Public procurement digitalisation: A step forward or two steps back? [guest post by Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen]

In this guest post, Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen offers some exploratory thoughts on the digitalisation of public procurement, its difficulties and some governance and competition implications. This post is based on the presentation she gave at a Finnish legal research seminar “Oikeustieteen päivät”, Aalto University, on 28-29 September 2019.

Digitalisation of procurement - background and goals

Digitalisation and e-procurement are considered to enhance the efficiency of the procurement process in the EU’s internal market. In line with the European Commission’s 2017 Procurement Strategy, procurement digitalisation can unlock better and faster transparency across the internal market, thus ensuring the possibility for economic operators to become aware of business opportunities, the facilitation of access to public tenders and the dissemination of information on the conditions of the award of public contracts.

Beyond mere transparency gains, procurement digitalisation is also expected to Increase the integrity of the awarding process and the public officials involved, thus fostering corruption prevention and good administrative practices. Finally, digitalisation is also expected to open new, more efficient monitoring possibilities both before and after contract execution, as well as the deployment of advanced big data analytics.

Directive 2014/24/EU and procurement digitalisation

Digitalisation and e-procurement are some of the main goals of Directive 2014/24/EU. Since October 2018, these rules impose the mandatory use of electronic communications throughout the whole public contract award procedure (eCommunication), the submission of tenders in electronic form (eSubmission) and created detailed rules for procedures meant solely for eProcurement, as well as simplified information exchange mechanisms (such as the ESPD) to facilitate electronic processing of procurement information.

Although the digital requirements in the Directive do not yet cover pre-award market consultations or post-award contracts and contract amendments, there are some trends to indicate that these may be the next areas of digitalisation of procurement.

State of the art at Member State level

Many Member States have taken digitalisation and transparency in public procurement even further than the requirements of Directive 2014/24/EU. Many contracting authorities use eProcurement systems for the management of the entire life-cycle of the tendering process. In Finland, there is now consolidated experience with not only an eProcurement system, but also with an open access Government spend database. Similarly, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Slovakia and Poland have also created open access contract registers for all public contracts and contract amendments.

Additionally, many Member States are committed to wider transparency outside the procurement procedures. For example, there is an emerging practice of publication of pre-tendering market consultation documents or audio/video meeting records. It is also increasingly common to provide open access to contract performance documents, such as bills, payments and performance acceptance (eg the UK national action plan on open contracting).

Concerns and opportunities in the digitalisation of procurement

Given the current trends of development of digital procurement, it is necessary to reflect not only on the opportunities that the roll-out of these technologies creates, but also some concerns that arise from increased transparency and the implications of this different mode of procurement governance. Below are some thoughts on four interrelated dimensions: corruption, SME participation, adoption of blockchain-base and algorithmic tools, and competition for public contracts.

Corruption

Public Procurement and other commercial relationships (eg real estate development) between public and private sector are most vulnerable to corruption (as repeatedly stressed by the OECD, Transparency International, Finnish National Bureau of Investigation, etc). In that regard, it seems clear that the digitalisation of procurement and the increased transparency it brings with it can prevent corruption and boost integrity. Companies across the EU become aware of the contract award, so there is less room for national arrangements and protectionism. Digitalisation can make tendering less bureaucratic, thus lessening the need and room for bribes. eProcurement can also prevent (improper) direct communication between the contracting authority and potential tenderers. Finally, the mere existence of electronic documentation makes it easier to track and request documents at a later stage: illegal purchases are not that easy to “hide”.

Yet, even after the roll-out of electronic documentation and contract registers, there will remain issues such as dealing with receipts or fabricating needs for additional purchases, which are recurring problems in many countries. Therefore, while digitalisation can reduce the scope and risk of corruption, it is no substitute for other checks and balances on the proper operation of the procurement function and the underlying expenditure of public funds.

SME participation

One of the goals of Directive 2014/24/EU was to foster procurement digitalisation to facilitate SME participation by making tendering less bureaucratic . However, tendering is still very bureaucratic. Sometimes it is difficult for economic operators to find the “right” contracts, as it requires experience not only in identifying, but also in interpreting contract notices. Moreover, the effects of digitalisation are still local due to language barriers – eg in Finland, tendering documents are mostly in Finnish.

Moreover, the uncertainty of winning and the need to put resources into tendering are the main reasons for not-bidding by SMEs (Jääskeläinen & Tukiainen, 2018); and this is not resolved by digital tools. On the contrary, and in a compounding manner, SMEs can be disadvantaged in eProcurement settings. SMEs rarely can compete in price, but the use of e-procurement systems "favours" the use of a price only criterion (in comparison to price-quality-ratio) as quality assessment requires manual assessment of tenders. The net effect of digitalisation on SME participation is thus less than clear cut.

Blockchain-based and algorithmic tools

The digitalisation of procurement creates new possibilities for the use of algorithms: it opens endless possibilities to implement algorithmic test for choosing “the best tender” and to automate the procurement of basic products and services; it allows for enhanced control of price adjustments in e-catalogues (which currently requires manual labor); and it can facilitate monitoring: eg finding signs for bid rigging, cartels or corruption. In the future, transparent algorithms could also attack corruption by minimizing or removing human participation from the course of the procurement procedure.

Digitalisation also creates possibilities for using blockchain: for example, to manage company records, official statements and documents, which can be made available to all contracting authorities across EU. However, this also creates risks linked to eg EU wide blacklists: a minor infringement in one Member State could lead to the economic operator’s incapability of participating in public tenders throughout the EU.

The implications of the adoption of both algorithmic and blockchain-based tools still requires further thought and analysis, and this is likely to remain a fertile area for practical experimentation and academic debate in the years to come.

Competition

Open public contract registers have become a part of public procurement regime in EU Member States where corruption is high or with a tradition of high levels of public sector transparency. The European Commission is pushing for their creation in all EU jurisdictions as part of its 2017 Procurement Strategy. These contract registers aim to enhance integrity of the procurement system and public official and to allow public scrutiny of public spending by citizens and media.

However, these registers can facilitate collusive agreements. Indeed, easier access to detailed tendering information facilitates monitoring existing cartels by its members: it provides means to make sure ”cartel discipline” is being followed. Moreover, it may facilitate the establishment of new cartels or lead to higher / not market-based pricing without specific collusive agreements.

Instead of creating large PDF-format databases of scanned public contracts, the European Commission indeed encourages Member States to create contract registers with workable datasets (user friendly, open, downloadable and machine-readable information on contracts and especially prices and parties of the contract). This creates huge risks of market failure and tendering with pricing that is not based on the market prices. It thus requires further thought.

Conclusions

Digitalisation has and is transforming public procurement regime and procedures. It is usually considered as a positive change: less bureaucracy, enhanced efficiency, better and faster communication and strengthening integrity of public sector. However, digitalisation keeps challenging the public procurement regime through eg automated processes and production of detailed data - leaving less room for qualitative assessments. One can wonder whether this contributes to the higher-level objectives of increasing SME participation and generating better value for money.

