GC decision delimiting obligation to assess abnormally low tenders, where contracting authority changes tenders (T-281/16)

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In its Judgment of 10 October 2017 in Solelec and Others v Parliament, T-281/16, EU:T:2017:711 (only available in French), the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) decided one more case concerning the analysis of potentially abnormally low tenders under the 2012 Financial Regulation. Solelec brings in a twist to the previous case law, which derives from the fact that the winning tender was unilaterally 'arithmetically adjusted' by the contracting authority during the award process in a manner that increased its value by approximately 10%. The GC, perhaps surprisingly, took no issue.

This is an area of litigation that has triggered a significant number of recent decisions (see here, here and here), and these are consolidating a two-step approach to the analysis of abnormally low tenders: (i) an initial motu proprio duty for the contracting authority to screen tenders for signs of apparent abnormality without a corresponding duty to explicitly provide reasons when it does not identify those signs (and, alternatively, a duty to start the information-seeking inter partes procedure with the affected tenderer), and (ii) upon allegations by the tenderers, a duty to investigate claims of apparent abnormality, and an interrelated duty to provide sufficient reasons for its findings (one way or the other).

Solelec concerned the second type of duties, as the GC was faced with a case where a disappointed tenderer (Solelec, as part of a consortium, together with Mannelli, Wagner & Socom) challenged the award of a contractual lot to a competing consortium (Muller & Putman), on the basis that (i) the latter's tender was abnormally low and (ii) that Muller & Putman did not meet the applicable qualitative selection criteria. This second line of argument makes the case also partially comparable to Marina del Mediterráneo (see here), concerning the justiciability of allegations of improper assessment of selection criteria concerning competing tenderers. In that regard, in my view, Solelec is another case supporting the need to regulate more clearly pre-litigation procedural phases where undertakings want to challenge qualitative selection decisions concerning themselves or competing tenderers.

In Solelec, the European Parliament rejected Solelec's arguments on the lack of qualification of the Muller & Putman consortium the first time they were submitted on the basis that tenderers are not allowed to contact the contracting authority after the submission of the tenderers and until an award decision is made (see paras 5-6). This is a highly formalistic approach, and one that pushes all such claims to the litigation stage. This is undesirable and, in general, the regulation of a pre-litigation possibility of airing all concerns about qualification would be desirable [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 (Bruylant, 2018, forthcoming)].

On substance, firstly and concerning Solelec's claims that Muller & Putman did not meet the required qualitative selection criteria, the GC dismissed the argument that the late deposit of financial statements under domestic law (Luxembourg) can be a cause for a determination of lack of financial or professional standing, in particular if that is not indicated in the tender documentation as an exclusion ground (paras 28-32), it also dismissed a claim that a potential breach of domestic corporate law could lead to exclusion, where that breach would be in the future and susceptible of being remedied by the tenderer concerned (paras 33-45--in the case, the need to extend the period of establishment of a corporate entity), and engaged in a very detailed assessment of claims of inexistence of required references supporting past experiences claims, in a setting where the information that had been disclosed to Solelec had been redacted on the basis of the protection of commercial and business secrets of Muller & Putman (paras 46-106). Part of the latter discussion is particularly interesting in relation with the possibility of remedying incomplete tender documents (à-la-Manova, see paras 60-78).

Secondly, and concerning Solelec's claim that Muller & Putman's tender was abnormally low, the GC discusses the reasons why the fact that the latter offer was 30% lower than Solelec's and almost 13.5% lower than the estimated budget did not necessarily lead to a finding of abnormality (paras 107-164)--much in the same line as in TV1 v Commission, T-700/14, EU:T:2017:35 (see here). Maybe the most interesting point of this part of the Judgment is the one concerned with an upwards 'arithmetical adjustment' of the winning tender carried out by the contracting authority, which increased the offered price of €41.4 million to an award of €45.6 million (paras 150-164). According to the contracting authority, such adjustment resulted 'on the one hand, from the correction of calculation errors and, on the other hand, from the correction resulting from the modification of the quantity of certain activities in the tender form of the successful tenderer, in the course of the tender procedure' (para 154. own translation from French).

