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.

GC stresses need for balanced protection of confidential information in public procurement (T-536/11)

In its Judgment in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v Commission, T-536/11, EU:T:2015:476, the GC has dismissed a challenge against a European Commission's decision to limit the disclosure of (confidential) information made available to a disappointed tenderer. 

In the case at hand, the Commission had redacted some of the comments made by the evaluation team in order to protect business secrets of tenderers ranked higher than Evropaïki Dynamiki. The latter argued that, by doing so, the Commission failed to discharge its duty to give reasons for its decision not to rank Evropaïki Dynamiki first in the cascade mechanism that would determine call-offs within a framework agreement for software services. The GC dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the basis that the Commission had struck an appropriate balance between Evropaïki Dynamiki's right to access the information needed to defend its legal rights and third party business interests.

Some of the issues discussed (again) by the GC are worth mentioning, particularly as the duty to disclose the relative merits of the bids submitted by the successful tenderers is concerned (for a recent discussion, in relation to the UK's transposition of disclosure and debriefing rules in Directive 2014/24, see here).  The GC, with a good sense of the need to balance the right to be informed of the reasons for an award decision with the rights of competitors to have their business secrets protected, dismissed Evropaïki Dynamiki's challenge on the following grounds:
48 ... although the applicants submit that the Commission must disclose the information concerning the other successful tenderers’ bids that could be considered to be confidential and state how those tenderers could be harmed by that disclosure, they merely make a general request, without indicating, in the part of the pleadings relating to that plea in law, the comments or the parts of the bids to which they refer, whose disclosure is allegedly necessary for effective legal and judicial protection.
49 It should be recalled that ... the contracting authority is entitled not to disclose certain details where disclosure would hinder application of the law, would be contrary to the public interest or would harm the legitimate business interests of public or private undertakings or could distort fair competition between those undertakings.
50 In addition, it is apparent from the case-law that, in the context of an action brought against a decision taken by a contracting authority in relation to a contract award procedure, the adversarial principle does not mean that the parties are entitled to unlimited and absolute access to all of the information relating to the award procedure concerned. On the contrary, that right of access must be balanced against the right of other economic operators to the protection of their confidential information and their business secrets. The principle of the protection of confidential information and of business secrets must be observed in such a way as to reconcile it with the requirements of effective legal protection and the rights of defence of the parties to the dispute and, in the case of judicial review, in such a way as to ensure that the proceedings as a whole accord with the right to a fair trial (see, to that effect, judgment of 23 November 2011 in bpost v Commission, T‑514/09, EU:T:2011:689, paragraph 25 and the case-law cited). It is apparent from the applicants’ detailed observations set out in their letter of 5 August 2011 that they had sufficient knowledge of the relative advantages of the other successful tenderers’ bids (T-536/11, paras 48 to 50, emphasis added).
The GC could not have expressed it in any clearer terms, and this line of reasoning clearly aims at reaching an appropriate balance between, on the one hand, facilitating access to procurement remedies by disclosing necessary information and, on the other hand, ensuring the protection of information which disclosure could have a negative effect on competition and/or harm legitimate business interests. 

This is a much needed restriction of the excessive level of transparency that oftentimes affects public procurement settings and, consequently, must be warmly welcomed [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, The Difficult Balance between Transparency and Competition in Public Procurement: Some Recent Trends in the Case Law of the European Courts and a Look at the New Directives (University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 13-11, 2013)].

Public procurement in the CJEU's Annual Report 2014 Statistics

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has published the full version of its 2014 Annual Report, which allows for an update of the statistics available two years ago (here). The 2014 report offers interesting data about the continued relevance of public procurement in the overall activities of the Court, as well as the evolution of the backlog in the docket, which seems to be needing attention at the highest level. I provide the new data first, both for the CJEU and the GC, and then update the time series I first prepared in 2012.