Digitalisation brings new tools for monitoring contracting authorities and to detect competition distortions and integrity failures. However, there is a clear risk in providing “too much” and “too detailed” pricing and contract information to the market operators – hence lowering the threshold of different collusive practices. It is thus necessary to reconsider current regulatory trends and to perhaps develop a more nuanced regulatory framework for the transparency of procurement information in a framework of digitalised governance.

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Guest blogger

Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen is a Doctor of Laws and Adjunct Professor, Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law at University of Lapland. She is also a current Member of the European Commission’s Stakeholders Expert Group on Public Procurement (SEGPP, E02807), the Research Council at Swedish Competition Authority, the Finnish Ministry of Finance national PP strategy working group (previously also national general contract terms for PP (JYSE) working group), the Finnish Public Procurement Association, of which she is a board member and previous chair, and the European Procurement Law Group (EPLG).

In addition to public procurement law, Kirsi-Maria is interested in contract law, tort law, corruption and transparency matters as well as state aid rules. She is the author of several articles (both in English and in Finnish) and a few books (in Finnish). Most recently, she has co-edited Transparency in EU Procurements. Disclosure within Public Procurement and during Contract Execution, vol 9 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2019), together with Prof R Caranta and Prof A Sanchez-Graells.

Bid rigging, self-cleaning, leniency and claims for damages: A beautiful procurement mess? (C-124/17)

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In his Opinion of 16 May 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:316 (not available in English), Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has offered an interesting view on the interpretation of the grounds for discretionary exclusion of economic operators engaged in bid rigging. In particular, his proposed interpretation concerns the limitations of the contracting authority's ability to demand full and unrestricted cooperation from undertakings seeking to reassure them that they have self-cleaned after participating in collusive practices in public markets. This Opinion and the forthcoming CJEU Judgment in Vossloh Laeis will be relevant for the interpretation of Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU, as well as Article 80 of Directive 2014/25/EU, on which the case rests. In my view, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion raises difficult questions about the coordination of enforcement of mechanisms to prevent bid rigging in the fields of public procurement and competition law. It also creates some functional tensions with recent cases such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469; and Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000. Thus, it deserves some close analysis.

Vossloh Laeis - Background

This case concerns the aftermath of an investigation into bid rigging practices by the German competition authority (Bundeskartellamt), which established that '[d]uring the period from 2001 to 2011 Vossloh Laeis concluded agreements with other companies on the supply of rails and switches to the detriment of local public transport companies, private, regional and industrial railway companies and construction companies. The aim of the agreements was to divide up tenders and projects among the members of the cartel'. This resulted in the imposition of a fine of just under 3.5 million euros on the company Vossloh Laeis in 2016 by the Bundeskartellamt.

In the case that triggered the reference to the CJEU, a contracting entity whose procurement is covered by Directive 2014/25/EU (Stadwerke München) sought to exclude Vossloh Laeis from its qualification system on the basis that it had been fined for its participation in the cartel. It is important to stress that the relevance of the cartel for Stadwerke München was not simply remote or theoretical, but concerned it rather closely because this entity had been a victim of the anticompetitive practices carried out by Vossloh Laeis. This led Stadwerke München to seek damages compensation from Vossloh Laeis in civil litigation, as well as to exclude it from its list of approved contractors.

Vossloh Laeis sought to resist its exclusion from Stadwerke München's qualification system on the basis that it had taken self-cleaning measures and should thus be reinstated in the list of approved contractors on the basis of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24, to which the applicable Article 80 of Directive 2014/25 refers. In particular, Vossloh Laeis sought to persuade the contracting entity that it had taken organizational and personnel measures to clarify the facts and prevent their future repetition. It also indicated that it would compensate the damage caused by its illicit behavior. 

Stadwerke München rejected the claims of self-cleaning on the basis that (i) despite the uncovering of the cartel in 2011, Vossloh Laeis had not addressed the contracting entity or undertaken any initiative to clarify the facts as a whole; (ii) only in 2016 had Vossloh Laeis ceased to deny, in front of Stadwerke München, its participation in the relevant collusive practices, and even then it stressed that it had challenged the decision imposing the fine. Most importantly, Stadwerke München took issue with Vossloh Laeis' behaviour because (iii) it had not agreed to furnish a copy of the Bundeskartellamt's decision imposing the fine, so that Stadwerke München could examine it. Neither did Vossloh Laeis agree to cooperate with Stadwerke München in clarifying the infringement committed, since it understood that his cooperation with the competition authority was sufficient.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion states that '[t]he referring court does not dispute (as it was stated in the sanctioning decision itself) that Vossloh Laeis had collaborated continuously and without restrictions with the German competition authority during the infringement procedure procedure' (para 17, own translation from Spanish). This creates a situation that may seem difficult to understand. Why would an undertaking that has already cooperated unreservedly with the competition authority not take the same approach to cooperation with the contracting entity? Is it a matter of opposition to red tape and duplication of effort? Or is there any secret that the economic operator is seeking to protect? Equally, on the side of the contracting entity, why is it so interested in the nitty-gritty details of the decision imposing the fine? Could it not just accept that the economic operator was sanctioned and is now trying to move on?

The importance of leniency programmes in this context

Even if the Opinion of AG Campos does not mention this at all, the dispute about access to the Bundeskartellamt's decision and Vossloh Laeis' refusal to cooperate with Stadwerke München in a parallel clarification of the facts needs to be placed in the context of the applicable leniency programme run by the Bundeskartellamt, and the civil litigation around the action for damages against Vossloh Laeis. This is important to understand the position of the parties, as well as the shadows that loom over the approach taken by AG Campos (discussed below).

As part of a leniency programme (not only Bundeskartellamt's, but those run by the contracting authorities of other Member States and the European Commission itself), economic operators that have participated in bid rigging offences can seek an exemption or reduction of the fines that would otherwise be applicable if they uncover the cartel and/or cooperate with the competition authority in its investigation (the degree of cooperation and the relevance of the information provided determining the level of 'discount' on the otherwise applicable fine).

In return for their cooperation, cartellists not only benefit from exemption or reduction of the fines, but also from some protection against claims for damages by the victims of their collusive behaviour. Indeed, competition authorities will take measures to ensure that leniency statements are not disclosed to the public, will include minimal parts of them in their final decisions imposing fines, and will redact relevant material from the public version of those decisions. This makes it virtually impossible for 'outsiders' to learn about the detailed ways in which the cartel functioned on the basis of public information resulting from the infringement procedure. Moreover, leniency programmes are specially protected by the Directive on competition damages (2014/104/EU), which requires Member States to ensure that 'for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts cannot at any time order a party or a third party to disclose ... leniency statements' (Art 6(6)(a)) (see also the position of the CJEU here).

This creates significant difficulties in the context of follow-on damages actions, where the previous investigation by the competition authority is of no avail to victims seeking redress. This would explain why Stadwerke München insisted in having access to the confidential version of the decision imposing a fine, and why Vossloh Laeis resisted such disclosure. It also clarifies how, in this specific context, cooperation with the competition authority is of no use to contracting entities and authorities seeking to understand the behaviour of the economic operator, as the opacity surrounding leniency programmes prevents them from benefiting from the investigation and findings of the competition authority. 

