ECJ opens door to remedial possibilities when contracting authorities aim to exclude on the basis of shady participation requirements (C-27/15)

In its Judgment of 2 June 2016 in Pizzo, C-27/15, EU:C:2016:404, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has provided interpretative guidance on some aspects of the qualitative selection process that contracting authorities need to carry out prior to the award of public contracts covered by the relevant EU rules. It is worth noting that, even if the Pizzo Judgment is based on the rules of Directive 2004/18 (Arts 47 and 48), but the functional criteria it sets will be equally relevant under the new rules of Directive 2014/24 (Arts 56 to 58).

In particular, the Pizzo Judgment clarifies the scope of the discretion given to contracting authorities to interpret tender documents in a way that would unfavourably result in the exclusion of economic operators (following Manova, C‑336/12, EU:C:2013:647, see here; and Cartiera dell'Adda, C‑42/13, EU:C:2014:2345, see here), as well as the limits of the possibility given to economic operators to remedy formal shortcomings in the documentation presented in the course of their participation in the tender for a public contract in order to avoid such exclusion.

Pizzo also follows the flexible approach previously established by the ECJ regarding reliance on third party capacities (as per Swm Costruzioni 2 and Mannocchi Luigino, C-94/12, EU:C:2013:646, see here; and in a related fashion to Ostas celtnieks, C-234/14, EU:C:2016:6, see here). 

The case concerned the tender of a public service contract for the management of waste and cargo residues produced on board ships calling at ports within the contracting authority’s territorial jurisdiction (ie the Messina area, in Italy). The contracting authority received four tenders but decided to exclude three tenderers due to the lack of payment of an administrative fee that it considered a mandatory participation requirement, which led the authority to award the contract to the only remaining tenderer (Pizzo).

One of the excluded tenderers (CGRT) appealed the exclusion decision on the basis that the payment of the fee was only mandatory for works contracts, not for services contracts, and that the authority required such payment on the basis of a broad interpretation of the relevant rules and its general powers under Italian administrative law. In CGRT's submission, before proceeding to its exclusion from the tender, the authority should at least have given it the possibility to remedy the situation and pay the fee. CGRT's action was faced with a counterclaim by Pizzo whereby it challenged CGRT's compliance with the economic standing requirements for the participation in the tender due to the fact that it had relied on third party capacities (in the case, those of RIAL). 

Therefore, the case raised two issues: 1) to what extent can a contracting authority engage in a (discretionary) broad interpretation of the tender documents in a way that incorporates the requirement to pay a fee and proceed to the exclusion of those tenderers that had not paid the fee without giving them the opportunity to remedy the situation; and 2) to what extent must contracting authorities follow a flexible approach to the assessment of economic and technical standing requirements when tenderers rely on third party capacities. The first issue is more interesting and controversial than the second one. Thus, let's focus on the second issue first.

Again, on the flexible approach to reliance on third party capacities and how it carries over to new rules of directive 2014/24

In Pizzo, the ECJ revisits its consolidated case law in this area, without adding much to the already clear position that the applicable EU rules create significant flexibility for tenderers to rely on third party capacity, unless the tender documents establish reasonable and proportionate restrictions justified by the subject matter of the contract. In its own terms:

23      The Court has held that EU law does not require that, in order to be classified as an economic operator qualifying for tendering, a person wishing to enter into a contract with a contracting authority must be capable of direct performance using his own resources (see, to that effect, judgment of 23 December 2009 in CoNISMa, C‑305/08, EU:C:2009:807, paragraph 41).
24      ... Article 47(2) and Article 48(3) of Directive 2004/18 does not lay down any general prohibition regarding a candidate or tenderer’s reliance on the capacities of one or more third-party entities in addition to its own capacities in order to fulfil the criteria set by a contracting authority (see Swm Costruzioni 2, paragraph 30).
25      ... those provisions recognise the right of every economic operator to rely, for a particular contract, upon the capacities of other entities, ‘regardless of the nature of the links which it has with them’, provided that it proves to the contracting authority that it will have at its disposal the resources necessary for the performance of the contract (see Ostas celtnieks, paragraph 23).
26      It must therefore be held that Directive 2004/18 permits the combining of the capacities of more than one economic operator for the purpose of satisfying the minimum capacity requirements set by the contracting authority, provided that the candidate or tenderer relying on the capacities of one or more other entities proves to that authority that it will actually have at its disposal the resources of those entities necessary for the execution of the contract (see Swm Costruzioni 2, paragraph 33).
27      Such an interpretation is consistent with the objective pursued by the directives in this area of attaining the widest possible opening-up of public contracts to competition to the benefit not only of economic operators but also contracting authorities (see, to that effect, CoNISMa, paragraph 37 and the case-law cited). In addition, that interpretation also facilitates the involvement of small- and medium-sized undertakings in the contracts procurement market, an aim also pursued by Directive 2004/18, as stated in recital 32 thereof (see Swm Costruzioni 2, paragraph 34).
28      ... however ... there may be works the special requirements of which necessitate a certain capacity which cannot be obtained by combining the capacities of more than one operator, which, individually, would be inadequate. It has thus acknowledged that, in such circumstances, the contracting authority would be justified in requiring that the minimum capacity level concerned be achieved by a single economic operator or by relying on a limited number of economic operators as long as that requirement is related and proportionate to the subject matter of the contract at issue. The Court has, however, stated that since those circumstances represent an exception, the requirements in question cannot be made general rules under national law (see, to that effect, Swm Costruzioni 2, paragraphs 35 and 36) (C-27/15, paras 23-28, references shortened).

The only novelty to be found in Pizzo is that the ECJ anticipates the interpretation of Art 63 Dir 2014/24 by stressing that

the specific provisions ... provide that it is possible for the contracting authority to require that the entity which is relied on to satisfy the conditions laid down with regard to economic and financial standing is to be jointly liable (Article 63(1), third subparagraph, of Directive 2014/24) or to require that, with regard to certain types of contracts, certain critical tasks are to be performed directly by the tenderer (Article 63(2) of that directive). Those provisions do not therefore impose specific limits on the possibility of divided reliance on the capacities of third-party undertakings and, in any event, such limits should have been expressly set out for in the call for tenders in respect of the contract at issue, which is not the case in the main proceedings (C-27/15, para 33, emphasis added).

This is in line with the interpretation of Art 63 Dir 2014/24 I hold in Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 315-318, but it is worth stressing that the ECJ has not yet tackled some of the restrictions allowed for under Art 63(2) Dir 2014/24 (ie the requirement that certain critical tasks are to be performed directly by the tenderer) which in my view run contrary to its previous case law. Thus, in this instance, the fact that the ECJ makes obiter comments on the likely future interpretation of the rules of Dir 2014/24 is worrying because there are two possible readings of paragraph 33 in Pizzo: (a) that the ECJ is giving carte blanche to the potential restrictions created by Art 63(1) and (2), or (b), that the ECJ is simply stressing that (regardless of their substantive merit and from a prior formal perspective), for such requirements to apply, they need to be created in the applicable tender documents (which, having not happened in this case, makes them irrelevant). I strongly vouch for (b), but I am certain that there will be claims based on (a) when the issue properly arises in litigation. Thus, in this case, the probably well-intended effort by the ECJ to anticipate the interpretation of the new rules may have created more shadows than lights.

On the tricky issue of the interpretation of tender documents, the duty to seek clarification or, at least, allow for remediation of short-comings leading to exclusion of economic operators

When tackling the challenge of the contracting authority's broad interpretation of the obligation to pay an administrative fee and its decision to exclude, without possibility to remedy such short-coming, the economic operators that had failed to pay it, the rephrased the question to mean 'whether the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency are to be interpreted as precluding an economic operator from being excluded from a procedure for the award of a public contract as a result of that economic operator’s non-compliance with an obligation which does not expressly arise from the documents relating to that procedure or out of the national law in force, but from an interpretation of that law and from the incorporation of provisions into those documents by the national authorities or administrative courts' (C-27/15, para 35).