CJEU 2014 data

In 2014, the CJEU opened 21 new cases on public procurement (3.42% of all new cases), of which 20 were references for a preliminary ruling and the other case was an appeal. It adopted 13 decisions in public procurement cases (11 Judgments and 2 Orders) during the same period (which represent 2.08% of all cases closed). This clearly indicates that the CJEU has accumulated a (further) backlog of around 50% of the 2014 new procurement cases.

A cursory search on CURIA's case finder shows 9 pending procurement cases (below), which would track the 2014 mismatch (although two of them are 2015 cases)--but only assuming there was no backlog of procurement cases at the beginning of that year, which I do not think is correct (see below for some conjectures). In any case, more transparency on the backlog of cases would be desirable.

GC 2014 data

In 2014, the GC opened 17 new cases on public procurement, and it issued 18 decisions (16 Judgments and 2 Orders). The GC is managing to keep the number of pending cases stable at around 35. The fact that the GC publishes explicit statistics on pending cases by subject matter makes things easier.

Time series

The following is an update of the time series I prepared in 2012. Just like then, please note that unfortunately, prior to 2010, the data for the CJEU does not include a separate category for public procurement cases (they were likely to be classified under approximation of laws, or under the relevant fundamental freedom). Therefore, the actual numbers may be higher than the available statistics show but, in my view, the general trends remain clear: backlog is increasing and now reaches about 75 cases. As I mentioned above, more transparency (or a correction of incorrect classification of cases, if there is any) would be much desirable.


Exclusive rights, State aid and lottery: a winning ticket worth an extended monopoly? (T-58/13)

In its Judgment in Club Hotel Loutraki and Others v Commission, T-58/13, EU:T:2015:1, the General Court (GC) has confirmed the previous Decision of the European Commission and considered that Greece had not granted illegal State aid to Organismos Prognostikon Agonon Podosfairou AE (OPAP) through the simultaneous extension of its existing exclusive right to operate certain games of chance and the granting of a new exclusive right to exploit 35,000 Video Lottery Terminals (‘VLTs’) for a period of 10 years in Greece. 

The key to the analysis conducted by the Commission and now upheld by the GC is that by overpaying for the extension of the existing exclusive right, OPAP has been able to secure a much larger exclusive right to operate VLTs in Greece. As the GC summarises:
10 As regards, first, the Addendum [which extended the existing exclusive rights for the period 2020-2030], the Commission observed that the study provided by the Greek authorities was based on sales projections elaborated by an independent company specialised in the gambling sector. The net present value of the Addendum was calculated on the basis of those projections, which were considered by the Commission to be reliable.
11 Following that calculation, the Commission found that the amount paid by OPAP in exchange for the Addendum, including the levy imposed by the Greek State corresponding to 5% of the gross gaming revenues generated by the games concerned for the period from 13 October 2020 to 12 October 2030 (see paragraph 4 above), was higher than the net present value of the Addendum.
12 As regards, secondly, the VLT Agreement, the Commission also calculated its net present value on the basis of the study commissioned by the Greek authorities.
13 On the basis of that calculation, the Commission stated that the net present value of the VLT Agreement was significantly higher than the amount of EUR 560 million provided for in the VLT Agreement, which would economically advantage OPAP.
14 However, the Commission stated that it was logical for the conformity of the VLT Agreement and the Addendum with Article 107(1) TFEU to be assessed jointly. In that way, the overpayment by OPAP for the Addendum was taken into account in order to assess the conformity of the VLT Agreement with that article. The Commission stated that the overpayment reduced the gap between the net present value of the VLT Agreement and the amount of EUR 560 million owed by OPAP
[...] (T-58/13, paras 10-14, emphasis added).
Even if it is true that the Commission managed to impose an additional payment on VLT revenues to further close the economic gap as an amendment to the State aid scheme, the crucial point remains:
17 [...] Referring to the amendment introduced by the Greek authorities, and taking account of the overpayment for the Addendum, the Commission found, on average, OPAP would pay more than the value of the VLT Agreement.
18 In other words, the Commission took the view that, following the amendments to the initial notification, OPAP would pay the Greek State a higher amount than the cumulated values of the exclusive rights granted by the VLT Agreement and the Addendum (including a reasonable return for OPAP)
(T-58/13, paras 17-18, emphasis added).
Hence, as mentioned, the crucial point for the legality of the (conflated) scheme is still the fact that the overpayment for the extension of an existing exclusive right is used to secure the approval of the underpayment in the granting of a new exclusive right. Moreover, the final finding of the European Commission simply makes no sense, as no market agent would pay a higher price for those exclusive rights than their accumulated value, as this would not be a rational investment decision. Consequently, there are many issues that would require some deeper scrutiny.

