Tecnoedi: An overlooked distortion of the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of cross-border interest for public contracts? (C-318/15)

In its Judgment of 6 October 2016 in Tecnoedi Construzioni, C-318/15, EU:C:2016:747, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) declared inadmissible a request for a preliminary reference sent by the Piedmont Regional Administrative Court, Italy. The case concerned the (in)compatibility with Arts 49 and 56 TFEU of an Italian public procurement rule applicable to (well) below-threshold contracts (ie tenders for works of a value below €1M), which allowed for the automatic rejection of tenders that exceeded an ‘anomaly threshold’ set by the contracting authority, without inter partes procedure.

The case offered the ECJ an opportunity to revisit very close issues to those decided in SECAP and Santorso, C-147/06 and C-148/06, EU:C:2008:277 -- which could also, conversely, have given it the opportunity of determining that the question was unnecessary and that the first principles of that decision stood. However, the ECJ decided to reject the receivability of the case for other reasons. By rejecting the request for a preliminary ruling, the ECJ did not take the opportunity to clarify (or rather, develop) the law in this area. So far, so good.

Given that it does not advance our understanding of the constraints that general EU free movement rules (or possibly general principles of EU public procurement law) impose on the treatment of apparently abnormally low tenders, the Tecnoedi case may easily fall under the radar of both practitioners (with some exceptions, see here and here) and academics (save for readers of the PPLR, which featured a comment by A Brown, 'The requirement for "certain cross-border interest" before EU Treaty obligations apply to below-threshold contacts: the EU Court of Justice ruling in case C-318/15 Tecnoedi', 2017 (1) PPLR NA14) —or, at least, that is the excuse I have given myself to seek justification for having overlooked this case for almost six months... However, not paying attention to Tecnoedi may lead us to miss a potential distortion in the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of the existence of cross-border interest for public (works) contracts.

This is an area where the ECJ’s approach is far from consistent, to say the least. The proper way of determining the (in)existence of cross-border interest for a contract remains elusive and the ECJ has not hammered down an unequivocal or clear test. In one of its most flexible and functional approximations (which I favour), the ECJ accepted that a (concession) contract of very limited financial value (due to the inclusion of a prohibition on profit-making activity) could still be of cross-border interest for business strategy reasons, such as an undertaking's goal to 'establish itself on the market of that State and to make itself known there with a view to preparing its future expansion' [see Comune di Ancona, C-388/12, EU:C:2013:734, para [51] ,discussed here].

Even if that is seen as a relative outlier, or contextualised in the line of case law aimed at establishing basic principles for the tender of services concessions prior to their subjection to the 2014 Concessions Directive, the ECJ’s more general approximation to the existence of cross-border interest for a public contract can be understood, as the referring court put it in Tecnoedi, as establishing that:

In accordance with the Court’s case-law, a contract (sic, tender) may have a certain cross-border interest not only as a result of the financial value of the contract to which it relates, but also as a result of the technical characteristics of the work and the place where the work is to be carried out (para 15).

Furthermore, in accordance with the Court’s case-law, there may be certain cross-border interest, without its (sic) being necessary that an economic operator has actually manifested its interest (judgment of 14 November 2013, Belgacom, C-221/12, EU:C:2013:736, paragraph 31 and case-law cited) (para 16).

This (seemingly) creates the need to carry out a case by case analysis based on rather open-ended indicators and aimed at demonstrating (or excluding) the scope for potential (ex ante) rather than evidenced or actual (ex post) cross border interest for the tendered contract [for discussion, see C Risvig Hansen, Contracts Not Covered or Not Fully Covered by the Public Sector Directive (DJØF, 2012) 121-160].

In the case at hand, the referring court understood that there was potential for cross-border interest for the contract because

… notwithstanding the fact that the works contract at issue … is for an estimated value of EUR 1,158,899.97, it cannot be ruled out that the contract does not have certain cross-border interest as Fossano [the place of execution of the works] is located within 200 km of the border between France and Italy and several of the tenderers admitted to the tender procedure are Italian companies which are established in regions which are not neighbouring, such as … at a distance of approximately [between 600 and 800 km] from Fossano (para 16, emphasis added).