Concerning the possibility for the contracting authority to introduce an upwards modification of the volumes of activities included in the original tender form, the GC indicated that the change was acceptable because the need for the adjustment in the volume of activities derived from the fact that, during the period for the submission of tenders, the contracting authority issued a revised scope of works that was presented as a revision of estimated prices, but also included changes in quantities of works.

In the words of the GC

It is certainly true that the successful tenderer [Muller & Putman] drew up its tender on the basis of the first version of the price schedule and that the said schedule was replaced, before the date of submission of the tenders, by a second version which was made available to all bidders through a computer platform. The applicants [Solelec] for their part, drew up their offer on the second version of the price schedule.

It follows that the error to be corrected in the present case results from the fact that the successful tenderer failed to take into account, in its tender, the changes in the quantities of certain services set out in the second version of the price schedule (paras 156-157, emphasis added, own translation from French).

This is certainly a difficult situation, and one where, in the absence of specific rules in the tender documentation establishing the way the contracting authority could proceed to amend the tenders, a unilateral corrective intervention by the contracting authority would not necessarily be beyond reproach. However, in the case at hand, the contracting authority had reserved the right to adjust the content of the tenders received in a limited number of circumstances, including a mention that 'the quantities or other elements of the tender schedule [ie the form according to which all tenders had to be submitted] that are modified by the tenderer will be put back to the state of the tender schedule provided to the tenderers in the tender dossier' (para 158, own translation from French). Or, in other words, the contracting authority indicated that the quantities had to be fixed for all tenderers, and that it would make any required adjustments to the tenders received to that effect.

This led to the GC's assessment that 'there is no reason to conclude that the contracting authority was not entitled to correct the tenderer's tender based on the first version of the schedule in the light of the second version of the schedule ... in order to to allow the award to be made on as good a basis as possible, and in order to improve the comparability of tenders and not to jeopardize the equal treatment of tenderers. The Parliament therefore proceeded lawfully by making this correction in accordance with the power at its disposal', which the GC identifies in the tender documentation (para 160, own translation from French).

In my view, the extent to which this approach in the tender documentation is acceptable and fully compatible with the general principles of procurement law can be controversial (what are the limits on the changes that a contracting authority can unilaterally reserve the right to introduce, and is compliance with an implicit transparency requirement sufficient to legitimise such an approach?). Arguably. it would have been preferable for the contracting authority to foresee in the tender documents the possibility to have contacted the tenderer and given it the opportunity to correct the obvious error (which is in any case allowed by the case law), rather than reserving a right to directly proceed to the correction. Moreover, some more detailed discussion of whether the error was obvious (and why would changes in quantities be possible at all, as the tenderers could have been requested to solely submit unit prices), and whether it corresponded with the grounds for unilateral adjustment of the tenders included in the tender documentation would have been useful (in particular by reference to the Slovensko case law).

Further clarification on non-contractual liability vis-a-vis abnormally low tenderers in EU Institutional procurement (C-198/16 P)

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In its Judgment of 19 October 2017 in Agriconsulting Europe v Commission, C-198/16 P, EU:C:2017:784, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has provided additional clarification on the conditions for EU Institutions to incur in non-contractual liability (ex Art 340 TFEU) in the context of an investigation of apparently abnormally low tenders in public procurement governed by the Financial Regulation (in that case, the no longer in force 2002 version, but note that the reasoning is generally applicable to current rules).

The Agriconsulting Judgment consolidates a balanced approach to the obligations incumbent upon a contracting authority investigating apparently abnormally low bids, and formulates the emerging principle that tenderers submitting abnormally low tenders are unlikely to have the right to claim for potential damages derived from other shortcomings in the evaluation of their tenders.

In Agriconsulting, the CJEU decided on an appeal of a previous General Court Judgment (T-570/13, EU:T:2016:40) that rejected the claims made by Agriconsulting against the way in which the Commission had assessed its tender and eventually decided that it was abnormally low and thus non-compliant with the tender specifications. The case concerned a services contract that was split between main and additional tasks, and where the tender documentation established minimum levels of staff to be assigned to each of them. This was to be assessed under award criterion 3: 'practical organisation of the tasks'. Under the circumstances, Agriconsulting's tender was found not to meet the minimum staffing requirements in the tender documents.

