A Duty to ‘Save’ Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? -- New SSRN paper

35422166855_ed7986dce9_z.jpg

I have published a short paper commenting on the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU  through the 2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. I think this is an interesting case study on some of the difficulties that the new provision on the contracting authority's power to seek clarifications can pose in practice--and maybe anticipates some of the future challenges in the development of the Slovensko-Manova-Archus and Gama case law. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

This paper provides a critical assessment of the rules regarding the clarification, supplementation and correction of tenders in procedures for the award of public contracts regulated by the EU 2014 Public Procurement Package. It does so through a detailed assessment of the transposition of Article 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU by means of the post-2017 reform version of Article 72 of the Portuguese Code of Public Contracts. The paper concentrates on four main issues: the existence of a mere discretionary power or a positive duty to seek clarifications, corrections or supplementations of tenders and their accompanying documentation; the constraints imposed on such power or duty; the desirability of unilateral tender corrections by the contracting authority; and the transparency given to the correction, supplementation or clarification of tenders. The paper assesses each of these issues against the backdrop of the existing case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, as well as with a functional approach to the operationalisation of the Portuguese rules on correction, supplementation and clarification of tenders for public contracts.

The paper is freely downloadable from SSRN: A Sanchez-Graells, 'A Duty to "Save" Seemingly Non-Compliant Tenders for Public Contracts? - Comments on Art 72 of the 2017 Portuguese Code of Public Contracts' (2018) 2 Revista de Direito Administrativo 59-68.

ECJ confirms discretion to exclude tenderers for not updating self-certifications and points towards potential general obligation of sincere cooperation (C-178/16)

hands.jpg

In its Judgment of 20 December 2017 in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (Mantovani e Guerrato), the Court of Justice (ECJ) declared the compatibility with the 2004 EU public procurement rules of a contracting authority's decision to exclude an economic operator that, having self-certified as not being affected by exclusion grounds, subsequently failed to update the contracting authority when one of its former directors' criminal conviction for invoice fraud became final. Remarkably, the exclusion was upheld despite the fact that the 'conviction had become final following [the economic operator's] own declarations [and despite the fact ...] that, in order to fully and effectively dissociate the company from [its director]’s actions, the latter was immediately removed from his management role ..., the management bodies of the company had been reorganised, [his] shares had been bought back and an action for damages had been brought against him' (para 11). Therefore, the exclusion was upheld despite an attempt at self-cleaning. 

In declaring the compatibility with EU procurement law of this strict approach in the exercise of discretionary exclusion powers, the ECJ largely followed the Opinion of AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona (discussed here, where more background on the case is provided) and, in my view, confirmed a welcome functional approach to the exercise of discretion to exclude economic operators on the grounds of evidence that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable [Art 45(2)(d) Dir 2004/18 and now Art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24]. In my view, there are some relevant passages in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment that will be of importance in the assessment of self-cleaning claims under the 2014 rules, given the recognition of the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority befalling upon economic operators under the 2004 rules--which may well carry over to the new provisions at EU level. The relevance of such recognition of a general obligation stems from its crucial role in the original exclusion decision, which was 'in essence, [based on the fact] that although, in the absence of a final judgment, Mantovani’s statement could not be classified as a "misrepresentation", the lack of timely notification of criminal proceedings concerning one of the [relevant] persons ... may constitute an infringement of the obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority, and accordingly impede the full and effective dissociation from the person concerned' (para 12).

In my view, it is important to stress that the ECJ reaches its position after reiterating its general case law position that

... Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 does not provide for uniform application at EU level of the grounds of exclusion it mentions, since the Member States may choose not to apply those grounds of exclusion, or to incorporate them into national law with varying degrees of rigour according to legal, economic or social considerations prevailing at national level. In that context, Member States have the power to make the criteria laid down in Article 45(2) less onerous or more flexible ... Member States therefore enjoy some discretion in determining the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion laid down in Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 (paras 31-32, references omitted).

And it is also important to stress that the ECJ finds the legal basis for the obligation of sincere cooperation not on the 2004 EU procurement rules, but on the domestic law of the Member State concerned (Italy):

... the Member State is entitled to ease the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion and, thus, to waive the application of a ground for exclusion in the event of a dissociation between the tenderer and the conduct constituting an offence. In the present case, it is also entitled to determine the requirements governing that dissociation and to require, as Italian law does, that the tenderer inform the contracting authority of a conviction of its director, even if the conviction is not yet final.

The tendering company, which must meet those requirements, may submit all the evidence which, in its view, is evidence of such a dissociation.

If that dissociation cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the contracting authority, the necessary consequence is the application of the ground for exclusion.

... in a situation where the judgment relating to an offence concerning the professional conduct of the director of a tendering company is not yet final, Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18 may apply. That provision makes it possible to exclude a tendering company which has been found guilty of grave professional misconduct, established by any means which the contracting authorities can provide proof of (paras 41-44).

Even if the ECJ seems to incur in some imprecision in interpreting Italian law (which, as far as I can see, did not require the tenderer to inform the contracting authority of the non-final conviction of its former director, but rather to update or substitute the relevant self-certification once that conviction becomes final), it seems clear that it foresees the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation as part of the relevant self-cleaning requirements. Given that self-cleaning was not regulated by Dir 2004/18, this is the only legal basis that could have been used in the case. However, given the inclusion of explicit rules in Dir 2014/24, an argument can be made that the ratio of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment will carry over to the new EU self-cleaning regime.