More importantly, in my view, the general acceptance of the 'cross-overpayment' amounts to allowing dominant undertakings with exclusive rights to buy their way into an extended monopoly (in a rather evident economic leverage) and, consequently, the case should be criticised--and quashed by the Court of Justice upon appeal (if it gets further appealed). Not least because it follows an emerging trend of improper assessment of two-part State aid measures (in favour of former State companies) that I find worrying and potentially dangerous for a credible and effective State aid control regime (see a previous instance here). The reasoning followed by the Commission and the GC, then, deserves some analysis.

Some of the arguments presented by the applicants have (willfully?) not been properly understood, nor analysed by the GC. Amongst other important arguments, the applicants clearly referred to the problem of the extension of the existing exclusive rights by cross-subsidisation in the following terms (in the words of the GC):
79 The applicants claim first of all that the Commission recognised, in paragraph 37 of the contested decision, that the Addendum and the VLT Agreement refer to distinct markets. Nevertheless, the Commission assessed them jointly. The applicants submit that the existence of an advantage for the purpose of Article 107(1) TFEU must be assessed for each market and not on the basis of joint consideration of similar measures concerning different markets, even though the measures examined concern the same recipient. If it were otherwise, the protection of competition would be incomplete because measures constituting an anti-competitive advantage for the purpose of Article 107(1) TFEU in a given market might escape the prohibition laid down in that provision on the basis of a joint assessment. Conversely, measures which grant no economic advantage in a given market might nevertheless be covered by that provision on the basis of a joint assessment with a measure affecting another market. [...]
81 The applicants claim that the VLT and slot machine market cannot be assessed jointly with the 13 games of chance covered by the Addendum since they have no relation to the market of the 13 games of chance on which OPAP has an absolute legal monopoly. By virtue of that monopoly, OPAP could carry out cross-subsidisation practices allowing OPAP to undercut the applicants’ prices on the VLT and slot machine market, by financing that operation by a price increase on the market for the 13 games of chance. However, the joint assessment of the notified measures does not take into account the possibility of such practices (T-58/13, paras 79 and 81, emphasis added).
To be fair, if the arguments were presented in this way (but this seems open to debate), it takes some digging to see that there are two layers of potential cross-subsidy. The first one, which is the one criticised above, is that the overpayment in one leg of the measure (extension of monopoly) secures State aid compatibility of the other leg of the measure (creation of an additional monopoly over VLTs). The second one concerns the operation of the rights in case they had been assigned to different operators, as it would concern a situation in which both OPAP and third parties had been granted licences for the operation of VLTs. The second argument is, in my view, moot or improperly addressed, as it refers to a hypothetical, counterfactual scenario. However, the first argument should have been enough to quash the Commission's Decision. Nonetheless, the GC decided differently.