However, this only emerged after additional details were requested as part of an investigation of the apparent abnormality of its tender, which was €1 million (ie 43%) lower than the competing tender, and €1.2 million (47%) lower than the maximum budget for the contract. The information provided by Agriconsulting did not address the concerns about the abnormality of its tender, which led the evaluation committee to change its preliminary assessment--where Agriconsulting was ranked first but suspected of abnormality--and to reach the final position that its tender did not merit the required minimum points under award criterion 3 to be awarded the contract. Agriconsulting raised a number of claims against this, of which two are particularly interesting: (1) that even if its tender was properly found to be abnormally low under award criterion 3, it could have a right to compensation for damages if it could demonstrate other errors by the contracting authority; and (2) that it had been discriminated against because the competing tender was not investigated for abnormality.

Abnormality and rejection of the tender

In simple terms, the first ground of appeal concerns a claim by Agriconsulting that can be understood as intimating that, even if the rejection of its tender as abnormally low due to its not having met the minimum requirements of award criterion 3 was correct, the existence of errors in the evaluation of its tender under other award criteria could still give rise to liability of the contracting authority.

The argument arises from the fact that, in its application, Agriconsulting had claimed that there was a causal link between the improper assessment of its tender under criterion 3, and that unlawful acts concerning award criteria 1 and 2 "supported" its claim. The GC had dealt with this in the following terms:

42 The applicant contends that the condition relating to the causal link is satisfied because its tender was ranked in first place and it would have been awarded the contract had it not been for the alleged infringements.

43 Nonetheless, it must be stated that the rejection of the applicant’s tender is based only on the assessments concerning award criterion 3 and the abnormally low nature of its tender. The applicant’s tender was indeed ranked in first place following the examination of the tender from an economic standpoint. That ranking was altered for two reasons, namely the changes to the evaluation of the tender in the light of award criterion 3, which was considered to be insufficient, and the classification of the tender as abnormally low. The applicant also states in its application that the harm at issue is the direct result of the evaluation committee’s decision to lower the score for award criterion 3 and to find that the tender was abnormally low.

44 Furthermore, as the Commission points out, the applicant has not, at any time, explained how the award of a higher score for award criteria 1 and 2 could have had a favourable impact on its chances of being awarded the contract.

45 The applicant is therefore wrong to assert that the contract would have been awarded to it if it had not been for the infringements and errors concerning award criteria 1 and 2. Even a higher score for those award criteria would not have affected the assessment of its tender in the light of award criterion 3 and the finding that the tender was abnormally low.

46 Accordingly, the alleged illegalities concerning award criteria 1 and 2, even if proven, have no direct causal link to the alleged harm, relating to the loss of the opportunity to conclude the contract and the expenses incurred in order to participate in the tendering procedure (T-570/13, paras 42-46, emphasis added).

Thus, the issue in front of the CJEU was to assess whether, in dismissing its claim and thus finding that (even if proven) infringements concerning criteria 1 and 2 would not have met the causality requirements to give rise to liability, the GC had erred in law. In its Judgment, the CJEU dismisses this claim by indicating that

... the General Court did not hold in a general and abstract manner that the unlawful acts affecting a tender procedure, such as those alleged in the present case by Agriconsulting in relation to award criteria 1 and 2, can never entitle a tenderer to compensation. In the present case, the General Court merely assessed in concreto whether such a right to compensation existed, in the light of the arguments submitted by the appellant concerning the causal link and by carrying out an assessment of the facts of the case (C-198/16 P, para 21, emphasis added).