Indeed, when the functional principle underlying the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment is put in connection with the new rules in Article 57(6) of Dir 2014/24, the legal basis of such an overarching obligation may now be seen as having potentially shifted to the EU level. Indeed, it is important to stress that, as minimum requirements for the recognition of self-cleaning capable of excluding the application of exclusion grounds (both mandatory and discretionary), the second paragraph of Art 57(6) Dir 2014/24 requires that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has paid or undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct, clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and taken concrete technical, organisational and personnel measures that are appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct' (emphasis added).

This comes to establish an 'EU obligation of sincere cooperation' that, even if it seems oriented towards the 'investigating authorities' (which does not seem to automatically cover the contracting authority itself), can easily be extended in the same functional terms required by Italian law on the basis of the logic in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment. Therefore, in my view, when assessing self-cleaning claims--and as a result of a joint interpretation of Art 57(4)(c) and Art 57(6)II Dir 2014/24 from the functional perspective of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment--contracting authorities will be on safe grounds if they decide to reject self-cleaning claims on the basis of a lack of update of on-going criminal and administrative investigations that are susceptible of nullifying the effectiveness of self-certifications submitted by the economic operators concerned.

 

 

 

Discretion in public procurement—notes of a very energising workshop

iecl-final-350x350.png

I have the great privilege and pleasure of participating in a research project on ‘Discretion in public procurement’ funded by the Swedish Competition Authority and led by Profs Groussot, Hettne and Bogojević of the Universities of Lund and Oxford. In the context of the project, a workshop was held at Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford) on 3 November. The discussions brought together leading general EU law, environmental law and public procurement law academics, and this created a very open-minded atmosphere conducive to very productive discussions.

The results of the research project will be published in due course by Hart, as part of the series Studies of the Oxford Institute of European and Comparative Law (IECL). For now, I am happy to share my notes of the seminar. Needless to say, all valuable insights should be attributed to relevant colleagues, and any errors or misunderstandings are my own responsibility. I hope these notes serve to promote further debate.

Public Procurement and Internal Market

Prof Phil Syrpis used his previous discussion of the two constitutional visions on the interaction between primary and secondary EU law (see P Syrpis, ‘The relationship between primary and secondary law in the EU’ (2015) 52(2) Common Market Law Review 461) to assess the extent to which such primary-secondary interaction shapes the spaces for the exercise in the field of public procurement (see P Syrpis, ‘RegioPost—A Constitutional Perspective’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 2).

In particular, he discussed RegioPost (C-115/14, EU:C:2015:760), and how the interaction of Art 56 TFEU, the Posted Workers Directive and the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC shaped the space for the exercise of discretion concerning the imposition of minimum wage requirements in the execution of public contracts—emphasising that this is an area of non-exhaustive EU harmonisation, thus triggering EU primary law analysis. Phil criticised the conflation of primary law (Art 56 TFEU) and secondary law (Posted Workers Directive), and the ‘horizontal interaction’ between directives in which the RegioPost case resulted (where the interpretation of the procurement rules hinged on the interpretation of the Posted Workers Directive), as muddling the constitutional position on the value of the sources.

The discussion raised issues concerning the blurry lines around exhaustive/non-exhaustive harmonisation areas, and whether there is displacement or rather procedural juxtaposition of primary and secondary law. Whether a hierarchical approach already contains the seeds of heteronormative interpretation of EU primary law was also considered—in particular in view of the open textured and permeable nature of EU Treaty provisions, and the tendency of the CJEU to consider secondary law as a source of inspiration for the interpretation of primary law, sub silentio. The discussion also raised issues of the potential impact of Art 4(2) TEU (respect for national identities) on the scope for discretion at national level.

Prof Stephen Weatherill used the image of public procurement law as ‘internal market law made better’ and discussed the way in which EU internal market law has generally been developed to constrain the exercise of discretion of (public and private) national actors, and compared the situation in the field of procurement with general internal market law—thus reaching the conclusion that procurement law is more developed and perfected (in constraining national discretion more tightly), and in particular in the area of remedies, which creates a significantly different enforcement scenario and possibly more effectiveness of procurement law compared to general internal market rules (which is jeopardised by the procedural obstinacy of the Member States). He also reflected on the contradiction between the existence of that dense legal framework regulating public procurement in the internal market, and the enduring fragmentation of that market along uncompetitive national lines.

The discussion concentrated on issues surrounding the difficulties in bringing together the analysis in the area of free movement of goods and services, in particular services of general economic interest, the wiggle room for the CJEU to shy away or not from addressing specific cases by using jurisdictional criteria (cfr Comune di Ancona (C-388/12, EU:C:2013:734) and Tecnoedi Costruzioni (C-318/15, EU:C:2016:747)), as well as issues concerning the extent to which the 2014 Public Procurement Package, by creating more discretion or flexibility, may have eroded the component of ‘internal market law made better’ and potentially make public procurement move back to the median (effectiveness) of EU internal market law.

Prof Jörgen Hettne discussed public procurement and technical standards, and whether the specific rules constituted mechanisms to limit discretion or rather a democratic threat. He discussed the multi-faceted nature of technical standards as potential technical barriers, or rather trade facilitators or trade promoters—and focussed on the latter under the new approach to EU standards (CE mark) and the presumption of compliance embedded in the rules on technical specifications in the 2014 Public Procurement Package. He also concentrated on the quasi-binding nature that technical standards are acquiring (eg Nordiska Dental (C-288/08, EU:C:2009:718), James Elliot Construction (C-613/14, EU:C:2016:821)—and see also Medipac - Kazantzidis (C-6/05, EU:C:2007:337), and Commission v Greece (C-489/06, EU:C:2009:165)).