In that regard, the ECJ makes the following arguments and establishes the following reasoning:

36 ... all the conditions and detailed rules of the award procedure must be drawn up in a clear, precise and unequivocal manner in the contract notice or specifications so that, first, all reasonably informed tenderers exercising ordinary care can understand their exact significance and interpret them in the same way and, second, the contracting authority is able to ascertain whether the tenders submitted satisfy the criteria applying to the contract in question (see, to that effect, Cartiera dell’Adda, paragraph 44 and the case-law cited).
37      The Court has also held that the principles of transparency and equal treatment which govern all procedures for the award of public contracts require the substantive and procedural conditions concerning participation in a contract to be clearly defined in advance and made public, in particular the obligations of tenderers, in order that those tenderers may know exactly the procedural requirements and be sure that the same requirements apply to all candidates ...
45 ... in the case in the main proceedings, the alleged obligation to pay a fee to the AVCP [the Supervisory Authority on Public Procurement] can be identified only by the interaction between the 2006 Finance Law, the AVCP’s decision-making practice and the judicial practice of the Italian administrative courts in applying and interpreting Law No 266/2005.
46      As the Advocate General points out ... a condition governing the right to participate in a public procurement procedure which arises out of the interpretation of national law and the practice of an authority ... would be particularly disadvantageous for tenderers established in other Member States, inasmuch as their level of knowledge of national law and the interpretation thereof and of the practice of the national authorities cannot be compared to that of national tenderers.
48 ... it is apparent from the order for reference that there is no possibility of rectifying non-compliance with that condition that a fee must be paid.
49      According to paragraph 46 of the judgment in Cartiera dell’Adda ..., the contracting authority may not accept any rectification of omissions which, as expressly provided for in the contract documentation, must result in the exclusion of the bid. The Court stated, in paragraph 48 of that judgment, that the obligation concerned was clearly laid down in the contract documentation, on pain of exclusion.
50      However, in a situation where ... a condition for participating in a procedure for the award of a contract, on pain of exclusion from that procedure, is not expressly laid down in the contract documentation and that condition can be identified only by a judicial interpretation of national law, the contracting authority may grant the excluded tenderer a sufficient period of time in order to rectify its omission (C-27/15, paras 36-50, some references omitted and emphasis added).

I agree with the main reasoning of the ECJ on this issue as it coincides with a possibilistic and functional approach to the management of the exclusion and qualitative selection procedure aimed at minimising exclusion for causes that can be remedied without infringing the principle of equal treatment [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing', in F Lichère, R Caranta & S Treumer (eds), Modernising Public Procurement. The New Directive, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2014) 97-129; and ibid, 'Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions', M Comba & S Treumer (eds) Award of Contracts in EU Procurements, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013) 267-302].

However, I am not convinced by the way the ECJ has limited the opportunity to remedy the (interpreted) shortcomings in the tender documentation (or material requirements) to a mere possibility. As phrased in the operational part of the Pizzo Judgment, the ECJ has interpreted that

the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency must be interpreted as precluding an economic operator from being excluded from a procedure for the award of a public contract as a result of that economic operator’s non-compliance with an obligation which does not expressly arise from the documents relating to that procedure or out of the national law in force, but from an interpretation of that law and those documents and from the incorporation of provisions into those documents by the national authorities or administrative courts. Accordingly, the principles of equal treatment and of proportionality must be interpreted as not precluding an economic operator from being allowed to regularise its position and comply with that obligation within a period of time set by the contracting authority (C-27/45, para 51, emphasis added).

I find this approach too lenient and I would have expected the ECJ to create a mandatory vis-a-vis procedure similar to the one applicable in case the contracting authority suspects an offer to be abnormally low under Art 69 Dir 2014/24. Generally, I think that rather than focusing solely on the principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination, it is worth stressing the relevance of the principle of good administration as well. From that perspective, if the contracting authority identifies a participation requirement that was not obvious from the tender documentation, it should be subjected to a mandatory phase whereby it allows tenderers to remedy the situation. The same would go for the interpretation of Art 56(3) Dir 2014/24 in terms of the possibility (in my view, non-discretionary) to seek clarifications from tenderers and to 'take all appropriate steps to avoid the rejection of candidates on the basis of shortcomings in the available documentation that could be overcome if the contracting authority were to exercise the appropriate level of diligence' [Public procurement and the EU competition rules (2015) 321-323].