I find this interesting for two reasons. First, because it can be read to mean that, where a tender is properly rejected for being abnormally low, there is no liability that can possibly arise vis-a-vis that tenderer due to any other failings in the way the contracting authority assessed the tender. This seems adequate as, in more general terms, a tenderer submitting an abnormally low tender cannot hold legitimate expectations of being awarded the contract. Second, I find this interesting because the CJEU also leaves the door open to the possibility that unlawful acts affecting a tender procedure give rise to liability of the contracting authority where they have a negative impact on a tenderer's chances of being awarded the contract. However, this probably needs to be understood as a slim or remote possibility, applicable only where the unlawful acts are substantive and affect the possibilities of being awarded a contract in a sufficient or material manner.

Abnormality and equal treatment

As mentioned above, the second issue raised by Agriconsultingin its third ground of appeal concerned a notional duty of contracting authorities that engage in the investigation of a tender as apparently abnormally low to investigage all tenders received in that procedure for abnormality. The CJEU summarises the claim as follows:

48 ... the General Court ... stated that [the competitor]’s tender, calculated on the basis of the formula set out in the tender specifications, was slightly lower than the budget ceiling provided for in those specifications for the performance of the contract and higher, by almost EUR 1 million, than Agriconsulting’s tender. It thus concluded that [the competitor] was not in the same situation as Agriconsulting and that therefore the Commission was entitled, without infringing the principle of equal treatment, to verify the abnormally low nature of [Agriconsulting]’s tender, without applying the same treatment to [the competitor]’s tender.

49 It must be stated that the differential treatment of the tenders of Agriconsulting and of [the competitor] is intrinsically linked to the issue of identifying abnormally low tenders and the procedure reserved for them. Assessing the merits of the reasons given by the General Court ... will require revisiting the relevant obligations imposed on the contracting authority (C-198/16 P, paras 48-49, emphasis added).

This also seems like the proper approach to assessing any unequal treatment, and links to the procedural obligations that contracting authorities face in the presence of allegations or suspicions of abnormality--which have been recently discussed in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence, T-392/15, EU:T:2017:462 (see here).

Following the same functional approach, the CJEU reiterated in Agriconsulting that:

52 It is only on condition that the reliability of a tender is, a priori, doubtful that the obligations ... are imposed on the contracting authority, including, in the present case, that of verifying in detail the seriousness of the prices offered using the reference economic parameters.

53 In the present case, since the evaluation committee had identified the appellant’s tender as being, prima facie, abnormally low, and had considered that [the competitor]’s tender did not, a priori, present any abnormality, it could, without infringing the principle of equal treatment between tenderers, initiate the adversarial procedure ... against the appellant and verify in detail its prices using the reference economic parameters without applying the same treatment to [the competitor]. The General Court was therefore correct in finding ... that both undertakings, as regards their respective tenders, were not in the same situation (C-198/16 P, paras 52-53, emphasis added).

This is also a welcome development because it creates continuity in the position reached in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence that contracting authorities do not have motu proprio obligations beyond reaching an initial view on the absence of concerns regarding the abnormality of a tender, and that any additional obligations only arise from explicit claims to that effect. This is further clarified by the CJEU when it stresses that 'Agriconsulting would ... have had to establish the reasons why the contracting authority should, prima facie, have doubted the reliability of [the competitor]’s tender' (C-198/16 P, para 58).

 

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

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Before the summer recess, the General Court adopted two interesting decisions on public procurement carried by the EU Institutions. One concerns the debarment of tenderers that have been found to breach EU procurement rules and negatively affect the financial interests of the Union (T-151/16). The other concerns the obligation to state reasons in the context of allegations that a tender is abnormally low (T-392/15). The first case was discussed in a previous post, while this blog now discusses the second case.

In its Judgment of 4 July 2017, European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Agence, T-392/15, EU:T:2017:462, the GC assessed once more the limits of the obligation incumbent upon contracting authorities to state reasons in the context of an assessment of an apparently abnormally low tender. The case is decided under the rules of EU Institutional Procurement (ie the Financial Regulation and Rules of Application), but its basic principles seem to me to be also of relevance for procurement covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package and, in particular, Article 69 of Directive 2014/24/EU.