In its analysis of the fourth plea submitted by the appellants of the Commission's Decision (the other three are basically procedural, so I am skipping them for now), the GC found that:
94 As regards [...] the applicants’ argument relating to subsidisation practices made possible by OPAP’s monopoly over the 13 games of chance covered by the Addendum, it should be noted, first, that it is based on the assumption that OPAP is free to increase prices at will on those 13 games in order to compensate for lower prices on the VLT market. The applicants accordingly submit that OPAP will not sustain competitive pressures in its pricing policy. That argument is not, however, substantiated. In fact, the applicants do not support or demonstrate that the 13 games in question are not subject to competition from other games of chance.
95 Next, the applicants do not explain why the alleged practices of cross-subsidies between the lower prices on the VLT market and the higher prices on the market of the 13 games covered by the Addendum preclude the two notified measures being jointly assessed. Indeed, if such practices were to exist, they would create a link between the VLTs and the 13 games of chance, which instead supports the two measures being jointly assessed.
96 It follows from all the foregoing that the applicants have not demonstrated the existence of an error of law when the Commission carried out a joint assessment of the VLT Agreement and of the Addendum
(T-58/13, paras 94-96, emphasis added).
This is troubling because the GC inverts the order of the arguments on cross-subsidisation and dismisses them in the wrong way. Firstly, it is hard to see how the GC can rely on a theoretical competitive pressure on OPAP when the situation is that it holds basically exclusive rights on all relevant games of chance in Greece. Secondly, it is unacceptable that the GC buys a justification for the joint analysis of the measures precisely because OPAP engages in cross-subsidisation. If this is not a clear deductive fallacy, there is none. Overall, then, the arguments of the GC are disappointingly thin, or simply incongruous.  Consequently, for all the above, I hope the CJEU will receive better economic advice and will reverse the Hotel Loutraki Judgment. Otherwise, the game will be over for the analysis of two-part or leveraged instances of clear State aid.

Justifications for apparently abnormally low tenders need to be in sync with original tender (T-422/11)

In its Judgment in Computer Resources International (Luxembourg) v Commission, T-422/11, EU:T:2014:927, the General Court (GC) has clarified (although limited if any doubt could be bharboured) that the reasons provided by tenderers to justify the viability of their apparently abnormally low tenders need to be compatible with the terms of their initial tender.
In the case at hand, the apparent abnormality of the offer derived from the low manpower costs offered in relation to the provision of IT services in Luxembourg. Upon request of the contracting authority, the participating consortium tried to justify the low cost included in the tender on the basis that the services would (actually) be provided as a mix of presential support in Luxembourg and remote support from Romania. The contracting authority rejected this explanation as inadmissible and rejected the offer for being abnormally low. The GC has confirmed this decision (paras 53-55 and 82 and ff).
Maybe more interestingly, the GC also rejected an argument based on a sort of estoppel, whereby the participating consortium challenged the abnormally low consideration of costs that had, however, been accepted by the same contracting authority in a different procurement exercise. As a general point, the GC determined that the contracting authority
correctly took the view that a comparison of the prices proposed in the applicant’s tenders with the prices proposed within the context of other tendering procedures was irrelevant. Contrary to the applicant’s claim that no precedent is irrelevant when it is in the ‘same market’, the content of a tender must be examined in the light of the call for tenders to which it responds (T-422/11, para 69, emphasis added).
In my view, this is the only criticisable point in the Judgment (and an unnecessary one, given the lack of support for the applicant's arguments) and should be limited to the obiter dictum character it has in the specific circumstances of the case. Indeed, looking at the prices the contracting authority has accepted in contemporaneous and comparable procurement exercises would be relevant to the assessment of abnormality--not so much in order to create a (constructive) estoppel, but as an economic benchmark.

Other than that, the Judgment of the GC in Computer Resources International is an interesting summary and case study of the specific obligations imposed on contracting authorities that suspect that an offer (or some of its components) is abnormally low. This should serve as guidance in the interpretation and enforcement of article 69 of Directive 2014/24.

Three recent cases on EU Institutions' procurement and one common theme: good administration and confidential information (T-498/11, T-91/12 & T-199/12)

Within the last week, the General Court has ruled on three disputes concerning public procurement activities of the European Commission to which the Financial Regulation was applicable. All cases involved the rejection of tenderers/tenders (at different stages of the procurement procedures) and challenges against the immediate rapport established between the Commission and the disappointed tenderers, which involved some sort of (discretionary) management of confidential information by the contracting authority. Remarkably, all cases have been decided in favour of the European Commission.