Overall, I think that this is an area where the ECJ is avoiding a much needed delineation of the limits (or at least checks and balances) to be imposed on the discretion of the contracting authorities to proceed to exclusion without exhausting the possibilities for clarification or remedy of formal shortcomings in the submission of tenders. This is likely to be an area of continued litigation, particularly as the Pizzo case opens the door to different treatment of participation requirements that directly derive from the tender documentation (where the contracting authority is likely to have its hands tied and not be able to provide any scope for remedial action beyond the very limited possibilities foreseen in Manova and Cartiera dell’Adda) or that indirectly arise from its contextual interpretation (where the Pizzo approach seems to open a rather big door to the enablement of remedial actions). Thus, the last word is certainly not yet written...

Should evaluation committees Be Banned From Using 'soft quality metrics' when they assess Public tenders? (C-6/15)

In his Opinion of 10 March 2016 in TNS Dimarso, C-6/15, EU:C:2016:160, Advocate General Mengozzi has addressed the general question whether EU public procurement rules 'read in the light of the principles of equal treatment and transparency, [require] that a contracting authority should always, or, if not, in certain circumstances, make known in advance, in the contract notice or the contract documents, the method of evaluation or weighting rules used to assess tenderers’ bids'. The case is to be decided by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on the basis of the phasing-out rules in Art 53(2) of Directive 2004/18, but the interpretation will be relevant for the future application of Art 67(5) of Directive 2014/24.

In my view, the case is interesting, not primarily because of the discussion on whether evaluation methods need to be disclosed together with award criteria and their weightings, but more importantly because it brings to light the simple fact that some evaluation methods are unable to meet the requirements of the EU rules--to the effect that the award phase needs to enable the contracting authority to actually determine which is the most economically advantageous tender with a sufficient degree of precision and certainty. Thus, I critically assess AG Mengozzi's excellent opinion from this perspective.

The Dimarso case

In this case, a Belgian contracting authority issued a call for tenders for the provision of services and indicated that the award criteria would be as follows:

1 Quality of the tender (50/100)
Quality of the preparation, organisation and execution of the work on the ground, and of the encryption and initial data processing. The services proposed must be described in as much detail as possible. It must be clear from the tender that the tenderer is capable of taking on the whole contract (minimum 7 000 samples / maximum 10 000 samples) within the prescribed 12-month delivery deadline.
2 Price (50/100)
Cost of delivering the contract in relation to the basic sample (7 000 samples) and cost per additional batch of 500 addresses supplied (amounts inclusive of VAT).

There was no further indication of how these criteria would be applied. When it came to evaluation of the tenders received, the evaluation team 'evaluated and compared with each other on the basis of the criteria set out above. First, the tenders were examined and evaluated on the basis of the “quality” criterion. For this, each tender was unanimously assigned a given score (high — satisfactory — low). Then, the price criterion was applied. On the basis of those scores, a final ranking was established' (Opinion in C-6/15, para 5, emphasis added).

Dimarso submitted a bid that scored high on quality grounds and was the highest on price. The contract was awarded to a competing tenderer which offer also scored high on quality and was lower in price. Dimarso challenges the way the evaluation team applied the award criteria on the following grounds:

the evaluation committee appears to have evaluated the tenders on the basis of the ‘high — satisfactory — low’ scale, not referred to in the contract documents, in relation to the tender quality criterion, whereas, according to Dimarso, it is clear from the contract documents that a score of 0 to 50 points should have been allocated to each tender. As regards the price criterion, the evaluation committee also failed to carry out an adequate examination, comparison and final assessment of the tenders taking into account the award criteria as set out in the contract documents, including the “50/100” weighting given to each of the award criteria in the call for tenders (Opinion in C-6/15, para 8, emphasis added).

This question raises then two issues: (1) whether the evaluation committee could rely on 'soft metrics' in order to apply the quality award criterion; and (2) whether such 'soft metrics' could be combined with straightforward price comparisons. I find these two questions of great practical relevance, so it is worth looking closely at AG Mengozzi's reasoning on these issues.

Assessment under Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18

It is worth reminding that Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18 established that

[when the award is made to the tender most economically advantageous from the point of view of the contracting authority], the contracting authority shall specify in the contract notice or in the contract documents ... the relative weighting which it gives to each of the criteria chosen to determine the most economically advantageous tender.
Those weightings can be expressed by providing for a range with an appropriate maximum spread.
Where, in the opinion of the contracting authority, weighting is not possible for demonstrable reasons, the contracting authority shall indicate in the contract notice or contract documents or, in the case of a competitive dialogue, in the descriptive document, the criteria in descending order of importance.