In my view, a reasonable application of the ECJ’s previous approach/test would have waved through the case as (potentially) having cross-border interest. However, in Tecnoedi, this would have required the ECJ to deal with a very complex question and, more importantly, to keep developing non-statutory EU public procurement law on the basis of general internal market freedoms (or possibly general principles of EU public procurement law). Thus, in my view in order to avoid this difficult issue and (likely) criticisms for its judicial activism, the ECJ took a very strict approach to the assessment of potential cross-border interest in this case.

The ECJ first proceeded to recast its test for the assessment of potential cross-border interest as follows:

As regards the objective criteria which may indicate certain cross-border interest, the Court has previously held that such criteria may be, in particular, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out or the technical characteristics of the contract and the specific characteristics of the products concerned (para 20, emphasis added).

This can in itself be seen as a significant deviation -- if not an outright partial reading -- of previous case law and, in particular of SECAP and Santorso, C-147/06 and C-148/06, EU:C:2008:277, paragraph 31, on which the ECJ relies expressly in Tecnoedi. In fact, in that very paragraph, the ECJ indicated that

It is permissible ... for legislation to lay down objective criteria ... indicating that there is certain cross-border interest. Such criteria could be, inter alia, the fact that the contract in question is for a significant amount, in conjunction with the place where the work is to be carried out. The possibility of such an interest may also be excluded in a case, for example, where the economic interest at stake in the contract in question is very modest (see, to that effect, Case C‑231/03 Coname [2005] ECR I‑7287, paragraph 20). However, in certain cases, account must be taken of the fact that the borders straddle conurbations which are situated in the territory of different Member States and that, in those circumstances, even low-value contracts may be of certain cross-border interest (SECAP, para 31, emphasis added).

Thus, the ECJ seemed in Tecnoedi rather open to a certain conflation of value and cross-border interest (a move that can ow be traced back to Enterprise Focused Solutions, C-278/14, EU:C:2015:228, para 20, on which the ECJ also relies in Tecnoedi), which did not seem to follow from the previous case on which it relied. On this basis, and taking into account the arguments of the referring court on Fossano’s proximity to France and the evidence that domestic tenderers located further away decided to participate, the ECJ then established that

… a conclusion that there is certain cross-border interest cannot be inferred hypothetically from certain factors which, considered in the abstract, could constitute evidence to that effect, but must be the positive outcome of a specific assessment of the circumstances of the contract at issue. More particularly, the referring court may not merely submit to the Court of Justice evidence showing that certain cross-border interest cannot be ruled out but must, on the contrary[,] provide information capable of proving that it exists. …

… it may not be argued that a works contract … for an amount which does not equate even to a quarter of the threshold laid down by EU law and whose place of performance is located 200 km away from the border with another Member State can be of certain cross-border interest solely because a certain number of tenders were submitted by undertakings established in the Member State in question, which are located at a considerable distance from the place where the work at issue is to be carried out.

That evidence is clearly insufficient having regard to the circumstances of the case …, and, in any event, cannot be the only evidence which must be taken into account, in so far as potential tenderers from other Member States may face additional constraints and burdens relating, inter alia, to the obligation to adapt to the legal and administrative framework of the Member State where the work is to be carried out, as well as to language requirements [Tecnoedi, paras 22-25, emphases added].

This assessment by the ECJ is bound to create perplexity, not least because it adopts an anti-integrative logic that comes to say: “since there are clear regulatory and language barriers to the functioning of the internal market for public contracts, let’s not even bother to consider the extent to which fundamental market freedoms have a role in bringing them down”.

It also seems to encapsulate an approach that could limit the relevance of its case law on the application of general principles of EU public procurement law to contracts that are sufficiently close to the thresholds triggering the application of the substantive directives. This triggers questions such as how close must the value be to the directive’s thresholds for cross-border interest to be likely? If very close, then what is the purpose of this line of case law anyway, and would it not have been better to stick (strictly) to the value thresholds as redlines for EU competence (including that of the ECJ)? If not very close, then how many shades of grey do we have in this area, and how can a contracting authority (or review tribunal or court) reasonably establish the (likelihood of) applicability of general principles and fundamental internal market freedoms?