He wondered whether the obligation to respect the CE mark in the context of public procurement is problematic due to its requirement of ‘blind trust’ in the harmonisation system, and whether this is a democratic threat—in particular due to the way in which broad participation is (not) working in the context of standard-setting. He also discussed the constraints in an alternative approach based on the flexibility around the use of functional requirements embedded in Art 44(6) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Public Procurement Discretion: Limits and Opportunities

Prof Chris Bovis reflected on the drivers and boundaries of discretion in the award of public contracts. He discussed the evolution of the regulatory space left to discretion throughout the five generations of EU procurement directives, and raised issues concerning the scale or structural dimension of discretion, in particular due to the different nature of the issues left to the discretion of the Member States (system-level issues) or the contracting authorities (procurement/procedure-level issues). His reflections also prompted discussion on the dynamics and interaction between exposure to competition, accelerating market dynamics (eg regarding innovation) and exercise of (administrative) discretion.

Dr Dieter Klaus explored the lessons that can be learnt from an analysis of the constraints on discretion in the public procurement setting, as a case study of broader issues concerning the regulation of discretion under EU law. He started with conceptual remarks on ‘discretion’ and the general approach to discretion (deplorable exception or rather a valuable instrument?) and the tension between different pulls and levers in EU law (flexibility, subsidiarity, harmonisation, compliance and potential over-regulation risks). He also stressed the risks and difficulties in EU level concept-building around (eponymous) notions that carry specific connotations in the context of national legal systems, which triggers risks of possible misunderstandings—as well as the interaction between spheres of discretion and intensity of judicial review of (discretion-based) executive decisions.

He used examples that compared case law on gambling (eg Politanò (C-225/15, EU:C:2016:645), Unibet International (C-49/16, EU:C:2017:491) or Vereniging Hoekschewaards Landschap (C-281/16, EU:C:2017:774)) and case law on public procurement (TNS Dimarso (C-6/15, EU:C:2016:555), LitSpecMet (C-567/15, EU:C:2017:736) or Borta (C-298/15, EU:C:2017:266)), with a particular emphasis on the intensity of judicial scrutiny for the justifications backing up discretionary decisions by the Member States. In concluding his reflections, he wondered whether there is something that makes procurement law special within the framework of EU internal market rules—which he thought probably not, in particular if one considers the fact that discretion works in different ways in different areas of EU internal market law, and that EU public procurement law displays the whole range of scenarios where discretion is subjected to different constraints.

The discussion raised the issues of whether the discretion under analysis (in the case law) is only that exercised by the contracting authority in executive decisions, or whether macro/systemic issues are subjected to the same issues and constraints. It also raised issues on the interaction between incompleteness of the regulatory system and (unforeseen) sources of discretion. The discussion also raised the point of whether Art 18 Dir 2014/24 is the natural ‘home’ of discretion within the system (as a horizontal issue), or whether the Directives somehow operate on the basis of a more undercover position for discretion.

In my presentation, I discussed the extent to which the general principles in Article 18(1) of Directive 2014/24/EU set out the relevant constraints on the exercise of executive discretion in the context of procurement and, in particular, the role that the prohibition for contracting authorities to artificially narrow down competition can be used to create effective substantive and/or procedural tests to control the exercise of such discretion.

Following up on my previous proposals (mainly, in Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Hart, 2015) ch 5) I suggested that Article 18(1)II Dir 2014/24/EU provides the basis for a competition-orientated or competition driven adaptation of a general proportionality test. I suggested that the existing case law of the CJEU, in particular concerning anti-circumvention rules, can form the basis for a substantive test oriented towards the consideration of the counterfactual decision adopted by a diligent contracting authority. I acknowledged that such a test may be difficult to craft in a way that does not create risks of ex post facto reassessment of decisions that would have originally not been seen as restrictive of competition.

I also suggested that a procedural test may be preferable, in the sense of creating a presumption of conformity with the requirements of the Directive where the contracting authority can provide an adequate paper trail (ex Art 84(2) Dir 2014/24) demonstrating having given due consideration to competition impacts of the decisions taken along the procurement design and implementation phase. My preliminary idea is that the procedural test would create a rebuttable presumption of conformity and that, in case of indicia to the contrary, the substantive test would then be applied.

The ensuing discussion concerned challenges on my claim about the competition-orientatedness of the regime in Directive 2014/24/EU and the 2014 Public Procurement Package more generally, discussion of the different concepts of competition (either as a mechanism or as a benchmark demanding economic efficiency in absolute terms) and the links that could be drawn before the substantive test I propose and the more general test of abuse of EU internal market law.

Environmental and Social Clauses

Dr Marta Andrecka discussed limits of contracting authority discretion in the pursuit of sustainability, and drew from previous analysis on her recently edited monographic issue of the European Procurement & Public Private Partnership Law Review (2017) 12:3. Her reflections concerned the balance between the flexibility created to support sustainability goals in procurement through the ‘toolbox approach’ in the 2014 Public Procurement Package and ensuing Commission guidance, on the one hand, and the necessary checks and balances, on the other—in particular by reference to the interpretation of Art 18(2) of Directive 2014/24/EU and difficulties to fit different understandings of ‘public interest’ at EU and national level in this context. She gave significant weight to the addition of sustainability as a strategic goal of procurement under the new rules, very much in line with the European Commission’s approach in the October 2017 Communication on ‘Making public procurement work in and for Europe’. She also mapped out emerging obligations to include sustainability considerations in the context of other (horizontal) EU policies with an impact on procurement—such as the current proposal for a European Accessibility Act.