At this point, it is worth stressing that the only difference between Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18 and Art 67(5) Dir 2014/24 is that, in relation to the third paragraph, the seemingly permissive drafting of Art 53(2)III Dir 2004/18 ('Where, in the opinion of the contracting authority, weighting is not possible for demonstrable reasons') is tightened up in Art 67(5)III Dir 2014/24 ('Where weighting is not possible for objective reasons'). Given the strict interpretation that AG Mengozzi proposes for Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18 (which is to be shared), his Opinion will be equally relevant for the future interpretation of Art 67(5) Dir 2014/24 [along the same lines, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 384-385].

Going back to the Dimarso case, AG Mengozzi starts by summing up the content of this provision by stressing that

the obligation to indicate not only the award criteria but also ... the relative weighting given to each of those criteria, except where there are good reasons why weighting is not possible, at the time of publication of the contract notice or contract documents ... serves to fulfil the requirement of compliance with the principle of equal treatment and the associated obligation of transparency (Opinion in C-6/15, para 20).

And that

contracting authorities have an obligation to indicate the weightings of the award criteria in the contract notice or the contract documents. It is only in the event that this proves impossible, for demonstrable reasons, that those entities may opt to prioritise those criteria, which prioritisation must in any event be adequately disclosed in the contract notice or the contract documents (Opinion in C-6/15, para 23, emphasis added).

The AG clarifies (paras 24-28) that the dispute in the case at hand is not whether having indicated that Quality (50/100) and Price (50/100) meant that both award criteria had equal weight or how they had to be combined amongst themselves to reach a final ranking of tenders, but that it is rather

in essence, [whether] the method of evaluation used (‘low — medium — high’) was so vague that it prompted the contracting authority to downgrade the assessment of the ‘quality’ criterion relative to that of the ‘price’ criterion, since the second criterion alone was actually capable of eliminating three of the four tenders submitted. In reality, therefore, Dimarso contends, the price criterion benefited from a higher relative weighting than the 50% previously announced in the contract documents. In other words, Dimarso submits that, if the method of evaluation had been made known to tenderers in advance, at the stage when the contract documents were published, it would inevitably have had an effect on the preparation of the tenders (Opinion in C-6/15, para 29, emphasis added).

AG Mengozzi then approaches this argument in stages. His reasoning heavily rests on two aspects. First, that it is clear that Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18 does not explicitly impose an obligation to disclose the evaluation method in addition to disclosure of award criteria and their weightings (para 32). Second, and notwithstanding that literal interpretation of Art 53(2) Dir 2004/18, that the CJEU has been clear in the imposition of restrictions on the way the evaluation team carries out its tasks (paras 37 ff). In my reading, the bone of his argument is as follows.

In relation to the setting of sub-weightings (or weighting factors for award sub-criteria), the CJEU has indicated that this is not a breach of EU procurement rules provided three conditions are met: ie '[1] that it does not alter the criteria for the award of the contract set out in the contract documents or the contract notice, [2] that it does not contain elements which, if they had been known at the time the tenders were prepared, could have affected that preparation, and [3] that it was not adopted taking into account matters likely to give rise to discrimination against one of the tenderers' [with reference to judgments in ATI EAC e Viaggi di Maio and Others (C‑331/04, EU:C:2005:718, paragraph 32); Lianakis and Others (C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40, paragraph 43); and Evropaïki Dynamiki v EMSA (C‑252/10 P, EU:C:2011:512, paragraph 33); Opinion in C-6/15, para 40, emphasis added].

The same restrictions should be applicable to the adoption of an evaluation method because it can create the same effects as the adoption of sub-weightings--or, in his words, 'it is not inconceivable that a method of evaluation may have an effect not so much on the award criteria themselves as on the weighting of those criteria and, as such, may contain elements which would have been capable of influencing the preparation of tenders if that method had been made known to tenderers in advance... In that event, the ex post determination of such a method for evaluating tenders by a contracting authority would be unlawful and should, therefore, have been disclosed in advance in the contract notice or the contract documents' (Opinion in C-6/15, para 46). Therefore, 'the lawfulness of a method for evaluating tenders which is determined by a contracting authority ex post depends on whether the three conditions established by the Court’s case-law ... are met' (Opinion in C-6/15, para 47).