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in its own terms

In own terms, the Opinion of AG Campos seems to be solely based on the conceptual premise that the dispute between Stadwerke München and Vossloh Laeis resulted not from the background discussed above, but rather from the peculiarity of the German rules that transposed Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which required that, for the purposes of self-cleaning, economic operators must demonstrate that they have 'fully clarified the facts and circumstances by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and the contracting authority' (Art 125(1)(2) Gesetz gegen Wettbewerbsbeschränkungen, as reported in para 10 of the Opinion). This deviates from the literal wording of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU, which foresees that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has ... clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities'. The analysis in the Opinion, thus, largely rests on the interpretation of the concept of 'investigating authorities' in Article 57(6) with the purpose of establishing whether it covers the contracting authority or entity itself (see para 2). The Opinion offers a good synthesis of the competing arguments in paras 26-36.

In that regard, the Opinion provides some relevant positions. First, that the requirements explicitly listed in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU are mandatory and, consequently, contracting authorities and entities cannot accept claims of self-cleaning that do not meet them all (paras 40-41). Therefore, establishing the scope of the duty of collaboration in the clarification of the facts becomes paramount because its breach determines the impossibility of benefiting from any other self-cleaning measures adopted.

Second, on the specific issue of the entities included in the concept of 'investigating authorities', AG Campos takes the view that, despite the fact that Article 57 of Directive 2014/24/EU grants contracting authorities and entities some investigative powers, 'the exercise of these functions does not make the contracting authority one of the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57 (6), second paragraph of Directive 2014/24' (para 47, own translation from Spanish). In addition to other functional reasons on the way contracting authorities carry out their limited investigation for the purposes  of establishing the existence of an exclusion ground (paras 48-50), AG Campos concludes that, in general terms, 'the "investigating authorities" referred to in Article 57, paragraph 6, second paragraph, of Directive 2014/24 will not coincide with the contracting authorities. In front of the latter, the tenderer (or the company that aspires to be part of a classification system, as in this case) must prove that it has actively and thoroughly collaborated with the investigating authorities to clarify the facts. But this collaboration must be, by force, with an institution other than the contracting authority itself: otherwise, [the collaboration] would be, for the latter, a notorious fact that does not require any proof' (para 51, own translation from Spanish).

Finally, AG Campos also rejects the possibility for Member States to go beyond the scope of the collaboration foreseen in Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU in demanding that the economic operator seeking to benefit from its self-cleaning efforts not only collaborates with the 'investigating authorities' but also with the contracting authority or entity (paras 55-61). Interestingly, AG Campos stresses two main issues against this possibility: (i) that it would create a duplication of obligations required against those who, like the investigating authorities and the contracting authorities, perform different functions and (ii) that it 'could place the economic operator in a situation close to defenselessness when, in circumstances such as those in this case, the contracting authority claims to have suffered damages, because of the infringing conduct that led to the exclusion of [the economic operator], for which it requests compensation' (para 60, own translation from Spanish).

It is worth stressing that the case also concerns issues surrounding the maximum period of exclusion of economic operators that cannot benefit from self-cleaning (paras 62-86). However this post concentrates solely on the interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

In my view, the Opinion of AG Campos advances a plausible interpretation of Article 57(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU. However, I would disagree with two issues. First, the fact that Member States cannot go beyond the minimum mandatory self-cleaning requirements established in the Directive on the grounds that this would result in a duplication of effort for economic operators does not make sense to me, in particular after the recent CJEU Judgment in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (see comment here), which AG Campos acknowledges but sets aside in his Opinion (para 57). Second, and more importantly, I think that the Opinion of AG in Vossloh Laeis does not work in the context of infringements of competition law covered by leniency programmes, which triggers the second of the arguments against an expansive functional interpretation of Article 57(6) on the grounds of the undertaking's procedural rights.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion in the broader context of leniency programmes

Indeed, the main difficulty I have with the AG Opinion in Vossloh Laeis is functional. It is worth stressing that the implication of this Opinion is that a contracting entity or authority that knows that it has been the victim of a cartel offence cannot oppose self-cleaning of the competition law violator on the basis of its lack of cooperation, despite being in litigation with that undertaking over damages compensation. From the perspective of the infringer, this also means that participation in a leniency programme not only provides a shield from administrative fines and some protection from actions for damages, but also some protection from exclusion from procurement procedures. These are two negative results from the perspective of ensuring the effectiveness of competition law in public procurement markets and, in my view, runs against the thrust of previous decisions such as Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (see comment here).

I also think that the way in which the Vossloh Laeis Opinion frames the issue of defenselessness is artificial. An economic operator that has infringed competition law and received a reduced fine as a result of its leniency application has already obtained a relevant practical advantage. Therefore, I see no problem in making it face a simple choice between either (i) sticking to the secrecy created by the leniency mechanism and thus accepting exclusion from procurement procedures for an adequate period of time, or (ii) waiving that secrecy vis-a-vis the contracting authority (which would implicitly require compensation of the damage resulting from the cartel), so that the contracting authority can form an adequate view of whether the organisational and personnel self-cleaning measures really address the root causes of the past illegal behaviour and, if appropriate, set aside the relevant exclusion ground.

The Vossloh Laeis Opinion allows the economic operator to avoid this simple choice and to have two bites at the cherry. It also makes it difficult for the contracting authority to satisfactorily carry our its limited investigative functions under Art 57(6). Without knowing exactly what happened, it is difficult to judge whether the self-cleaning measures are 'appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct'. Additionally, it forces the contracting authority to make this decision in a context where it can have other grounds to doubt the economic operators' loss of integrity, such as its resistence to provide damages compensation despite having engaged in illegal behaviour that damaged the contracting authority's interests.

Ultimately, if AG Campos was worried about the existence of a conflict of interest between the contracting authority that has an outstanding claim for damages and at the same time needs to assess the self-cleaning efforts of the economic operator--which is a fair enough point--it would have been interesting to learn about the ways in which Article 24 of Directive 2014/24/EU needs to be applied and interpreted in situations such as this. It would have also been interesting to explore in more detail the extent to which the discrete requirements for satisfactory self-cleaning in Article 57(6) interact as, in the case of leniency-related situations, the lack of collaboration with the contracting authority or entity has a bearing on the extent to which the economic operator can be seen to have 'undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct'. 

However, by not addressing these issues, the Vossloh Laeis Opinion seems to seek to protect the effectiveness of leniency programmes without even mentioning them, which in my view is an odd position to take.

Interesting AG Opinion on limits of duty to investigate intra-group collusion in procurement (C-531/16)

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In his Opinion of 22 November 2017 in Specializuotas transportas, C-531/16, EU:C:2017:883, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has considered the limits of a contracting authority's duty to investigate potential intra-group collusion or manipulation of tender procedures by entities belonging to the same corporate group--in particular in a setting where the tenderers are under no specific obligation to disclose their links to the contracting authority, but the contracting authority is aware of those links and can identify signs that point towards potential collusion. In my view, his approach is functional and enabling, and pushes for a competition-orientated exercise of the contracting authority's discretion.