The ensuing discussion concerned the boundaries of the concepts of public interest and public policy within the context of EU internal market law, and the extent to which that is directly applicable and/or transferable to the interpretation and enforcement of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. It also concerned the link between the increasing sophistication and complications derived from sustainability-orientated procurement and emerginginitiatives on professionalization and capacity building as part of the broader procurement strategy.

Dr Sanja Bogojević mapped environmental contestation points in EU procurement law and policy, as a way of bringing attention to problems and opportunities for the pursuit of environmental policies in the context of public procurement. She recreated the discourse on green procurement through the case law of the CJEU after Concordia Bus Finland (C-513/99, EU:C:2002:495) and EVN and Wienstrom (C-448/01, EU:C:2003:651), and compared it to the discourse in broader internal market case law, to finally arrive to the current expressions of green public procurement aims and goals in policy documents, such as the 7th Environmental Action Plan or the Europe 2020 Strategy. Concentrating on Directive 2014/24/EU, her discussion considered the way green procurement is presented in relation to technical standards, labels and life-cycle costing rules.

Once the mapping was complete, she identified 5 points of contestation: (1) role of sustainable development and the risk it creates of squeezing environmental protection act; (2) reviewability of environmental models used in life-cycle costing (eg as exemplified in the litigation leading to R (ClientEarth) [2016] EWHC 2740); (3) what is the nature of the obligation in Art 11 TFEU (‘environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union policies and activities’ – is this solely a procedural minimum?); (4) discretionary climate change policy and ways in which policy can be used to create obligations (eg along the lines of the Dutch Urgenda case); and (5) the role of EU public procurement law in non-EU countries looking to access the EU (eg Serbia) or on the way out (UK). Ultimately, she made a compelling case for more interdisciplinary work and efforts of legal imagination to try to find workable legal solutions to global challenges.

Dr Jeremias Prassl discussed means, ends and conflicts in attempting to carry out social procurement. He introduced the clash between labour rights and internal market rules and restrictions (ie a clash of the economic vs the social)—which underlies calls for broad exemptions from internal market law from scholars such as Prof Alan Bogg ('Viking and Laval: The International Labour Law Perspective', in M R Freedland & J Prassl (eds), Viking, Laval and Beyond (Hart, 2016) ch 3)—and considered whether public procurement is more sensitive or atuned to labour law considerations than general internal market. He also reflected on whether the relevant clash was not one between economic and social rights, but rather between social rights of different collectives. He then developed each of the different narratives to see how they have shaped law and policy in the context of EU social and procurement law—in particular around the Posted Workers Directive.

His discussion provided insights on how the application of the internal market logic and its broader normativity comes to water down labour law’s protective effects (building on the analysis of L Rodgers, ‘The Operation of Labour Law as the Exception: The Case of Public Procurement’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 8). He assessed these issues of normativity and exception from Viking (C-438/05, EU:C:2007:772) and Laval (C-341/05, EU:C:2007:809) to the more recent cases of Bundesdruckerei (C-549/13, EU:C:2014:2235) and RegioPost. He also relied on Prof Weatherill’s approach ('Viking and Laval: The EU Internal Market Perspective', in M R Freedland & J Prassl (eds), Viking, Laval and Beyond (Hart, 2016) ch 2; see also S Weatherill, The Internal Market as a Legal Concept (OUP, 2017)) to criticising the insensitivity of internal market case law to legitimate and democratically expressed national priorities—which Jeremias considers is currently softening, as the CJEU approach in RegioPost indicates.

He also critically reflected on whether the seeming growing scope for labour policies in the context of procurement is likely to generate the maximum practical effects that would be desirable. In closing his paper, he wondered whether the heterogeneity of workers and the conflicts between different groups of workers (insiders vs outsiders) would provide a better narrative and analytical perspective to reassess this topic. In doing that, he drew on Prof Catherine Barnard’s contrast between the equal treatment logic of the procurement rules and the differentiation logic of the traditional rules on posting of workers, which is now being tamed in the revision of the Posted Workers Directive (see C Barnard, ‘Fair’s Fair: Public Procurement, Posting and Pay’, in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 10).

The ensuing discussion concentrated on how attempts to integrate social and environmental considerations in a public procurement regime that already tried to address other goals—mainly, economic and internal market-orientated—triggers issues around the extent to which social and environmental considerations should be a more intrinsic element of internal market law generally, as a sort of ‘softer market’, rather than an issue to be addressed sectorially.

Prof Xavier Groussot and Ms Angelica Ericsson wrapped up the discussions with a reflection on the tension between discretion and proportionality in the use of social clauses in procurement. They discussed (i) the elements of discretion, (ii) the application of procedural proportionality to control discretion—and in particular from the perspective of transparency—and (iii) whether recent case law seemingly deviating from the principle of proportionality creates a problem, mainly in light of the application of covert proportionality through consistency in RegioPost (contra P Bogdanowicz, ‘Article 56 TFEU and the Principle of Proportionality: Why, When and How Should They be Applied After RegioPost?,’ in A Sanchez-Graells (ed), Smart Public Procurement and Labour Standards. Pushing the Discussion after RegioPost (Hart, 2018) ch 3). In the first part of the discussion, they explored the connections between the application of discretion under EU law and under ECHR law, and how that comparison can be best assessed using a variation of the framework set out by Tridimas (‘Proportionality in Community Law. Searching for the Appropriate Standard of Scrutiny’, in E Ellis (ed), The Principle of Proportionality in the Laws of Europe (Hart, 1999) 65 ff), and the additional issue of harmonisation raised by Thym (‘The Constitutional Dimension of Public Policy Justification’, in P Koutrakos, N Nic Shuibhne, & P Syrpis, Exceptions from EU Free Movement Law: Derogation, Justification and Proportionality (Hart, 2016) ch 9): (1) the interest, (2) the proceeding, and (3) the level of harmonization (cfr Opinion of AG Cruz-Villalon in dos Santos Palhota and Others (C-515/08, EU:C:2010:589)).