Reading them together, a common theme emerges from the Judgments in Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF), T-498/11, 
EU:T:2014:831Flying Holding and Others v Commission, T-91/12, EU:T:2014:832; and Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission, T-199/12, EU:T:2014:848. Functionally, all these Judgments are concerned with the duty of good administration, some of its more specific requirements (such as the duty to provide reasons, or the duty to protect confidential information), and its boundaries--which is a topic of increasing relevance in EU public law and, particularly, in EU public procurement law [see J Mendes, ‘Good Administration in EU Law and the European Code of Good Administrative Behaviour’, EUI Working Paper Law 2009/09, and some related comments here].
In my view, these three Judgments clearly indicate that despite the increasing complexity and detail of the public procurement rules, most decisions end up being assessed on the basis of the reasonableness, objectivity and proportionality of the decisions taken by contracting authorities as implicit requirements of the principle of good administration. The following is a closer discussion on why I think this is so.
(1) Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission (OLAF) is concerned with the rejection of an offer submitted for the services contract concerning the revamping of the website of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). More specifically, Evropaïki Dynamiki challenges the withholding of information regarding the technical aspects of the winning offer, which the Commission justified on the basis that it 'might affect the successful tenderer’s legitimate business interests ..., or might distort fair competition between the undertakings concerned' (which follows what is established in art 100(2) Financial Regulation, as discussed here, here and here). In the applicant's view, this amounts to a violation of the duty to state reasons and, ultimately, of the principle of good administration.
The GC engages in a detailed assessment of the duty to state reasons and the balance with the protection of the confidential information and business interest of other tenderers (and, particularly, the awardee of the contract) (paras 28-50). In my view, the argument is ultimately concerned with compliance with these two conflicting requirements of the more general duty of good administration. It is worth highlighting that the GC clarifies that
in order to fulfil its obligation to state reasons, the [contracting authority] was required to communicate to the applicant the reasons for the rejection of its tender, the characteristics and relative merits of the successful tender, and the name of the successful tenderer (order of 29 November 2011 in Case C-235/11 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 46). By contrast, it does not follow from those provisions or from the judgment of 10 September 2008 in Case T-59/05 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR [...] that the [contracting authority] was required to provide the applicant with a complete copy of the evaluation report (see, to that effect, order of 20 September 2011 in Case C-561/10 P Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 25) (T-498/11 at para 43).
It is also important to stress that the GC finds no shortcoming based on the principle of good administration in the use of relatively generic justifications for the withholding of information:
It is thus apparent that the [contracting authority] fulfilled its obligation to state reasons [...] regardless of the fact that the wording of those letters was stereotypical in nature as regards the reasons for the removal of some information (see, to that effect, judgment of 24 April 2012 in Case T‑554/08 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, not published in the ECR, paragraph 141). Such wording is permissible in light of the fact that it may be impossible to state the reasons precisely justifying the confidentiality of each of the pieces of information concerned without disclosing them and therefore negating the effectiveness of the second subparagraph of Article 100(2) of the Financial Regulation (T-498/11 at para 45, emphasis added).
In my view, this Judgment is important in that it should reinforce the message that the principle of good administration requires a careful balance of the duty to state reasons against the duty to protect propietary and confidential business information, which should allow contracting authorities to give more importance to the second element and be less afraid of litigation on the basis of alleged shortcomings in the duty to state reasons. Generally, it may contribute to a better balance between transparency and competition in the public procurement setting, which should be welcome [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, Albert, '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].
(2) Flying Holding and Others v Commission (not available in English) concerned the hire of aerotaxis for the President and other members of the EU Institutions and was organised as a two-stage restricted procedure. In this case, Flying Holding and its subsidiaries were not invited to the second phase of the tender due to the incompleteness of the documentation supporting their expression of interest and, in particular, certain security audits.