AG Campos concluded that, on the one hand, '[i]n the absence of an express legislative provision or a specific requirement in the specifications governing the conditions for the award of a service contract, related tenderers which submit separate tenders in the same procedure are not under an ineluctable duty to disclose their links to the contracting authority'. And, on the other hand, that '[t]he contracting authority will be obliged to request from those tenderers the information it considers necessary if, in the light of the evidence available in the procedure, it harbours doubts concerning the risk that the simultaneous participation of those tenderers will undermine transparency and distort competition between operators tendering to provide the service' (para 87).

In my view, and for the reasons discussed below, AG Campos' approach creates the right set of incentives both for national legislators and for contracting authorities. Even if his Opinion is concerned with the regime under Directive 2004/18/EC, in my view, the balance of duties deriving from EU law and those that can be created under the national law of the Member States will extend to the system created by Directive 2014/24/EU--as, ultimately, the second part of AG Campos' conclusion is compatible with the principle of competition in Article 18(1) thereof, and the first part will be largely unaffected by any self-certification requirements concerning the discretionary exclusion ground in Art 57(4)(d) under the ESPD.

The case and the questions in the preliminary reference

In the case at hand, both Specialus autotransportas UAB (‘tenderer A’) and Specializuotas transportas UAB (‘tenderer B’) had submitted tenders for a contract for the provision of municipal waste collection and transportation services. Both tenderers were subsidiaries of Ecoservice UAB (‘Ecoservice’) (see paras 15 and 16). However, they did not disclose this information explicitly to the contracting authority. Instead, tenderer B 'voluntarily submitted a declaration of honour to the effect that it was taking part in the call for tenders on an autonomous basis and independently of any other economic operators which might be connected to it, and it requested the [contracting authority] to treat all other persons as competitors. It further stated that it undertook, should it be so required, to provide a list of economic operators connected to it' (para 17).

The contracting authority eventually rejected tenderer A’s tender on the ground that it did not comply with one of the conditions set out in the tender specifications; and tenderer A did not contest that decision. The contract was ultimately awarded to tenderer B. The review court rejected a complaint by a disappointed competitor, arguing that the tenders submitted by A and B had not been properly evaluated and that the principles of transparency and equality before the law had been infringed. An appeal of such decision brought the preliminary reference to the Court of Justice (see paras 18-21).

Thus, in Specializuotas transportas, the referring court asked a long list of very detailed questions concerning the duties for a contracting authority to carry out an in-depth assessment of potential intra-group collusion for the manipulation of a public tender.

Interestingly, during the procedure before the Court of Justice, the contracting authority clarified that it was aware of the links between the tenderers because this was public knowledge, so that at no time was it misled when it took its decisions; and that 'quite apart from the relationship between the tenderers, which does not of itself imply an absence of competition, there [were] a number of objective factors in the instant case which enabled it to conclude that those tenderers were in competition with one another' (paras 26-27).

AG Campos' analysis

AG Campos grouped the questions under reference into two main issues: (1) whether related tenderers which submit separate tenders are under a duty, in all cases, to disclose that relationship to the contracting authority and, if so, what the consequences of failure to do so are; and (2) how must the contracting authority — and any court which reviews its actions — proceed where it becomes aware of the existence of important links between certain tenderers (para 42).

The answer to the reformulated issue (1) is straightforward, and AG Campos puts it simply that 'A requirement (the alleged duty to declare links with other companies) which is not set out in the contract documents, is not provided for in national law and is not laid down in Directive 2004/18 does not pass the transparency test referred to by the Court. ..., in the absence of an express legislative provision (of EU law or of national law), related tenderers are not under a duty to disclose the relationship between them to the contracting authority' (para 48, emphasis in the original). In my view, this is the correct approach. Any practical shortcomings derived from the absence of such explicit rules should by now be overcome with the adoption of the European Single Procurement Document (see part III.C of Annex 2 of the ESPD Implementing Regulation) and, if not, the position adopted in the Opinion creates a clear incentive for all Member States to reconsider their approach to tenders by related undertakings and the corresponding information requirements for exclusion/rejection screening purposes.

Moreover, AG Campos also provides convincing reasons for the rejection of an implicit duty to disclose the links between tenderers (paras 49-52), as well as for rejecting the analysis of both tenders as variants (constructively) submitted by the same holding company (Ecoservice) (paras 53-62). In this part of the analysis, AG Campos refers to my views on the automatic exclusion of tenders submitted by entities belonging to the same corporate group (see fn 20, with reference to Sánchez Graells, A., Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, Hart, Oxford, 2nd ed., 2015, p. 341). I am greatly honoured by this reference.

The answer to the reformulated issue (2) is potentially less straightforward and the reasoning of AG Campos merits close attention. His starting point is that the relevant analysis concerns 'whether ... the contracting authority is under a duty to ask related tenderers to provide evidence that their situation does not run counter to the principle of competition ... [and] whether inactivity on the part of the contracting authority would be sufficient for a declaration that its conduct in the procedure is unlawful' (para 67). Furthermore, he considers that 'the aim is not so much to protect the (general) competition between independent operators in the internal market as to protect the (more specific) competition which must operate in procedures for the award of public contracts. From that perspective, what really matters is the separateness of and genuine difference between the respective tenders (which will enable the contracting authority to choose the tender most favourable to public interests), whether the tenderers are independent or related economic operators' (para 71, reference omitted and emphasis added). In my view, this points towards an analysis that is more demanding than a simple general competition test because, as the Opinion also rightly points out, the general prohibition of anticompetitive conduct in Article 101(1) TFEU does not apply to intra-group relationships (para 69).

Concerning the specific duty to investigate potential intra-group collusion in the procurement setting, AG Campos constructs the following reasoning:

... the judgment in Etruras and Others states that ‘the principle of effectiveness requires that an infringement of EU competition law may be proven not only by direct evidence, but also through indicia, provided that they are objective and consistent.’ The judgment in VM Remonts and Others states that, in the absence of EU rules on the matter, ‘the rules relating to the assessment of evidence and the requisite standard of proof … are covered … by the procedural autonomy of the Member States’.

Applying that case-law to the facts at issue in the main proceedings, where the contracting authority is aware that related tenderers are participating in the procedure, the ‘active role’ expected of it, as the guarantor of genuine competition between tenderers, should normally lead it to make certain that the tenders submitted by those tenderers are separate

In short, that requirement is just one of the measures aimed at "[examining] all the relevant circumstances … in order to prevent and detect conflicts of interests and remedy them, including, where appropriate, requesting the parties to provide certain information and evidence."

However, the contracting authority may, in cases such as the present one, dispense with a communication to the related tenderers, asking them, ... "to clarify whether and how their personal situation is compatible with free and fair competition between tenderers". Clearly, "where appropriate, requesting the parties to provide certain information and evidence" may be important if the information and evidence available to the contracting authority is not sufficient for it to form a view regarding the risk that the tenders are not separate and distort competition.