In the second part, they discussed discretion and procedural proportionality, and reflected about ‘what would a high level of discretion mean for a proportionality assessment’ both in theory and in practice. They stressed that the level of discretion and the intensity of proportionality review should theoretically be inversely proportionate (much along the lines presented by Dr Kraus earlier in the day, but with inverted causality), and that this is demonstrated in practice in the area of public procurement (such as in Politanò), where the CJEU shows more deference to administrative discretion (ie a lighter-touch proportionality analysis) where a higher level of discretion exists ex ante. Specifically in the context of procedural proportionality (eg Beentjes v State of the Netherlands (C-31/87, EU:C:1988:422)), and in the context of transparency obligations, they suggested that procurement is a good testing ground for the correlation between higher discretion and more limited proportionality scrutiny by the CJEU (eg in RegioPost, where regulatory transparency may have saved the social clause). They concluded that (i) high level policy discretion for Member States must not translate into unfettered discretionary/arbitrary decision-making by contracting authorities, (ii) procedural scrutiny is spreading beyond public procurement (R Caranta, ‘Public Procurement Law: Limitations, Opportunities and Paradoxes’ in U Neergaard, C Jacqueson & GS Ølykke (eds), XXVI FIDE Congress in Copenhagen, vol 3 (DJØF, 2014), where he claims principles of procurement becoming general principles of EU administrative law more generally), (iii) EU law principles (eg transparency) may be fuelled by different justifications than (eponymous) national ones.

Finally, in the third part, and drawing from French administrative law, they explored the possibilities of developing a taxonomy of CJEU case law that would distinguish between a procedural approach (controle minimum), substantive approach (controle normal) and a balancing approach (controle maximum).

The discussion concentrated mostly on the boundaries of the procedural proportionality approach and the categories that could most usefully be used to create a taxonomy of approaches by the CJEU. This was linked to the discussion to the standard of review of decisions in other areas of EU law—eg competition law, where the connection between EU and ECHR standards has been questioned (eg Menarini, as discussed in extenso in A Sanchez-Graells, ‘The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?’, in Kosta, Skoutaris & Tzevelekos (eds), The Accession of the EU to the ECHR (Hart, 2014) 255-70).

Alternative Procurement Models

Dr Ohad Graber-Soudry presented the procurement rules of European Research Infrastructure Consortia (ERICs) under the specific regulatory framework of Council Regulation 723/2009/EC, which creates significant space for each ERIC to adopt its own procurement rules. His presentation concentrated on the uncertainties derived from the treatment of ERICs as international organisations and the impact these have on ERICs’ discretion to develop their own procurement rules, as well as the treatment of discretion within those (self-developed) rules.

The ensuing discussion mainly concerned the limits and effects of Art 7(3) of Regulation 723/2009, whereby ‘[a]n ERIC is an international organisation within the meaning of Article 15(c) of Directive 2004/18/EC’, which now corresponds to Article 9(1)(b) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

Closing the workshop, Prof Ulf Bernitz discussed the peculiarities of the Swedish system, and stressed the particular use and weight of transparency obligations in that jurisdiction.

A couple of papers on procurement and discretion

Untitled.png

I am preparing a paper on discretion and competition under the EU public procurement rules for a workshop at Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford) in November. In looking for new ideas and making sure I cover the necessary background, I have been reading recent economics and political science papers on the topic.

After a few reads, I think I am starting to identify an emerging trend of support for both (i) expanded use of discretion and (ii) claims of positive effects of the exercise of that discretion on procurement outcomes. I think both issues are interesting and tricky, and have found the two papers below thought-provoking (even if not entirely convincing). I would recommend reading them if you are interested in this topic.
 

This is a political science paper aimed for a non-academic audience and it maps the discussions behind the choice on whether to promote or constrain discretion by procurement officers. It follows the US discussion and goes back to the arguments developed by Kelman in 1990. However, the paper largely ignores the ensuing discussion in the US where, primarily Schooner (2001, 2004), raised important issues around the oversight of the exercise of discretion. The interested reader would be well advised to incorporate Schooner's insights in the mix.

Gutman also stresses the need to extend procurement regulation and the possibility to exercise discretion to the execution phase. In that, he raises issues that are currently being asked across the EU, in particular concerning oversight of contractual modifications (see here). A reader familiar with these issues will not find much new in Gutman's paper, but it offers a good entry point for newcomers to the issue.

This is an econometrics paper that uses an interesting (and rather large) database of Italian contracts to 'document the causal effect of increasing buyers’ discretion on procurement outcomes'. They design their study around two different procedures for the award of works contracts: 'Works with a value above a given threshold have to be awarded through an open auction. Works below this threshold can be more easily awarded through a restricted auction, where the buyer has some discretion in terms of who (not) to invite to bid.' Or, in other words, they compare situations where the contracting authority is free to engage in a negotiated procedure with situations where a restricted procedure was mandated. In that regard, they consider that the contracting authority has a larger ability to exclude tenderers from the negotiation than from restricted procedures. I am not convinced about this, as the screening for a restricted procedure under the EU rules is rather strict and contracting authorities are not prevented from adopting any controls they would in a choice of negotiating partners. However, even with that in mind, reading the paper is interesting.