The distinctive peculiarity of the case is that the challenge concerns the retendering of lots of a previous procedure that had been partially cancelled. As a result of the cancellation of the original procedure post-evaluation and the disclosure of information in the debriefing linked to that tender, participants in the retendering had the advantage of availability of substantial pricing information concerning their competitors (which is certainly one more reason to take confidentiality of information in these processes very carefully, in particular where disclosure of information allows for a 'reverse engineering' of the prices offered by other tenderers--see the discussion in A Sanchez-Graells, 'Transparency in Procurement by the EU Institutions' (August 16, 2017). As a result of having that information, one of the tenderers challenged the award decision in the retendering on the basis that some of the values of the preferred tenders were 'excessively low' and that the contracting authority, having access to that information, was under a duty to provide explicit reasons why it did not consider the tenders received in the second run abnormally low (see paras 68-69) .

In order to decide on the dispute, the GC first recasts the existing provisions and case law on the duty to provide reasons as part of the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (paras 72-80) and stresses that 'the obligation to state reasons for an act depends on the factual and legal context in which it was adopted' which in the specific requires that 'account ... be taken of the ... regulatory framework applicable in the present case governing abnormally low tenders' (para 81). The GC then discusses such regulatory framework (paras 82-90), stressing that previous case law 'has held that the contracting authority’s obligation to check the seriousness of a tender arises where there are doubts beforehand as to its reliability, bearing in mind that the main purpose of that [investigation] is to enable a tenderer not to be excluded from the procedure without having had an opportunity to explain the terms of its tender which appears abnormally low. Thus, it is only where such doubts exist that the evaluation committee is required to request relevant information on the composition of the tender, before, if necessary, rejecting it' (para 85, references omitted). This creates a two-stage approach to the analysis, where first the authority needs to assess if there is an appearance or suspicion of abnormally low values and,only in that case, engage in the inter partes detailed investigation that will trigger the need for additional justification of its final position on the abnormality or not of the tender. In the analysis of the GC, thus, whether there is a duty to investigate in detail and the extent to which reasons need to be given depend on whether 'there is evidence which arouses a suspicion that a tender may be abnormally low' (para 89).

Elaborating on this, the GC establishes that 'the contracting authority need, in the first stage, only carry out a prima facie assessment of the abnormally low character of a tender, that its duty to state reasons is limited in scope. To require the contracting authority to set out in detail why a tender does not appear to be abnormally low does not take into account the distinction between the two stages of the examination' (para 92). Thus, in even clearer terms, 'where a contracting authority accepts a tender, it is not required to state explicitly in response to any request for a statement of reasons ... [why] the tender it accepted does not appear to it to be abnormally low. If that tender is accepted by the contracting authority, it follows implicitly, although not necessarily, that the contracting authority considers that there was no evidence that that tender was abnormally low. However, such reasons must be brought to the attention of an unsuccessful tenderer which has expressly requested them' (para 93).

In my view, this test is helpful, as it sets a clear balance of duties between the contracting authority -- a duty to assess whether there is evidence to support a suspicion of abnormality, but no duty to justify why it does not consider that this is the case in each and every single instance -- and the tenderers -- which can express their concerns about the appearance of abnormality of competing tenders and demand that the contracting authority clarifies the reasons for its disagreement, where prompted to do so. In my view, this is a useful and practical approach generally applicable to procurement, both under the rules of EU Institutional procurement and that covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package.

 

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

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

Abnormally low tenders (I): Substantive Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abnormally low tenders (II): Procedural Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tricky Jurisdictional Point

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

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

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

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

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

CJEU contributes to the blurring of public-private divide in public procurement (C-568/13)

In its Judgment in Data Medical Service, C-568/13, EU:C:2014:2466, the CJEU has reiterated very clearly that public procurement rules that exclude public hospitals from participation in tendering procedures for the award of public contracts as a result of their status as a public economic entity are contrary to the EU public procurement Directives, if and in so far as those entities are authorised to operate on the market in accordance with its institutional and statutory objectives.