The dispute revolves around the (lack of) clarity of the documentary requirements included in the call for expressions of interest, as well as the Commission's unwillingness to accept the belated submission of those documents by Flying Holding due to a previous false declaration that they did not exist. The arguments of the challenger fundamentally rely on alleged breaches of the principles of proportionality, right to defence, and good administration. Interestingly, the GC has upheld the initiative taken by the Commission to directly contact the relevant aviation authorities to enquire about the safety of the operations of Flying Holding and its subsidiaries in the absence of documentation in the expression of interest. Furthermore, the GC has considered that even if the way in which such contact was carried out may have amounted to a violation of the right of defence, that would not have altered the outcome of the procedure due to the automatic application of the exclusion grounds based on falsity of (self)declarations in the public procurement setting (under art 94 Financial Regulation).
The reasoning of the GC is riddled with very technical points (see paras 41-50) but, in my opinion, the ultimate functional reading is that contracting authorities that proactively seek to clarify the (in)existence of a ground for exclusion/qualitative selection of tenderers are adequately discharging their duties under the principle of good administration, even if they contact third parties or authorities [for discussion of the new rules under Directive 2014/24, see A Sánchez Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing in the New Public Sector Procurement Directive 2014/24', in F Lichere, R Caranta and S Treumer (ed) Novelties in the 2014 Directive on Public Procurement, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series, (Copenhagen, Djøf Publishing, 2014)]. The requirements of the right of defence in that case are limited to communicating the result of such enquiries to the candidate or tenderer concerned, as well as providing it with an opportunity to comment.
It is also interesting to stress the reasoning the GC undertakes in relation to false or inexact (self)declarations and their relationship with the right to defend against the imposition of administrative sanctions (paras 51-79), which in my view are bound to trigger significant litigation in non-institutional (or general) procurement once Directive 2014/24 gets transposed (and, particularly, its rules on the European Single Procurement Document of art 59). The GC sees no breach of the principle of proportionality in the application of very strict standards in the interpretation and enforcement of exclusion grounds (paras 81-91). On that point, some more space may be created in the treatment of non-fully compliant tenderers, in the same way as for abnormally low and non-fully compliant bids [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells, (2013), 'Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions' in M Comba & S Treumer (eds), Award of Contracts in EU Procurements, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series, Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013, 267-302].
(3) Euro-Link Consultants and European Profiles v Commission concerned the provision of services related to the 'Crimean tourism diversification and support project', for which the challenging consortium's offer was not selected. Legally, this case is peculiar because the application of the Financial Regulation derives from the Practical Guide to Contract Procedures for EU external actions, in its 2010 version, updated in March 2011 (‘the PRAG’). Generally, the case is interesting because it focusses on the irregular situation where the disappointed tenderer seemed to have gained access to confidential information while the tender procedure was still under way, which triggered the involvement of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) [however, I could not find public information on that strand of the case].
As procurement is concerned, in the case at hand, Euro-link had access to a version of the CV of the team leader proposed by a competing tenderer and used it to challenge the technical assessment of her experience. Avoiding issues of confidentiality of that document, the GC considered that, even if the two versions of the CV (the one submitted by the competing consortium and the one used by Euro-link in its challenge) were different, this was not relevant. In its words,
As regards the alleged infringement of the principle of equal treatment, it must be noted that, according to settled case-law, that principle requires that comparable situations not be treated differently and different situations not be treated alike unless such treatment is objectively justified (see judgment of 10 October 2013 in Manova, C‑336/12, ECR, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 30 and the case-law cited). In the present case, it must be noted that the different treatment of the version of Ms T.’s CV submitted to the Evaluation Committee by the consortium led by GDSI and that submitted by the applicants is justified by the different situations in which those two documents were submitted. The first, submitted in the context of the evaluation procedure, was intended to be examined by the contracting authority, whereas the second, submitted after the contract had been awarded, did not constitute, subject to the examinations carried out by the Commission, evidence capable of calling into question the probative value of the first (T-199/12 para 78).
This reasoning based on the principle of equal treatment seems odd and it is submitted that an alternative assessment based on the principle of good administration may have led to the same conclusion. Where the Commission has carried out a proper evaluation procedure and is satisfied that all requirements are met by a given tenderer, there is no breach of its duty of good administration if it does not reassess that position on the basis of (confidential) documentation submitted by a tenderer that does not provide substantial new facts.
As a tentative working conclusion, I think that this group of cases highlight the increasing trend of litigation of procurement decisions based on general principles of EU administrative and public law. Moreover, it makes it clear that contracting authorities will not be blamed for balancing the duty to state the reasons for their decisions with competing needs, even if they: 1) ensure a high level of protection of confidential information, particularly where third party (business) interests are at stake; 2) take proactive steps in the verification of the information provided by candidates (hence, lifting partially the confidentiality of the procedure or seeking access to third party confirmation, provided defence rights are upheld); or 3) disregard competing claims based on confidential information if they have carried out their own verification procedures (at evaluation stage).
Generally, I think that this group of cases should show that contracting authorities that exercise discretion in the management of confidential information are much less open to (viable) legal challenge than could have been though. And this should reduce the existing pressure towards excessive transparency in the public procurement setting, which can ultimately result in a healthier competitive environment. Consequently, this line of legal development must be welcome.