Coviello, Guglielmo & Spagnolo claim that 'Our main result is that discretion increases the probability that the same firm wins repeatedly, and it does not deteriorate (and may improve) the procurement outcomes we observe. The effects of discretion persist when we repeat the analysis controlling for the geographical location, corruption, social capital, and judicial efficiency in the region of the public buyers running the auctions'. I think that the first part of their findings is rather important, as they find discretion to entrench incumbents, either as a result of corruption or any other unobservable incumbency or first mover advantages. It is important to stress that this result is not affected by any assumptions or qualified by causality claims, as this is the straightforward result of crunching the numbers.

On the contrary, the claims of causality of discretion over improved procurement outcomes is affected by assumptions and their claims are weaker and depend on counter-explanations for the same results. On that, I am not sure that the authors carried out all controls that would be necessary or possible in terms of the advantages they find (which are small in scale, in any case), as a control by complexity of the project seems a rather clear missing piece in their testing strategy. Therefore, their results need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

As mentioned above, I think that these two papers reflect a broader trend of support for the exercise of discretion in the context of procurement -- in particular during the execution phase -- and emerging evidence (or at least claims to that evidence) that the exercise of such discretion can result in positive effects beyond the procurement phase of the public expenditure cycle. On the whole, this could push for reduced controls on the exercise of that discretion (or a lax approach to it) and a move of the focus on the design and award of the contract towards its execution.

This triggers me to think about the constraints on the exercise of that discretion (during the execution phase, but also in earlier procurement stages) that can be necessary to ensure that only positive results are achieved. Not surprisingly, I think that the key will be in the principle of competition and a pro-competitive orientated application of the proportionality principle. Roughly, that is what I will try to do in my forthcoming paper. I will post it here when ready. In the meantime, comments are most welcome.

New paper on EU public procurement and national interest

Untitled.png

I have recently finished a new paper on the regulatory space for Member States' national interest under EU public procurement law, which will be published in an edited collection putting together the main academic outputs of an international project led by Dr Varju (Institute for Legal Studies, Hungarian Academy of Sciences).

Its abstract is as follows:

EU public procurement law has been increasingly criticised for the restrictions it places on Member States’ regulatory autonomy and for the imposition of neoliberal conceptions of State intervention in the economy that do not necessarily match the general preferences of Member States with a social market economy orientation. Following that view, it could be thought that there is a limited (and possibly narrowing) space for Member State interests in EU public procurement law—or, in other words, that pursuing national interests goes against the grain of the internal market foundations of the 2014 Public Procurement Package.

The purpose of this chapter is to dispel this conception by making three points. First, that despite its competition-orientedness, the 2014 Public Procurement Package does not impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ straitjacket on domestic economic systems, but is rather compatible with diversity of economic models at national level. A series of complex trade-offs resulting from the last revision of the EU public procurement rules, where Member State interests played a multifaceted role, have consolidated a competition-based model with significant flexibility for non-market and non-competed mechanisms, as repeatedly tested before and confirmed by the Court of Justice. Second, that EU public procurement law, however, does appropriately prevent Member States from pursuing protectionist policies, even if they consider them to be in their national interest—quod non, because the proper working of the internal market is both in the collective interest of the EU and of the individual Member States. Third, that EU public procurement law, in particular in its current incarnation in the 2014 Public Procurement Package, emphasises the ability of Member States to pursue secondary policies (such as the promotion of innovation or sustainability) in a diverse manner, in accordance with their domestic interests and local particularism. On the whole, thus, EU public procurement law allows Member States significant space to pursue their national interests, always provided that they are also compatible with their own interest in the proper functioning of the internal market.

The full paper is freely downloadable on SSRN: A Sanchez-Graells, 'Against the Grain? -- Member State Interests and EU Procurement Law' (August 18, 2017). To be published in M Varju (ed), Between Compliance and Particularism: Member State Interests and European Union Law (Springer, forthcoming). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3022053. As always, comments most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. 

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

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

Abnormally low tenders (I): Substantive Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abnormally low tenders (II): Procedural Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tricky Jurisdictional Point

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

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

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

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

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

CJEU rules on Greek Support to The Agricultural Sector under the 2008 and 2009 State Aid Frameworks: A Blow to the Commission's Waiver of Discretion? (C-431/14 P)

In its Judgment of 8 March 2016 in Greece v Commission (ELGA), C-431/14 P, EU:C:2016:145, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on the compatibility of certain measures of financial support to the Greek agricultural sector in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis with the EU rules on State aid--ie mainly, Art 107 TFEU and the Temporary Community Framework for State aid measures adopted by the Commission in 2008 (the 2008 TCF), as amended in 2009 (the 2009 amended TCF).

The Judgment is interesting because it assesses the boundaries of the temporary discretionary measures adopted by the Commission in order to flexibilise the enforcement of EU rules in times of economic and financial distress, on the basis that they aim 'to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State', ex Art 107(3)(b) TFEU. In particular, the ELGA Judgment assesses whether Member States can validly raise arguments based on Art 107(3)(b) TFEU directly, regardless of the Commission's delineation of its State aid policy based on that same legal basis. Or, in simple terms, whether a valid Art 107(3)(b) TFEU can exist outside of the (temporary) scope of the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. The case may seem very specific because of its link to the economic crisis. However, the CJEU makes some broader points about the Commission's discretion that are worth taking into careful consideration.