Opportunity for further clarification

Having disposed of the core of the case, AG Mengozzi goes on to suggest that the CJEU take this opportunity to clarify its case law and to stress that the adoption of evaluation methods need to be subjected to tighter requirements. His arguments are based on the use of 'soft quality metrics'--and, more specifically, on the distrust in their ability to actually enable the contracting authority to identify the most economically advantageous tender (MEAT)--as it emerges from his explanation of his main concern:


let us imagine that, of the tenders submitted, one was far superior, in terms of quality, to the other three, including those that were rated ‘high’. In other words, one of those tenders could have been ranked ‘excellent’ in the assessment of the ‘quality’ criterion. The price proposed by that tenderer would then have reflected the excellence of the quality of the services proposed by it and would therefore in all probability have been higher than the prices offered by the other tenderers. However, since ‘excellent’ did not feature on the range of scores (low — satisfactory — high) chosen by the evaluation committee, that tender of excellent quality could not but be rated ‘high’, at the very most, in relation to the ‘quality’ criterion. Since the price proposed by the tenderer of that bid was higher than those proposed by the others, possibly even by some tens or hundreds of euros, that bid had to be rejected... in that situation, ... the contracting authority might have been deprived of the tender representing the best value for money, contrary to the spirit in which the selection of tenderers on the basis of the most economically advantageous tender takes place (Opinion in C-6/15, paras 56-57, emphasis added).

AG Mengozzi considers that this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs and, in my reading, proposes that the existing case law of the CJEU is clarified so that contracting authorities do not create a situation where tenderers submit offers which positive attributes are not captured by the evaluation method. His proposal thus focuses on the need to disclose the evaluation method to be used from the start of the procurement process. In his view, 'the likelihood is ... that, if the method for evaluating tenders in the light of the ‘quality’ criterion, as established by the contracting authority, had been known in advance by the potential tenderers, it would have been capable of affecting the preparation of their tenders' (Opinion in C-6/15, para 60). Therefore,

the contracting authority (to which it will fall to ensure that the tendering procedure benefits from maximum legal certainty and to protect itself against actions for the annulment of that procedure) must determine the method or methods to be used to evaluate tenders in the light of the award criteria as early as possible. It would be reasonable to suggest, then, that, if that is the case, there does not appear to be any overriding reason such as to justify a refusal by the contracting authority to make known to potential tenderers the methods of evaluation in question, which it will in any event already have had to determine before the call for tenders (Opinion in C-6/15, para 63, emphasis added).

AG Mengozzi then goes on to discuss whether the condition should be to only require upfront disclosure of evaluation methods which have the potential to create a substantial impact effect on the preparation of the tenders, which he dismisses (paras 70 ff), on the basis that the system would be properly balanced 'by the obligation incumbent on the unsuccessful tenderer, which bears the burden of proof, to demonstrate, by reference to specific examples in its legal action, the differences (substantive as well as purely formal) which its tender would have exhibited if the elements of the method of evaluation in question or the method itself, which the contracting authority neglected to communicate, had been adequately disclosed before the tenders were prepared' (Opinion in C-6/15, para 73). 

personal critique

I share AG Mengozzi's views and concern, but I think that his proposal simply to disclose evaluation methods upfront would only carry us half way in sorting out the unresolved issue of the use of of 'soft quality metrics' in the evaluation of tenders. Regardless of upfront disclosure, which needs to take place, a method for the evaluation of quality aspects of procurement tenders that classifies tenders in pre-determined, tight 'quality levels' is bound to offer sub-optimal results. In the extreme,

a binary approach—ie, an approach based on meeting or not meeting a criterion, or an ‘all-or-nothing’ (or zero/one) approach—seems less desirable than a gradual approach or the adoption of sliding-scale-based evaluation rules ... whenever possible, it seems preferable that contracting authorities evaluate the degree to which tenders comply with each of the specified award criteria on a sliding scale (such as granting them points from 0 to 10, or 1 to 5, or any other scale). In this regard, the weighting of criteria will become less harsh and the appraisal of the tenders will arguably reflect with greater accuracy their relative strengths and weaknesses according to the overall set of award criteria' [A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 391; Along the same lines, but opting for a monetary equivalent approach, see MA Bergman and S Lundberg, ‘Tender Evaluation and Supplier Selection Methods in Public Procurement’ (2013) 19(2) Journal of Purchasing and Supply Management 73]. 