GC sets burden of proof of conflicts of interest in procurement too high (T-4/13)

In its Judgment in Communicaid Group v Commission, T-4/13, EU:T:2014:431, the General Court (GC) decided another appeal against EU Institution's public procurement decisions. In this case, the procurement was for language training services for staff of the institutions, bodies and agencies of the European Union in Brussels, and the appellant challenged the rejection of its tender on several grounds, including violations of the principles of transparency and equal treatment.
The case raises a number of issues, but I think that it can be particularly interesting from the perspective of conflicts of interest in the evaluation of tenders, since the appellant submitted that "one of the seconded national experts who had been employed by the Commission in its Directorate-General (DG) for human resources (‘Commission unit B.3’) in the months prior to publication of the contract notice at issue and who had sat on a tender evaluation committee in a similar award procedure was now employed by the successful tenderer, and had played a role in the preparation of the latter’s tenders." In the appellants view, this situation resulted in a breach of the principle of equal treatment and, in the end, should be sufficient grounds for the annulment of the negotiated procedure for language training services framework contracts.

The GC framed the analysis of this situation in the following way:
53 [...] according to the case-law, the fact that a tenderer, even though he has no intention of doing so, is capable of influencing the conditions of a call for tenders in a manner favourable to himself constitutes a situation of a conflict of interests. In that regard, the conflict of interests constitutes a breach of the equal treatment of candidates and of equal opportunities for tenderers (Joined Cases C‑21/03 and C‑34/03 Fabricom [2005] ECR I‑1559, paragraphs 29 and 30, and Case T‑160/03 AFCon Management Consultants and Others v Commission [2005] ECR II‑981, paragraph 74).

