of its policy to support producers of EEG electricity and can be assimilated, from the point of view of its effects, to a levy on electricity consumption in Germany. Indeed, that charge is imposed by a public authority, for purposes in the general interest, namely protection of the climate and the environment by ensuring the sustainable development of energy supply and developing technologies for producing EEG electricity, and in accordance with the objective criterion of the quantity of electricity delivered by suppliers to their final customers' (para 95, emphasis added).

In my view, the GC is right on both points, and both the functional analysis of the control the State exercises over ring-fenced mandatory charges and the stress given to the (para)fiscal nature of the charge are good justifications for the enforcement of State aid rules against this type of State intervention--thus closing the gap created by cases such as Doux Élevages

However, the case also leaves a strange aftertaste due to the references to a 'State concession'. Given the increasing body of EU economic law applicable to concessions (notably, Dir 2014/23, which does not seem to have much to do with what the GC assessed in Commission v Germany), it would probably have been preferable for the GC to keep a stricter use of language.

In that regard, if the GC actually wanted to stress that the intermediaries administering the EEG energy financial scheme were exercising (quasi) delegated public powers or (quasi) delegated State prerogatives (which was the language used in Doux Élevages, para 32), then it better ought to say so in those terms. Otherwise, there is a risk of generating additional confusion in an area of EU economic law that, honestly, is getting ever more complex.