In a new episode of the Spanish sainete of the railroad electrification cartel (see here for an overview), it has now emerged that one of the companies affected by the exclusion ground (prohibición de contratar) declared in the resolution of the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC) of 14 March 2019 subsequently secured interim measures suspending its effectiveness on 19 July 2019.
The freezing order prevents (Spanish) contracting authorities from relying on the exclusion ground and thus shortens the maximum period of (future) exclusion of the colluding companies, unless the CJEU revises its case law on the time-limit calculation for such grounds established in Vossloh-Laeis (24 October 2018, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855). The decision also highlights issues concerning the cross-border effects of litigation on exclusion grounds. In this follow-up post, I discuss these two issues.
The interim measures decision
Quick recap: it should be stressed that the Spanish transposition of Article 57(4)(d) has resulted in a system whereby the exclusion of economic operators on the basis of previous infringements of competition law is mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement (LCSP). However, the scope and duration of such exclusion generates some difficulties, in particular when they are not established in the original decision declaring the infraction and imposing the measure—which is precisely the case of the railroad electrification cartel. In such cases, a further administrative procedure needs to be completed and the scope and duration of the mandatory exclusion (prohibición de contratar) are to be established by decision of the competent Minister.
The effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground in the period running from the initial infringement decision and the further Ministerial decision is contested. Two opposing schools of thought exist. One that gives automatic effect to the exclusion ground despite the future specification of its scope and duration, and the opposing view that considers that the measure is incomplete and cannot generate (negative) effects against the sanctioned undertaking until the Ministerial decision is adopted.
The CNMC expressed the first view in its railroad electrification decision, when it stated that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319, own translation full decision available in Spanish).
The Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional), in a Judgment of 19 July 2019 (ES:AN:2019:1673A, hat tip to Alfonso Rincón García-Loygorri for posting it on LinkedIn) adopted the same view and recognised that the measure was bound to immediately restrict the affected undertakings’ ability to participate in public tenders. Considering that it is likely that the final decision on the main appeal of the cartel decision arrives after the expiry of the three year maximum duration foreseen for the exclusion ground and that (should the appellant prevail) the effects of such exclusion would be very difficult, if not impossible to correct at that stage, the High Court decided to suspend the effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground.
Implications in terms of maximum duration of the exclusion
Quick recap: the CJEU has established that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42).
I criticised the CNMC for creating legal uncertainty by not establishing the scope and duration of the exclusion ground in its initial decision. I argued that the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of the prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any finally imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.
The High Court’s Judgment raises the same criticisms. While the High Court explicitly took into account the fact that the undertakings could find themselves in a position of not being easily compensated for the undue exclusion from public tenders in case of prevailing in their appeal of the CNMC decision, the High Court ignored that its freezing order will create the reverse effect in case the appeal is dismissed. By preventing (Spanish) contracting authorities from excluding the competition infringers from tenders for an indefinite period starting on 19 July 2019, the High Court has created the risk that the undertakings are never excluded from public tenders because such exclusion is time barred by the time the CNMC decision becomes final—which does not solely depend on the outcome of the High Court’s proceedings, but is subject to a potential further appeal to the Supreme Court.
This highlights once again the inadequacy—or, at least, partiality—of the CJEU Vossloh criterion that the maximum period of exclusion starts running at the time of adoption of the initial infringement decision. It seems clear that, where that decision is contested and, in particular, where interim measures are obtained to freeze its effects—the maximum period of exclusion needs to be calculated taking that into account. Otherwise, the simple fact of litigating buys competition infringers immunity from the debarment system foreseen in Directive 2014/24/EU and thus excludes its effet utile. That cannot be right.
Territoriality of effects
The new episode of the Spanish sainete also raises questions concerning the cross-border effects of the CNMC decision. While Spanish contracting authorities are effectively enjoined from giving effect to the mandatory exclusion ground, the situation is by no means necessarily the same in other EU/EEA jurisdictions. Non-Spanish contracting authorities could (justifiably) be tempted to apply domestic mandatory or discretionary exclusion grounds based on the fact that the relevant undertakings were sanctioned for bid rigging by the CNMC. This could be the case whether they are aware or not of the High Court Judgment, in particular where they have discretion in this matter.
Should any such decision be challenged, the issue should make its way to the CJEU, which would have a hard time finding ways of squaring this practical difficulty with the differentiated treatment that Art 57 of Directive gives to grounds based on a ‘conviction by final judgment‘ (Art 57(1)) and those based on decisions and judgments not subjected to that finality requirement (notably, Art 57(4)), as well as with the self-imposed constraint of the way the maximum time-limit is calculated as per Vossloh.
Once again, we are yet to see the final act of this sainete…