Therefore, what matters is not that the contracting authority contacts the related tenderers, asking them for information about their relationship and seeking their view regarding the protection of the principle of competition between tenderers. The decisive factor is, rather, that the contracting authority is in a position to conclude that the simultaneous participation of those related operators does not jeopardise competition. The contracting authority may, of course, reach that conclusion by requesting that information or that view from the tenderers but it may also do so by referring to the information already available in the procedure and therefore without the need to approach the tenderers (paras 76-80, references omitted and emphasis added).

Ultimately, when assessing the extent to which the contracting authority discharged its duty to ensure effective competition for the contract and equality of treatment in the assessment of the tender, AG Campos stresses that '[e]verything will depend on the sufficiency or insufficiency of the available evidence and, therefore, on the objective soundness of the contracting authority’s decision to allow related tenderers to participate in the tendering procedure, on which it ultimately falls to the national court to rule' (para 86).

Final thoughts

As mentioned above, I think that the approach taken by AG Campos in the Specializuotas transportas Opinion is functional and enabling, and pushes for a competition-orientated exercise of the contracting authority's discretion. In situations where the contracting authority is aware of the existence of links between (seemingly) competing tenderers, it is appropriate to expect a high level of diligence--that is, to establish that 'the ‘active role’ expected of it, as the guarantor of genuine competition between tenderers, should normally lead it to make certain that the tenders submitted by those tenderers are separate' (para 77).

In my view, this is completely in line with the principle of competition of Article 18(1) Dir 2014/24/EU and seeks to avoid that contracting authorities tolerate an artificial narrowing of competition by inaction or omission. Conversely, the Opinion also seems to indicate that contracting authorities have a self-standing role as 'guarantors of genuine competition between tenderers', which is a good foundation on which to build a broader due diligence duty to identify the existence of indications of distortions of competition by colluding tenderers--whether linked through corporate group relationships or not. On the whole, then, the Opinion of AG Campos in Specializuotas transportas must be welcome and it can be hoped that the Court of Justice will not only follow his approach, but consolidate the general duty for contracting authorities to actively act as the 'guarantors of genuine competition between tenderers'

Excellent @E15Initiative Think Piece on Competition, Corruption and Trade dimensions of Public Procurement Regulation (Anderson, Kovacic and Müller: 2016)

The E15Initiative jointly implemented by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and the World Economic Forum aims to generate strategic analysis and recommendations for government, business, and civil society geared towards strengthening the global trade and investment system for sustainable development. One of their great initiatives is to publish 'think pieces' to stimulate a more informed debate about how trade policy and institutions can best be adapted to the highly interconnected global economy of the 21st century.

One of these first think pieces is Anderson, Kovacic and Müller, Promoting Competition and Deterring Corruption in Public Procurement Markets: Synergies with Trade Liberalisation (Feb 2016). In this well-thought and persuasive piece, the authors expand on their previous thoughts in this area [“Ensuring integrity and competition in public procurement markets: a dual challenge for good governance,” in Arrowsmith & Anderson (eds), The WTO Regime on Government Procurement: Challenge and Reform (Cambridge University Press, 2011) 681-718] and make a compelling case for the careful integration and balancing of competition, corruption and trade considerations in public procurement regulation. Their abstract is as follows:
Efficient and effective government procurement markets are critical to economic growth, development, and the welfare of citizens. Yet, two very serious challenges bear on the performance of these markets: (i) ensuring integrity in the procurement process (preventing corruption on the part of public officials); and (ii) promoting effective competition among suppliers. Typically, these challenges are viewed as separate and distinct: the former (corruption) is treated primarily as a principal-agent problem in which the official (the “agent”) enriches himself/herself at the expense of the government or the public (the “principal”); while the latter (promoting competition) involves preventing collusive practices among potential suppliers and removing barriers that impede participation in relevant markets. This think-piece demonstrates that these two problems often overlap, for example where public officials are paid to turn a blind eye to collusive tendering schemes or to release information that facilitates collusion. As well, while transparency requirements are often central to efforts to eradicate corruption, such measures can, if not properly tailored, facilitate collusion and thereby undermine efforts to strengthen competition. Thus, careful coordination of measures to deter corruption and to foster competition is needed. Further, the think-piece argues that participation in the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA), or in similar regional arrangements, can play an important role both in promoting competition and in deterring corruption. The GPA enhances possibilities for healthy competition in relevant markets through participation by foreign-based or affiliated contractors. It helps to prevent corruption by requiring adherence to appropriate (tailored) transparency measures, and by exposing procurement activities to checks and balances including domestic review (“bid protest” or “remedy”) systems and international scrutiny.
Focusing on my pet topic of transparency in public procurement regulation and how this can affect competition in markets where public procurement is an important demand component, I am thrilled to read that Anderson, Kovacic and Müller stress that:
... increasingly, some challenges in the design of appropriate levels of transparency at the different stages of the procurement process have been recognised in both the procurement and competition communities. The OECD (2007) points out that: 
Governments need to find an adequate balance between the objectives of ensuring transparency, providing equal opportunities for bidders, and other concerns, in particular efficiency. The drive for transparency must therefore be tempered by making transparent what sufficiently enables corruption control. 
Indeed ... certain kinds of transparency measures can clearly facilitate collusion and, consequently, are problematic from a competition policy point of view (Marshalland Marx 2012; Sanchez Graells 2015A). While, for example, there may be no way around the need for publication of award criteria and technical specifications in public procurement if responsive tenders are to be solicited, their usefulness as tools for facilitating inter-supplier agreement needs to be recognised. Similarly, the publication of procurement outcomes, while enabling monitoring by the public as the “principal,” can also serve cartel participants in policing anti-competitive agreements and thereby enhancing cartel stability. Sanchez Graells (2015B) discusses specific possible concerns regarding transparency measures that may be associated with centralised procurement registers. 
A further complication is that optimal transparency levels may differ from country to country. “Solutions” that are potentially workable in some contexts may be highly problematic in others. For example, in jurisdictions where outright corruption problems are believed to be minimal, some lessening of transparency measures might be considered, for the sake of preventing collusion. On the other hand, in economies where corruption is rampant, any lessening of transparency measures may be a recipe for disaster. This explains why the very high priority that is given to transparency in public procurement processes in some countries in Eastern Europe may, in fact, be appropriate notwithstanding possible collusion facilitation concerns, at least as an interim measure. In any case, as explained below, both competition law enforcement and competition advocacy are clearly part of the solution (pp.9-10).
Of course, I am really thankful that they picked up on some of my recent research and I hope that their think piece will help disseminate these insights, which I consider extremely important for the proper design of public procurement rules in a way that is socially advantageous [for further discussion, 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' (November 2013)].