To me, these defects alone are sufficient to consider Tecnoedi a troubling distortion of the ECJ’s approach to the assessment of cross-border interest for public contract—fundamentally because it creates a crack in (if not smashes) the normative and functional logic of previous case law and, on the whole, creates a risk of significant restriction of application of the general principles of EU public procurement law going forward.

Moreover, and at a lower level of generality, I also harbour the strong suspicion that the ECJ sees this as a relatively safe or unobjectionable assessment because it concerns a rule on the treatment of (automatically identified) abnormally low tenders that may be (improperly) considered not to create a barrier to free movement because it applies at evaluation rather than selection stage—and also because the request for the preliminary ruling was clearly defective in its lack of clarity of both the content of the Italian rule and its application to the specific case (which seems not to be possible on the basis of the limited information provided in the ECJ’s judgment). Thus, the ECJ probably may have seen this approach to the assessment of cross-border interest as an easy way to return the hot potato to the referring court without burning its hands.

However, in my opinion, this approach is clearly unsafe and objectionable when put in a different (broader perspective). Let’s imagine that the challenge had been directed at a rule on selection or exclusion (eg a rule restricting participation in tenders for this type of works contracts to undertakings located in the relevant Italian region, in this case Piedmont). In that case, the ECJ may (would) have been more willing to accept that the (same) test of (potential) cross-border interest based on the exact same indicia of economic irrelevance of a 200 km distance lent itself the opposite conclusion, and thus resulted in jurisdiction of the ECJ to interpret the relevant Italian (regional) rule against Arts 49 and 56 TFEU – or, even further, in its jurisdiction to (uphold) an Art 258 TFEU decision of the European Commission finding Italy in breach of EU law for such blatantly discriminatory rule, ultimately based on the tenderers’ nationality (which could easily dwarf the ECJ’s qualms about accepting the existence of potential cross-border interest in cases such as this).

Overall, for these reasons, I consider the Tecnoedi judgment very troubling. I can only hope that it will not go unnoticed and that the ECJ will backtrack from this rigid approach to the existence of (potential) cross-border interest in a tender for a public (works) contract.

Avoidance of EU #publicprocurement rules by artificial contract split triggers #reduction in cohesion funds for #Spain (T-384/10)

In its Judgment of 29 May 2013 in case T-384/10 Spain v Commission, the General Court of the EU (GC) has dismissed the appeal against a 2010 Commission Decision that reduced the contribution of the structural and cohesion funds to several water management infrastructure projects in Andalusia due to various infringements of the applicable EU public procurement rules.

In its audit of the execution of the project, the European Commission identified several infringements of the EU public procurement rules by the project management firm appointed by the Andalusian regional authorities (which was mandated  by art 8(1) of Regulation 1164/94 to comply with public procurement rules due to the project being financed with EU funds). 

More specifically, the Commission considered that some contracts had been illegally split in order to keep them below the value thresholds that trigger the application of EU public procurement rules, in others technical criteria had illegally required undertakings to prove they had prior experience in Spain (which constitutes a discrimination on the basis of nationality), or award criteria had illegally included 'average prices' rather than a sound economic assessment of the offers, recourse to negotiated procedures had been abused, mandatory time limits had not been respected, and the ban on negotiations after the award of the contracts had not been respected. All in all, indeed, the project seemed to be severely mismanaged in terms of public procurement compliance.

In view of such shortcomings and infringements, and considering that full cancellation of the funding would however be a disproportionate penalty, the European Commission decided to impose financial corrections that partially reduced the contribution of the EU funds to the water management infrastructure projects by between 10 and 25% of the original contribution.