More importantly, the assessment of quality elements needs to take place in a manner that does result in a loss of information of the relative quality of the offers. It has been the settled case law of the CJEU that 

although [the EU rules do] not set out an exhaustive list of the criteria which may be chosen by the contracting authorities, and therefore leaves it open to the authorities awarding contracts to select the criteria on which they propose to base their award of the contract, their choice is nevertheless limited to criteria aimed at identifying the tender which is economically the most advantageous (Case C-532/06 Lianakis [2008] ECR I-251 29 (emphasis added); Case 31/87 Beentjes [1988] ECR 4635 19; Case C-19/00 SIAC Construction [2001] ECR I-7725 35–36; Case C-513/99 Concordia Bus Finland [2002] ECR I-7213 54 and 59; and Case C-315/01 GAT [2003] ECR I-6351 63–64. See also Case C-448/01 EVN and
[2003] ECR I-14527 37).

In my view, it is particularly relevant 'to stress the need for award criteria (i) to be linked to the subject matter of the contract (ie, to be ‘relevant’), and (ii) to allow the contracting authority actually to determine which tender is economically the most advantageous (ie, to be ‘enabling’)' [A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 380]. The same reasoning must apply (functionally) to the selection of evaluation methods (for the reasons explained by AG Mengozzi, ie that they create the same effects). 

Quite frankly, in view of the clear example AG Mengozzi has given us (para 56), I would have no doubt that the use of 'soft quality metrics' is not enabling because it does not allow the contracting authority to identify, with an adequate level of precision and certainty, the most economically advantageous offer. Ultimately, thus, they should be banned as a matter of EU law--and, more generally, of good procurement practice. I do not expect the CJEU to go as far as to agree with this, but I think it would be the only consistent solution, and one that would do away with the problem, rather than trying to fix it simply with the remedy of more transparency--which seems to be the token fix-all solution in procurement law.


The CJEU's maximalism and minimalism in the treatment of experience as a procurement award criterion (C-601/13)

In Ambisig, C-601/13, EU:C:2015:204, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has been confronted again with the issue of the use of the experience and qualifications (ie academic and professional background) of the staff assigned to performance of the contract as an award criterion under EU public procurement rules (ie the Lianakis distinction of selection and award criteria). The Ambisig Judgment still applies the rules of Directive 2004/18, but the reasoning and principles will remain relevant for the interpretation of Directive 2014/24.

At first reading, and depending on one's view of the strictness of Lianakis, it may seem that Ambisig is fundamentally a repetition of the discussion on the assessment of staff's experience as an award criterion that was recently rehearsed in Spain v Commission (financial support for cuenca hidrográfica del Júcar), C-641/13, EU:C:2014:2264 (not available in English, see my comments here).

However, some close reading may lead to a different (or at least more nuanced) conclusion, given the tone that the CJEU has used in two such close cases. It may be worth reminding that the rhetoric used in Spain v Commission presented Lianakis as follows:

... as is apparent from paragraphs 30-32 of the judgment Lianakis and others (EU:C:2008:40) ... the Court has clearly distinguished award criteria from the selection criteria that are essentially linked to the assessment of the bidders' ability to perform the contract in question, and considered that the criteria relating to the experience, qualifications and means of ensuring proper performance of the contract in question belong to the latter category and, therefore, do not have the character of award criteria (C-641/13, para 36, own translation, emphasis added).

We could call this the maximalist reading/reporting of Lianakis. However, as we shall see below, this is not the position adopted in Ambisig, where the referring Portuguese court was concerned with two aspects that in its view seemed to make it difficult to apply such a maximalist reading of Lianakis: (1) that the contract was for intellectual services (ie training and consulting); and (2) that the 2011 proposal for a new Directive (now Dir 2014/24) "constitute[d] a new factor in relation to the case-law of the Court in this area".