Another interesting paper on corruption and (induced) collusion in public procurement (Gong & Zhou, 2015)

Still on the topic of interaction between corruption and collusion, or how corrupt officials can create or consolidate collusion in procurement markets, I have come across another interesting recent paper: T Gong & N Zhou, "Corruption and marketization: Formal and informal rules in Chinese public procurement" (2014) 9(1) Regulation & Governance 63-76. 

This time, the research focuses on the Chinese experience and shows shockingly (not) similar trends to the Russian case study mentioned yesterday. The paper forcefully argues that 'empirical findings from China indicate that the relationship between market liberalization and corruption is more complex and nuanced than conventional wisdom suggests'. 

Some of the most interesting insights refer to the collusion (in broad terms) of bidders and public officials to avoid the application of formal public procurement rules (72-73) which, once again, will sound very familiar to scholars and practitioners with experience in any jurisdiction.
 

Interesting paper on corruption and (induced) collusion in public procurement (Ostrovnaya & Podkolzina, 2015)

In their recent paper "Antitrust Enforcement in Public Procurement: the Case of Russia" (2015) 11(2) Journal of Competition Law & Economics 331-352, M Ostrovnaya and E Podkolzina of the International Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms discuss an example of interaction between corruption and (apparent) collusion in public procurement for drugs in Russia. 

I found the paper an interesting read and some of their insights on how corrupt officials can create or consolidate collusion in procurement markets will certainly ring many bells. This was an issue we recently discussed extensively at a knowledge exchange event at the Law School of the University of Sussex, and one that seems to be triggering increased attention in academic and practitioner circles.

Ostrovnaya and Podkolzina's analysis clearly shows that antitrust intervention against the public sector's restrictive procurement practices was resisted by a specific public buyer, which most likely decided to resort to an orchestrated system of bid covers (or passive bidding, as they label it) to avoid further antitrust intervention--thus deviating the attention of the antitrust watchdog towards the behaviour of the (certainly non-innocent) bidders. 

Their case study will be a useful guideline for the development of more effective competition rules applicable to the public sector. Or, at least, a warning against naive assumptions that antitrust intervention can ipso facto exclude issues of (induced) collusion in procurement markets.

Osei-Afoakwa's Paper on Transparency and Procurement

In a recent paper on transparency and public procurement, Dr Osei-Afoakwa presents a very passionate defence of maximising transparency in procurement for the purposes of combating corruption ["How Relevant is the Principle of Transparency in Public Procurement?(2014) Developing Country Studies 4(6): 140-146]. 

Given my personal view that transparency in procurement (in the EU) is excessive and potentially self-defeating (see here and here), I read it with some skepticism. 

However, I have been glad to discover a section where the advocation of transparency is subjected to some counter-arguments. In my view, the most interesting ones are summarised as follows:
With reference to transparency as it affects public procurement, the increased knowledge associated with transparency may prove counterproductive. According to Jenny (2005) unmitigated transparency may breed anticompetitive practices, facilitate tacit collusion among the tenderers and thereby foment corruption. Under certain circumstances, the bureaucracy associated with the need to provide more information may indeed assist bribe givers to identify potentially corrupt officials (Bac, 2001). Bac (2001) argues that, this may facilitate corruption by enabling easy identification of people with whom “connection” may be established for the purpose of corrupt practices. In addition, knowledge acquired by potentially corruptible officials through transparency measures will enable them to learn the “ways and means” of perfecting and promoting the art of corruption.


Moreover, transparency for the sake of it is not a final-one-stop cure for the corruption in procurement syndrome. It must be supported by other corruption-reducing imperatives including assurance of effective competition and efficiency in managing public resources (Beth, 2005). Nowadays, as indicated by policy developments and experience in advanced countries spearheaded by the United States, the OECD and WTO, and reflected in “internationally shared norms”, effective competition is being maintained through the international trade liberalisation crusade (Anderson and Kovacic, 2009).In addition, sometimes unmitigated transparency may be at variance with other requirements of good governance. It is therefore important to establish an appropriate balance between transparency and other tenets of good governance by ensuring that information is released with due regard to established rules (Wittig, 2005). Thus absolute, unmitigated transparency may not be always desirable. The degree of transparency and openness should be adapted accordingly to suit the nature, status and value of recipient of information, the stage of the procurement cycle, the sensitivity of information, the size of the contract and the nature of the item to be procured. Therefore it becomes necessary to time the release of information to suit the nature, status and value of recipients (emphasis added).
Overall, the paper is interesting food for thought for anyone interested in the difficult balance between transparency and effective competition in public procurement. 

Difficult balance between #transparency and #competition in #publicprocurement

This paper stresses the negative impact that the excessive levels of transparency imposed by public procurement rules can have on competition for public contracts and, more generally, on the likelihood of cartelisation of the markets where public procurement takes place. The paper critically assesses some recent Judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union and the General Court from this perspective and shows how the top EU Courts are still oblivious to the fact that excessive transparency may diminish the effectiveness of procurement by reducing competition. It also indicates that the case law itself has unused balancing tools that may help reduce the negative impact of excessive transparency, particularly if coupled with a reduction of the financial incentives offered to litigants that have no other claim than a 'mere' lack of compliance with full transparency. The paper concludes that a reform in the enforcement and oversight mechanisms oriented towards the setting up of a semi-opaque review system would overcome some of the deficiencies identified in the current case law from a law and economics perspective.
Sánchez Graells, A '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' (November 2013). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2353005.

#Decency in #publicprocurement could take us out of the #crisis: or how #corruption is making us bleed out

Stories about corruption in public procurement are so common that they have become part of the daily news (and, sadly, a part that tends to receive less and less attention due to routine and tiredness from repetition). However, when one looks at the aggregate data, an immediate need for reaction becomes evident.

As the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs has just emphasised "The Commission's best estimate is that 120 billion euros are lost each year to corruption in the 27 Member States of the EU. That is the equivalent of the whole EU-budget. In public procurement, studies suggest that up to 20- 25% of the public contracts’ value may be lost to corruption.

Given that  public procurement represents around 20% of the GDP in the European Union, a loss of 20% of its value due to corrupt practices of all sorts means that corruption in public procurement costs around 4% of the EU GDP

If we add the fact that, sometimes, corruption is coupled with collusion (or bid rigging), which can generate an increase in prices of approximately 20% (with instances of around 40%), the numbers may be easily brought up to losses due to illegal and indecent behavior representing 40% to 50% of its value--i.e. around 8-10% of GDP.

The power of these facts seems unbeatable and we should all have it now clear in our minds that only decency can save us from the economic crisis.

However we want to run the numbers or reduce them to be conservative in our claims, even a reduction of 50% of the perceived level of corruption would not only avoid most of the cuts being imposed on the budgets for the provision of public services, but it would also allow for a relaxation of tax pressure on individuals and companies, and to provide effective economic incentives to entrepreneurship and innovation. 

Even in clearer terms: addressing the issue of corruption and collusion in procurement would single-handedly bring the EU from recession/depression into economic growth. In this regard, the initiative of the European Commission to move from rhetoric to results in the fight against corruption (in public procurement) in the EU must be echoed, voiced and supported.