This discussion is relevant from a legal perspective, due to the clarification of the so far unknown exemption of the State aid prohibition of Art 107(1) TFEU on the basis of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU regarding aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State' [see P Nicolaides & IE Rusu, 'The Financial Crisis and State Aid' (2010) 55(4) The Antitrust Bulletin 759-782]. It is also relevant for the policy implications of the CJEU's support for the Commission's intervention [for discussion of a general framework, see H Kassim & B Lyons, 'The New Political Economy of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 1-21; and TJ Doleys, 'Managing the Dilemma of Discretion: The European Commission and the Development of EU State Aid Policy' (2013) 13(1) Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade 23-38].

The case of the Greek support to the agricultural sector through ELGA

The specific case concerns a long-running action of the Greek State for the annulment of a 2011 Commission Decision concerning compensation payments made by the Greek Agricultural Insurance Organisation (ELGA) in 2008 and 2009, which the General Court (GC) upheld on appeal (T‑52/12, EU:T:2014:677). One of the difficulties with this case is the sequence of events. From the regulatory perspective, it is worth stressing that the 2008 TCF, which entered into force in 17 December 2008, did not cover aid to the agricultural sector. This was eventually made clear in the 2009 amended TCF, according to which

The possibility under [the TCF] to grant a compatible limited amount of aid does not apply to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products. Farmers, however, encounter increased difficulties to obtain credit as a consequence of the financial crisis ... it is appropriate to introduce a separate compatible limited amount of aid for undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products.

Specifically, the 2009 amended TCF provided that

The Commission will consider such State aid compatible with the common market on the basis of Article [107(3)(b) TFEU], provided all the following conditions are met: ... (h) … Where the aid is granted to undertakings active in the primary production of agricultural products ..., the cash grant (or gross grant equivalent) does not exceed EUR 15,000 per undertaking ...

This took effect on 28 October 2009, which raises a practical temporary difficulty because, '[f]ollowing protests in January 2009 by a large number of Greek agricultural producers about the losses suffered by them in 2008 as a result of adverse weather conditions..., the Hellenic Republic provided that compensation aid of EUR 425 million would be paid to producers on an exceptional basis by ELGA' (C-431/14 P, para 11). Upon investigation, the Commission found that most of that aid was incompatible with the internal market and, in particular, that '[t]he compensation aid of EUR [387.4 million] granted to producers on dates before 28 October 2009 is incompatible with the internal market' (C-431/14 P, para 14, emphasis added).

The issue is that, in plain terms, the Commission rejected Greece's claims that the exemption foreseen in Art 107(3)(b) TFEU could be directly applied in the case because of the economic difficulties that Greece had been experiencing. The Commission rejected such claim on the basis that Art 107(3)(b) TFEU had to be applied within the boundaries of the policy documents developed to that effect, ie the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF, which could only apply for the future--that is, only from their respective dates of entry into force--which, as the agricultural sector is concerned, was that of the 2009 amended TCF: 28 October 2009. The GC upheld the Commission's approach in the following terms

185 ... it is clear that, contrary to what the Hellenic Republic claims, the Commission had to base its decision on the [TCF] and not directly apply Article 107(3)(b) TFEU in order to assess the compatibility of the payments made by ELGA in 2009 on account of the economic crisis experienced in Greece.
186 It is clear from the case-law that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (see judgment[s] in Germany and Others v Kronofrance, [C‑75/05 P and C‑80/05 P, EU:C:2008:482], paragraph 60 and the case-law cited, and … Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, [EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 46).
187 ... in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines and notices that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the Treaty (see judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, [C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733], paragraph 47 and the case-law cited).
188 Therefore, it is necessary to reject the arguments of the Hellenic Republic to the effect that, on account of the serious disturbance in the Greek economy due to the economic crisis experienced in Greece since the end of 2008 and in 2009, the Commission should have declared the payments made by ELGA in 2009 compatible directly on the basis of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (T-52/12, paras 185-188, emphasis added).

The CJEU has now taken the same line of argument, but has introduced important nuances in determining that

69 ... as the General Court stated in paragraphs 186 and 187 of the judgment under appeal, the Court has also consistently held that, in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations (judgments in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 46, and Banco Privado Português and Massa Insolvente do Banco Privado Português, C‑667/13, EU:C:2015:151, paragraph 69).
70 However, in the specific area of State aid, the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU, including, in particular, Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (see, to that effect, judgment in Holland Malt v Commission, C‑464/09 P, EU:C:2010:733, paragraph 47), and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State.
71      Consequently, first, the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU by adopting guidelines vitiated by an error of law or a manifest error of assessment, nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it. Further, when, in the exercise of that discretion, it adopts guidelines of that nature, these must be kept under continuous review for the purposes of anticipating any major developments not covered by those measures.
72      Secondly, the adoption of such guidelines does not relieve the Commission of its obligation to examine the specific exceptional circumstances relied on by a Member State, in a particular case, for the purpose of requesting the direct application of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU, and to provide reasons for its refusal to grant such a request, should the case arise.
73      In the present case, it is not in dispute that, precisely because of the effect of the economic crisis experienced by the Member States, and in particular, the Hellenic Republic, on the primary agricultural sector of the European Union, the Commission exercised the discretion conferred on it by Article 107(3)(b) TFEU by adopting the TCF and then the amended TCF, since both the former and the latter expressly mention that sector.
74      However, the fact remains that although the Hellenic Republic claimed before the General Court that Article 107(3)(b) TFEU ought to be applied directly to the facts of the case, notwithstanding the existence of the rules of conduct set out in the TCF and the amended TCF, it did not argue, in support of that claim, that there were, in the present case, specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned ...
75      Indeed, it is apparent from the documents in the file that the material that the Hellenic Republic put before the General Court was intended to establish the existence of a very serious disturbance affecting the Greek economy from the end of 2008 and in 2009, but it was not such as to prove to the requisite legal standard that that economy was faced with specific exceptional circumstances that ought, in this case, to have led the Commission to assess the aid at issue directly in the light of Article 107(3)(b) TFEU (C-431/14 P, paras 69-75, emphasis added).