In that regard, it is interesting to see how the CJEU has now adopted a minimalist approach to Lianakis that basically comes to read into the rules of Dir 2004/18 the content of the new rules under art 67(2)(b) Dir 2014/24. In the words of the CJEU in Ambisig
25 ... the case-law highlighted in the judgment in Lianakis and Others (C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40) concerns the interpretation of Council Directive 92/50/EEC of 18 June 1992 relating to the coordination of procedures for the award of public service contracts (OJ 1992 L 209, p. 1), which was repealed by Directive 2004/18, and that that judgment does not rule out the possibility that the contracting authority may, in certain circumstances, fix and apply a criterion [enabling evaluation of the teams specifically put forward by the tenderers for the performance of the contract and which takes into consideration the composition of the team and the experience and academic and professional background of the team members] at the stage of awarding the contract.

26 That judgment concerns the staff and experience of the tenderers in general and not, as in present case, the staff and experience of the persons making up a particular team which must actually perform the contract.

27 It should be noted, in relation to the interpretation of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 which is the subject of the referring court’s question, that that directive introduced new elements into the Union legislation on public procurement in relation to Directive 92/50.

28 First of all, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 provides that ‘the tender most economically advantageous’ is to be identified ‘from the point of view of the contracting authority’, thereby giving the contracting authority greater discretion in its decision-making.

29 Secondly, the third paragraph of recital 46 in the preamble to Directive 2004/18 states that, where the contracting authorities choose to award a contract to the most economically advantageous tender, they are to assess the tenders in order to determine which one ‘offers the best value for money’, which tends to reinforce the importance of quality in the award criteria for public contracts.

30 Furthermore, Article 53(1) of Directive 2004/18 does not set out an exhaustive list of the criteria which may be used by the contracting authorities in determining the economically most advantageous tender, and therefore leaves it open to the authorities awarding contracts to select the criteria on which they propose to base their award of the contract. Their choice is nevertheless limited to criteria aimed at identifying the tender which is economically the most advantageous (see, to that effect, Lianakis and Others, C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40, paragraphs 28 and 29 and the case-law cited). To that end, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 specifically requires that the award criteria be linked to the subject-matter of the contract (see judgment in Commission v Netherlands, C‑368/10, EU:C:2012:284, paragraph 86).

31 The quality of performance of a public contract may depend decisively on the ‘professional merit’ of the people entrusted with its performance, which is made up of their professional experience and background.

32 This is particularly true where the performance of the contract is intellectual in nature and, as in the main proceedings in the present case, concerns training and consultancy services.

33 Where a contract of this nature is to be performed by a team, it is the abilities and experience of its members which are decisive for the evaluation of the professional quality of the team. That quality may be an intrinsic characteristic of the tender and linked to the subject-matter of the contract for the purposes of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18.

34 Consequently, that quality may be included as an award criterion in the contract notice or in the relevant tendering specifications
(C-601/13, paras 25 to 34, emphasis added).
This is an interesting exercise of judicial rhetoric, which shows the CJEU's willingness to ensure certain cross-temporal validity of its case law in the area of public procurement, where change is a constant. This is not a bad thing in itself. However, it may be puzzling for observers (it definitely is for me) because I am not sure that many would have expected the CJEU to engage in such an explicit change of hats in the space of about 5 months in the way it reports its own previous case law, particularly in such a controversial and debated area [for very insightful discussion on this type of implications of Lianakis, see S Treumer, "The Distinction between Selection and Award Criteria in EC Public Procurement Law—A Rule without Exception" (2009) 18(3) Public Procurement Law Review 103-111]

In the end, it is worth reminding that one of the justifications for the revision/repeal of Dir 2004/18 by Dir 2014/24 was to address the "Lianakis issue" [see S Arrowsmith, "Modernising the European Union's public procurement regime: a blueprint for real simplicity and flexibility" (2012) 21(3) Public Procurement Law Review 71, 80; and rec (94) dir 2014/24]. To some extent, then, the Ambisig Judgment renders a significant (if relatively hidden) justification for the 2014 generation of EU public procurement rules useless.

This may have implications for the future, where the lack of clarity of the CJEU's case law in certain new/revamped areas of public procurement (let's just mention life-cycle costing or asymmetrical negotiations, for now) may trigger calles for further legislative reform--which should, in my view, be avoided to the extent that they rest on maximalistic interpretations of the CJEU's usually sparse and confusing passages, as we now know that it only (?) takes some adequate prompting for the CJEU to provide minimalistic twists that exclude the need for reforms.