This is something we intend to do at workshops B5 and B6 of the Global Revolution VI Conference next June in Nottingham. Suggestions and active participation is encouraged and definitely more than welcome!

Again on procurement debriefing and its excesses: Extent of the duty to give (very detailed) reasons to bidders and right to a fair trial (T-183/10)

In its Judgment of 10 October 2012 in case T‑183/10 Sviluppo Globale GEIE v Commission, the General Court has issued a new decision concerned with the extent of the duty to provide reasons to disappointed tenderers on the basis of Article 100(2) of Council Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002 of 25 June 2002 on the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities (OJ 2002 L 248, p. 1) (‘the Financial Regulation’) [for another recent case on debriefing, see my comments here]. Interestingly, the GC expressly highlights the link between the duty to give reasons and the right to effective judicial protection under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

In the case at hand, the disappointed tenderer received a debriefing letter from the European Commission where the reasons for its non-invitation to present a full bid in a restricted procedure were limited to indicate "failure to comply with the criteria listed in point 23.1.a)" of the call for expressions of interest. According to those requirements, potential tenderers had to justify that, at the time of tendering, they would have completed at least two international projects worth 3.5mn or more, in areas covered by the object of the future contract (ie technical services to support central and local government in Syria).

The disappointed tenderer considered that the mere indication of a 'generic' or 'unspecific' failure to comply with point 23.1.a) of the call for expressions of interest fell short from the duty to give reasons incumbent upon the contracting authority and violated its procedural rights. On the contrary, the European Commission took the view that, given the objective nature of the criteria included in point 23.1.a) of the call, the disappointed tenderer should have been able to understand the reasons behind the decision not to shortlist her for the presentation of a full bid by a simple comparison of its tender with the contractual object.

The GC disagrees with the position of the Commission and finds that:
27 [...] despite the information contained in [debriefing] letters, and taking into account the relevant case law [Evropaïki Dynamiki/OEDT, T-63/06 at para 112, and Evropaïki Dynamiki/Commission, T-300/07 at para 50] the applicant has not received a response from the Commission showing in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision. [...]
30 [...] the Commission has not made a formal comparison of the projects described by the applicant in its expression of interest against the benchmark of the three criteria set out in paragraph 21.3.a) of the contract notice. In particular, it did not explain which of these three criteria was not satisfied by the projects [submitted by the applicant]. In these circumstances, the applicant was not able to know if the reason for the rejection of her expression of interest in the procurement in question concerned the minimum number of projects implemented, their budget, their completion in a timely manner or the areas in which they were executed. [...]
35 It should be recalled in this connection that when, as in this case, a European institution has a wide discretion, the guarantees conferred by the Community legal order in administrative procedures is of an even more fundamental relevance. Those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to state sufficient reasons for its decisions (Technische Universität München, C-269/90 at para 14; Le CanneCommission, T-241/00 at paras 53 and 54, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-300/07  at para 45). [...]
40 In light of the foregoing, it must be held that the applicant properly submits that, to the extent that the Commission has not developed further the reasons why her candidacy did not meet the technical selection criteria set in the contract notice, it has not received in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning of the Commission, which would have allowed her to know the reasons for the decision not to be included in the shortlist of the contract at issue. Moreover, she could not sue without knowing what those reasons are. It is noteworthy in this regard that the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 1) sets an obligation on the administration to justify its decisions and that this motivation is not only in general, the expression of the transparency of administrative action, but it must also allow the individual to decide, with full knowledge of the facts, if it is useful for her to apply to a court. There is therefore a close relationship between the obligation to state reasons and the fundamental right to effective judicial protection and the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (GC T-183/10, at paras 27 to 40, own translation from French).
The GC then complements this analysis by underlining the relevance of the motivation provided by the European institutions (in general, by the contracting bodies) for the purposes of judicial review and considers that the scant justification provided by a mere reference to some unfulfilled criteria required by the tender documents falls short from ensuring effective judicial review (GC T-183/10, at paras 41 to 46). In view of all those shortcomings in the motivation provided by the Commission, the GC annuls the decision not to invite the applicant to the submission of a full bid in the relevant procurement process.

In my view, this case generates a significant risk of hypertrophy of bid protest mechanisms in cases where contracting authorities use short or not overly detailed explanations in their debriefing correspondence [in my personal view, the Commission was right to assume that a reference to a specific set of objective criteria clearly indicated in the tender documents should provide the disappointed tenderer with sufficient information to, eventually, challenge the decision]. This can simply open a very dangerous door to strategic litigation and to an excessive broadening of 'fair trial' guarantees in an area where the financial drivers of tendering companies can generate perverse incentives to challenge. 

At the very least, the decision of the GC in Sviluppo Globale will increase the red tape and administration costs of the public procurement system, since contracting authorities will have a powerful incentive to be extremely cautious in the level of detail they provide in debriefing letters and meetings and, in case of doubt, they may feel that the safer position is to err on the side of providing excessive rather than insufficient information. As recently stressed in relation to case C-629/11 P, contracting authorities and review courts should be particularly careful in not imposing excessive disclosure when there are actual risks of strategic use of challenge procedures or the market structure is such that the increased degree of transparency could (inadvertently) facilitate or reinforce collusion.

However, this message seems not to be reaching the adequate ears and disclosure and transparency requirements are just being significantly expanded in the recent case law of the EU Courts. In my view, this is a dangerous development of EU public procurement law, which may lead to excessive litigation and to a strengthening (or facillitation) of collusion in some public procurement markets. I am just hoping that future practice proves me wrong.

Still an excessive level of transparency in public procurement debriefing? C-629/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission

In its Judgment of 4 October 2012 in case C‑629/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (ESP-ISEP), the Court of Justice has issued another interesting decision on what should be considered sufficient debriefing of disappointed bidders in public procurement procedures.

The Evropaïki Dynamiki (ESP-ISEP) Judgment has been issued on the basis of Article 100(2) of Council Regulation (EC, Euratom) No 1605/2002 of 25 June 2002 on the Financial Regulation applicable to the general budget of the European Communities (OJ 2002 L 248, p. 1) (‘the Financial Regulation’). However, a 'twin' provision can be found in Article 41 of  Directive 2004/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 31 March 2004 on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts (OJ 2004 L 134, p. 114) ('Directive 2004/18'). Consequently, the Judgment is of relevance in all areas of public procurement, and not only to that of the EU Institutions.

According to Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation,
The contracting authority shall notify all candidates or tenderers whose applications or tenders are rejected of the grounds on which the decision was taken, and all tenderers whose tenders are admissible and who make a request in writing of the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the tenderer to whom the contract is awarded.
However, certain details need not be disclosed where disclosure would hinder application of the law, would be contrary to the public interest or would harm the legitimate business interests of public or private undertakings or could distort fair competition between those undertakings’.
In this case (and furthering an unsuccessful strategy to challenge adverse award decisions that, however, has made a fundamental contribution to the development of the case law in this area), Evropaïki Dynamiki challenged the debriefing received from the European Commission both on the grounds that it was 8 days late (although both the GC and the CJEU dismiss this procedural deffect easily on the basis that the delay did not however restrict the undertaking's opportunity of asserting its rights and could not, by itself, lead to the annulment of the contested decisions) and that it was insufficient--ie that the Commission had not provided sufficient reasons to justify the award of the contract to another bidder.