In the case at hand, the CJEU followed its previous case law and stressed that
the possibility for public entities to participate in tendering procedures for public contracts, in parallel to the participation of private economic entities, is already evident from the wording of [the Directives] according to which ‘service provider’ is to mean any natural or legal person, including a public body, which offers services. Furthermore, such a possibility to participate was recognised by the Court in the judgment in Teckal, C‑107/98, EU:C:1999:562, paragraph 51, and was repeated in the subsequent judgments in ARGE, EU:C:2000:677, paragraph 40; CoNISMa, EU:C:2009:807, paragraph 38; and Ordine degli Ingegneri della Provincia di Lecce and Others, EU:C:2012:817, paragraph 26 (C-568/13 at para 33).
The only check and balance to the expansive interpretation of the criteria for participation in public contracts that the CJEU is willing to tolerate is based on the fact that 
Member States do, admittedly, have a discretion as to whether or not to allow certain categories of economic operators to provide certain services. They can regulate the activities of entities, such as universities and research institutes, which are non-profit-making and whose primary object is teaching and research. They can, inter alia, determine whether or not such entities are authorised to operate on the market, according to whether the activity in question is compatible with their objectives as an institution and those laid down in their statutes. However, if and to the extent that such entities are entitled to offer certain services in return for remuneration on the market, even occasionally, the Member States may not prevent those entities from participating in tendering procedures for the award of public contracts relating to the provision of those services. Such a prohibition would not be compatible with [the Directives] (see, in relation to the corresponding provisions of Directive 2004/18, the judgments in CoNISMa, EU:C:2009:807, paragraphs 47 to 49, and Ordine degli Ingegneri della Provincia di Lecce and Others, EU:C:2012:817, paragraph 27) (C-568/13 at para 36, emphasis added).
Consequently, the CJEU refers the issue to the regulation of specific activities or specific legal structures available to the public sector to organise the provision of services. In the absence of that sort of regulation (which would then be potentially subjected to the rules on freedom of establishment and free movement of services, where applicable), public procurement rules cannot be used to determine the remit of the economic activity of public entities.

That being said, the CJEU then proceeded to stress that, in case the public entity is in a position to offer contractual conditions impossible to match by private competitors--particularly in view of the funding it receives--then the contracting authority should scrutinise its offer under the general rules applicable to abnormally low offers (now in art 69 of Directive 2014/24). In the words of the CJEU:
the provisions of [the Directives] and in particular the general principles of freedom of competition, non-discrimination and proportionality which underlie that directive, must be interpreted as not precluding national legislation which allows a public hospital, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, participating in a tendering procedure to submit a tender which cannot be matched by any competitors as a result of the public funding which it receives. However, in the course of the examination of the abnormally low character of a tender on the basis of [the Directive], the contracting authority may take into consideration the existence of public funding which such an entity receives in the light of the option to reject that tender (C-568/13 at para 51, emphasis added). 
In my view, the Judgment in Data Medical Service simply consolidates the existing case law and prompts the contracting authority to assess the potential abnormality of the tender submitted by the public entity. The question that remains unanswered is whether there (actually) is a subsequent obligation to reject the tender, which is a particularly controversial point [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, "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]. Arguably, in most of the cases, there can be an obligation to reject on the basis of the principle of competition stressed by the CJEU and now consolidated in Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24.

Moreover, one cannot discard the application of the EU and domestic rules on competition (arts 101 and 102 TFEU and their equivalents) to the public entities when they engage in such economic activity [hence, immediately deactivating the FENIN-Selex exemption; see A Sánchez Graells, "Distortions of Competition Generated by the Public (Power) Buyer: A Perceived Gap in EC Competition Law and Proposals to Bridge It" (August 21, 2009). University of Oxford, Center for Competition Law and Policy, CCLP (L). 23], or even the application of domestic unfair competition law rules if the activity is caught in their substantive scope. 

Hence, situations like the one that triggered the Data Medical Service simply blur the distinction between public and private in public procurement, but by no means make the participation of public entities in procurement bullet-proof in terms of the application of general competition rules. This is an area where significant developments can be expected in the immediate future, as the public sector seeks to find new sources of funding or revenue for its activities. Hence, this is an area where more definite answers from the CJEU would be welcome in the future.