Spain tried to counter the Commission Decision and justify the inexistence of the alleged infringements, but to no avail. The discussion before the GC mainly revolved around the issue of the artificial split of the contracts in order to exclude the application of the EU rules (which is discussed in paras 65-97 of T-384/10). In order to address this issue, the GC offers a recapitulation of the criteria applicable to the assessment of whether a complex project involves a single or several detachable works.
66 As a preliminary point, it should be recalled that, under Article 6, paragraph 4 of Directive 93/37, no work or contract may be split up with the intention of avoiding the application of that Directive. Moreover, Article 1, letter c) of the Directive defines the term "work" as the outcome of building or civil engineering works taken as a whole that is sufficient of itself to fulfil an economic and technical function. Therefore, to determine whether the Kingdom of Spain infringed Article 6, paragraph 4 of the Directive, it must be ascertained whether the subject of the contracts at issue was one and the same work in the sense of Article 1, letter c), of the Directive.
67 According to the case law, the existence of a "work" within the meaning of Article 1, letter c) of Directive 93/37 must be assessed in light of the economic and technical function expected from the result of the works that are the object of the corresponding public contracts (judgments of the Court of 5 October 2000, Commission / France, C-16/98, ECR p. I-8315, paragraphs 36, 38 and 47, to October 27, 2005, Commission / Italy, C-187/04 and C-188/04, not published in the ECR, paragraph 27, of January 18, 2007, Auroux and Others, C-220/05, ECR p. I-385, paragraph 41, and of March 15, 2012, Commission / Germany, C-574/10, not published in the ECR, paragraph 37).
68 Moreover, it should be noted that the Court has stated that, for the result of various works to qualify as 'work' within the meaning of Article 1, letter c) of Directive 93/37, it suffices that those meet either the same economic function or the same technical function (Commission / Italy, paragraph 67 above, paragraph 29). The verification of the economic identity and of the technical identity are thus alternative and not cumulative, as submitted by the Kingdom of Spain.
69 Lastly, it should be noted that according to the case law, the simultaneity of the call for tenders, the similarity of the notices, the unity of the geographical framework within which tenders are called for and the existence of a single contracting entity constitute additional evidence that can support the finding that different works contracts actually correspond to a single work (see, to that effect, Commission / France, paragraph 67 above, paragraph 65). [T-384/10 at paras 66-9, own translation from Spanish].
It is also worth stressing that the GC confirms prior case law and clarifies that there is no need to prove any intention on the part of the contracting authorities in order to find that they have infringed the rules against the artificial split of the contracts. In that regard,
94 Finally, the Kingdom of Spain argues that, in order to declare the existence of an infringement of Article 6, paragraph 4 of Directive 93/37, the Commission should have tested the concurrence of a subjective element, namely, the Spanish authorities' intention to split the contracts in question for the purpose of evading the obligations of the Directive. This argument cannot be accepted.
95 In that regard, suffice it to note that the finding that a contract has been split in contravention of EU rules on public procurement does not require a prior demonstration of a subjective intent to avoid the application of the provisions contained in these regulations (see, to that effect, Commission / Germany, paragraph 67 above, paragraph 49). When, as in this case, such a finding has been proven, it is irrelevant to assess whether or not the infringement results from the will of the Member State to which it is attributable, from its negligence, or even from technical difficulties that it had to face (see, to that effect, the Court of Justice of October 1, 1998, Commission / Spain, C-71/97, ECR p. I-5991, paragraph 15). In addition, it must be remembered that, in the judgment in Commission / France and Auroux and Others, cited in paragraph 67 above, in order to declare the existence of an infringement of Article 6, paragraph 4 of Directive 93/37, the Court saw no need  for the Commission to previously prove the intention of the member State concerned to avoid the obligations imposed by the Directive by splitting the contract. [T-384/10 at paras 94-5, own translation from Spanish].
The case also discusses the issue of the cross border interest of some of the contracts that, even after the prior criteria against the artificial split of contracts were applied, remained below the EU procurement thresholds. The considerations of the GC revolve basically around the fact that the works were to be conducted very close to the Portuguese border and, consequently, their cross-border interest cannot be excluded. 

Once this is found, the inclusion of discriminatory technical criteria requiring undertakings to prove they had prior experience in Spain (and, even more precisely, in Andalusia and with the specific contracting entity) shows too clearly the discriminatory design of the procurement procedures and the ensuing breach of the EU public procurement rules (in this case, the general principles applicable to tendering of contracts not covered by the Directive).

In view of all such infringements, the GC confirms the adequacy of the financial adjustments imposed by the European Commission, without finding any fault in the fact that they were determined as lump sums proportional to the initial value of the contribution by the EU funds.

In my opinion, the Judgment in Spain v Commission does not create new law in this area, but it provides clarification (particularly on the fact that single works can constitute a technical or an economic unit, at para 68) and useful guidance on the criteria applicable in the assessment of compliance with EU public procurement rules in the tendering of large and complicated infrastructure projects, which should be welcome.