implications of the cjeu elga judgement

In my view, the implications of the case are two-fold, and they concern, first, the relationship between the Commission's disclosed State aid policy and the discretion that Art 107(3) TFEU gives it; and, second, the interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in particular.

Regarding the issue of the extent to which the Commission can deviate from adopted and publicised State aid policy, the CJEU has now made it clear that 'in adopting rules of conduct and announcing by publishing them that they will henceforth apply to the cases to which they relate, the Commission imposes a limit on the exercise of its aforementioned discretion and, in principle, cannot depart from those rules without being found, where appropriate, to be in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment or the protection of legitimate expectations' (para 69, emphasis added); and that 'the Commission is bound by the guidelines that it issues, to the extent that they do not depart from the rules in the TFEU ... and to the extent that their application is not in breach of general principles of law, such as equal treatment, in particular where exceptional circumstances, different from those envisaged in those guidelines, distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70, emphasis added). It is thus plain that 'the Commission may not fail to have regard to Article 107(3) TFEU ... nor may it waive, by the adoption of guidelines, the exercise of the discretion that that provision confers on it' (para 71, emphasis added).

Somehow, the CJEU has made it clear that the Commission cannot hide behind its disclosed State aid policy if there are relevant circumstances that require a specific discretionary decision. This can be far reaching because the CJEU ELGA Judgment clearly opens the door to Member States' claims beyond the boundaries set by the Commission in its disclosed State aid policy, and may be the end of an era of increasing push for box-ticking exercises and for the Commission's reliance on its predetermined conditions for State aid exemption under block exemption regulations. This may well lead to an increase in litigation by Member States, which may be more willing to challenge the Commission's 'self-enforcement' approach in its recently adopted State aid 2.0 strategy [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement, forthcoming].

The bit that puzzles me is that, in the specific circumstances of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU and its use in the aftermath of the economic and financial crisis, the Commission had not disclosed any policy documents prior to the 2008 TCF and the 2009 amended TCF. Thus, the issue whether the Commission could block any claims prior to the entry into force of those instruments could also have triggered an argument of retroactive application of beneficial discretionary measures, which I would have expected to read in a case like this. Somehow, the issue of the inter-temporal validity of policy and legal instruments in EU economic law continues to raise unresolved issues.

Regarding the specific interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, the implications of the ELGA Judgment are mixed. On the one hand, it seems clear that the CJEU recognises that Member States can claim the existence of specific circumstances in its economy, and this would tail up with the drafting of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which indicates that the exemption is available for aid aimed to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a Member State. On the other hand, though, the CJEU seems to require Member States to demonstrate that those circumstances 'distinguish a given sector of the economy of a Member State' (para 70) and, in the specific case, 'specific exceptional circumstances in the primary agricultural sector concerned' (para 74). This seems problematic on two fronts.

First, it clearly goes beyond the wording of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU, which has no reference to specific sectors of the economy and seems to accept the possibility of exceptional rules aimed at a distressed economy as a whole. One is left with the doubt whether this requirement to have demonstrated specific exceptional circumstances in the agricultural sector derives from the CJEU's unwillingness to quash the Commission's decision--reading the case, it seems clear that the controversy about the existence of sufficient evidence in the file could have been a driver for this outcome--or, on the contrary, it is a purposeful interpretation of Art 107(3)(b) TFEU in a way that reduces its scope. If the latter is the real reason, then the CJEU could have been more explicit in determining the parameters of such narrow interpreation, not least because of the absence of a sufficient volume of case law that interprets this provision.

And, second, it seems to create a significant limitation in the Member States' design of their macroeconomic (emergency) policies in a way that some could argue falls foul of the principle of subsidiarity. In that regard, the CJEU could have been more explicit as to the reasons for the imposition of a requirement of economic intervention in the specific sectors affected by the serious economic disturbance--which, in my view, would be relatively easy to support on the basis of the general requirements of suitability and proportionality applicable to State measures that aim to benefit from exemptions of Treaty prohibitions under EU economic law, generally.

Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions

In this new paper, I attempt a concise comparison of the rules applicable to the rejection of abnormally low and non-compliant tenders in a number of EU jurisdictions (namely, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom). 

In order to set the common ground for the analysis of such domestic rules, which are solely applicable to non-negotiated procedures, the paper first offers a description of the rules in the EU public procurement Directives and the case law of the European Courts (ie GC and CJEU), and then proceeds to compare them against this benchmark and amongst themselves. Where possible, the paper highlights innovative or different solutions, as well as potential deviations from EU law.

  • Sánchez Graells, Albert, Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions (April 11, 2013). European Procurement Law Series, Vol 6 (forth). http://ssrn.com/abstract=224859