Reading the Evropaïki Dynamiki (ESP-ISEP) Judgment, one cannot but wonder if EU public procurement rules do not still impose an excessive degree of transparency in the debriefing of disappointed bidders. According to the CJEU in Evropaïki Dynamiki (ESP-ISEP) 
20 [...] according to the first subparagraph of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation, the contracting authority is required to notify all candidates or tenderers whose applications or tenders are rejected of the grounds on which the decision was taken, and to notify all tenderers whose tenders are admissible and who make a request in writing of the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the tenderer to whom the contract has been awarded.
21 However, it is apparent from the case-law that the Commission cannot be required to communicate to an unsuccessful tenderer, first, in addition to the reasons for rejecting its tender, a detailed summary of how each detail of its tender was taken into account when the tender was evaluated and, second, in the context of notification of the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender, a detailed comparative analysis of the successful tender and of the unsuccessful tender (see, to that effect, order of 29 November 2011 in Case C‑235/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, paragraphs 50 and 51 and the case-law cited).
22 Similarly, the contracting authority is not under an obligation to provide an unsuccessful tenderer, upon written request from it, with a full copy of the evaluation report (see order of 20 September 2011 in Case C‑561/10 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, paragraph 25).
23 Furthermore, it must be noted that, according to settled case-law, the statement of reasons required under the second paragraph of Article 296 TFEU must be assessed in the light of the circumstances of each case, in particular the content of the measure in question and the nature of the reasons given (see, inter alia, Case C‑367/95 P Commission v Sytraval and Brink’s France [1998] ECR I‑1719, paragraph 63, and judgment of 28 February 2008 in Case C‑17/07 P Neirinck v Commission, paragraph 52).
24 In the present case, it is apparent from paragraphs 8 and 37 of the judgment under appeal that the [debriefing] letter [...] contained the names of the tenderers selected as first contractor for each of the two lots of the call for tenders at issue.
25 In addition, [...] the Commission enclosed as annexes to that letter extracts from the two evaluation reports [...]
26 It is apparent therefrom that those extracts contained tables relating, in particular, to the technical evaluation of the tenders for both of the lots and indicating, for each award criterion, the number of points obtained by Evropaïki Dynamiki in comparison with the successful tenderer, broken down each time into sub-criteria, as well as the maximum number of points attainable per sub-criterion and the weighting of each of those sub-criteria in the overall evaluation. Summary tables showed, on the basis of the results of the technical and financial evaluation, the final ranking for each of the two lots.
27 It is also apparent therefrom that, according to the information communicated in the [debriefing] letter [...], Evropaïki Dynamiki’s tender was ranked higher than the successful tender solely under the fourth award criterion regarding the quality of the service and the methodological proposal in the domain of Lot No 2. It was also only with regard to the fourth criterion relating to the quality of the technical offer in the domain of Lot No 1 that its tender obtained the same number of points as the successful tender. On the other hand, for all other criteria, Evropaïki Dynamiki’s tender was less well ranked than that of the successful tenderer.
28 Furthermore, the comments of the evaluation committee which were also disclosed indicated, for each award criterion, the sub-criteria on the basis of which the Commission found the successful tenderer’s offer or that of Evropaïki Dynamiki to be the best.
29 Finally, the method applied by the Commission for the technical evaluation of the tenders was clearly set out in the tendering specifications relating to the call for tenders at issue. As is apparent in particular from paragraph 3 of the judgment under appeal, they specified, for each lot, the various award criteria, their respective weighting in the evaluation, that is to say in the calculation of the total score, and the minimum and maximum number of points for each criterion.
30 Accordingly, [...] in view of all the information supplied to Evropaïki Dynamiki, as well as the specifications contained in the call for tenders, including the weighting relating to the award criteria for each of the lots, Evropaïki Dynamiki had sufficient information to enable it, for each lot, to identify the characteristics and relative advantages of the best ranked tenderer’s offer.
31 It follows that, in the light of all of the elements of the present case [...]  Evropaïki Dynamiki’s argument alleging that the statement of reasons for the contested decisions was inadequate had to be rejected.
From the Judgment, it is not only clear that the Commission debriefed Evropaïki Dynamiki in full, but also that the current rules require the disclosure of certain information (of most relevance, the name of the winning bidder) that may be excessive. In that regard, the second paragraph of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation [or the equivalent Article 41(3) Directive 2004/18] deserve more attention, as regards the caveat that some information may (rectius, should) not be disclosed if such disclosure might prejudice fair competition between economic operators.

As pointed out elsewhere, contracting authorities and review courts should be particularly careful in not imposing excessive disclosure when there are actual risks of strategic use of challenge procedures or the market structure is such that the increased degree of transparency could (inadvertently) facilitate or reinforce collusion  [Sanchez Graells, A. Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 358-9].
It should be taken into consideration that there is a risk for a strategic use of bid protest mechanisms seems at least twofold. On the one hand, tenderers could try to gain access to confidential information which could be used later to compete unfairly with the affected tenderers. On the other hand, excessive disclosure of information can increase market transparency and be used as a means to collude or to reinforce collusion by tenderers. Therefore, rules on disclosure of information should take into account their potentially restrictive or distortive effects on competition. Interestingly, Directive 2004/18 contains a specific rule addressing this issue. Article 41(3) of Directive 2004/18 allows contracting authorities to withhold certain information

regarding the contract award, the conclusion of framework agreements or admittance to a dynamic purchasing system where the release of such information would impede law enforcement, would otherwise be contrary to the public interest, would prejudice the legitimate commercial interests of economic operators, whether public or private, or might prejudice fair competition between them [see also art 29(3), art 32(4)(c), and art 35(4) dir 2004/18, emphasis added].

Therefore, in the exercise of such discretionality and as a mandate of the principle of competition, contracting authorities are bound to restrict the disclosure of information given to tenderers to prevent instances of subsequent unfair competition or collusion—and, in order to do that properly, must identify and properly justify the negative effects which the withholding of the information seeks to avoid.
Along the same lines, and although there is no equivalent provision in Directive 89/665 and Directive 92/13 (both as amended by dir 2007/66), it is submitted that the same restrictions to the disclosure of information apply in bid protests and review procedures, so that contracting authorities (in the case of mandatory reviews prior to challenges, or otherwise) and independent review bodies are bound to prevent disclosures of information that could result in restrictions or distortions of competition. In such cases, limiting the access of information to the minimum extent required to ensure the effective protection of the rights of the applicants in review procedures will require a balancing of interests by the competent authority—which, in our view, should take into due consideration the potential impact on competition of the disclosure of certain information. Such an obligation can be stressed or reinforced by general rules on the treatment of business secrets and other commercially sensitive information of general application according to Member State domestic legislation.