 However, that situation is slightly different from the one at hand in Communicaid, given that the advantage that the tenderer would have had would not derive from the ability to influence the terms of the call (as was the issue in Fabricom), but from the fact that it had access to 'privileged'/'insider' information about how to respond to the tender. Hence, this creates a factually different scenario, which analysis will be interesting.
Before looking at the analysis that the GC carried out, and further to the precedent concerned with the prior involvement of consultants that then become tenderers in Fabricom, Joined cases C-21/03 and C-34/03, EU:C:2005:127 [for discussion see S Treumer, "Technical Dialogue and the Principle of Equal Treatment: Dealing with conflicts of Interests after Fabricom" (2007) Public Procurement Law Review, No. 2, 99-115]; it is worth noting that conflicts of interest are now regulated in Art 24 of Directive 2014/24 (not directly applicable to EU institutions procurement, but with a clear potential to work as guidance for the EU courts in the future). According to this new provision:
Member States shall ensure that contracting authorities take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising in the conduct of procurement procedures so as to avoid any distortion of competition and to ensure equal treatment of all economic operators.
The concept of conflicts of interest shall at least cover any situation where staff members of the contracting authority or of a procurement service provider acting on behalf of the contracting authority who are involved in the conduct of the procurement procedure or may influence the outcome of that procedure have, directly or indirectly, a financial, economic or other personal interest which might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the context of the procurement procedure.
The new rules, then, seem to set out a rather demanding obligation to avoid conflicts of interest in the members of evaluation teams. Under the 'minimum' definition in the second paragraph of Art 24 dir 2014/24, it is clear that contracting authorities must avoid Fabricom-like conflicts of interest. However, the case of Communicaid was concerned with a 'bordeline' situation of potential conflict of interest, which subsumption under the 'minimum' definition of conflicts of interest will need to be tested. I would argue that they are caught by the general mandate of the first paragraph, but I am sure that there is scope for much discussion on the interpretation of this provision [and recital (16) dir 2014/24 does not shed any bright light: "Contracting authorities should make use of all possible means at their disposal under national law in order to prevent distortions in public procurement procedures stemming from conflicts of interest. This could include procedures to identify, prevent and remedy conflicts of interests."].
In my view, however, given the permissive treatment applied by the GC in Communicaid, these situations are unlikely to be effectively covered by Article 24 of Directive 2014/24--unless the CJEU develops a more stringent approach when it interprets that provision. Indeed, the GC considered that:
57 The applicant also argues that the successful tenderer enjoyed an unfair advantage because of the former seconded national expert’s participation in a previous call for tenders as a member of the evaluation committee.
58 In that respect, it must be pointed out that, according to the Commission, the applicant has not proved that the former seconded national expert participated in the drafting of the successful tenders for Lots 1 to 9. In order to prove that he did, the applicant has produced statements prepared by three of its employees, describing conversations they had with the former seconded national expert at the dinner on 13 November 2012 [...]. However, it must be noted that those statements do not show conclusively that the former seconded national expert participated in the drafting of the successful tenders for Lots 1 to 9, since the impressions of the applicant’s employees as to whether that was the case have been expressly contradicted by the person concerned himself. In any event, even if those statements did prove such participation by the former seconded national expert, it must be noted that their probative value is weak since they were made by the applicant’s employees, who have a particular interest in the contract being awarded to the applicant.
59 In the present case, even supposing that the former seconded national expert did participate in the drafting of the successful tenders, it must be pointed out that the applicant, by the evidence which it has submitted, has proved neither the participation of the former seconded national expert in the preparation of the call for tenders at issue, nor the unfair advantage that the successful tenderer allegedly enjoyed because its new employee was a member of a tender evaluation committee in a previous, similar procurement procedure. Furthermore, as the Commission rightly points out, the applicant has provided language training services to the EU institutions since 2008 and collaborated with the Commission in the context of the contract previous to the call for tenders at issue, with the result that it had information on the needs and requirements of the European institutions, notwithstanding the fact that the contract previous to the call for tenders at issue, contrary to the present call for tenders, did not include blended learning.
60 It follows from all the foregoing that the applicant has not proved that the fact that one of the successful tenderer’s employees worked at the Commission as a seconded national expert gave it an unfair advantage in the procurement procedure at issue of such a kind as to infringe the principles of non-discrimination and of equal treatment. Nor, moreover, has the applicant proved the infringement of the principle of transparency (T-4/13 at paras 57-60, emphasis added).
In my view, the GC has applied an excessively demanding burden of proof of not only the existence of a conflict of interest, but of its effects (ie of the existence of an actual de facto advantage derived from the existence of the conflict of interest). Such a high burden will result in a very weak effectiveness of the rules on conflicts of interest, given that they tend to involve the need to resort to indirect methods of proof and to indicia of advantage. Hence, this should not be welcome as a functional approach to adjudication of instances of (evident) conflict of interest and, at some point, it would have been necessary to resort to the techniques of presumption of advantage or, at least, reversal of the burden of proof. When conflicts of interest are concerned, it is worth remembering that Caesar's wife must be above suspicion...

It's for the GC to decide, but it's not ok: CJEU rules on 'excessive duration' of competition law litigation (C-40/12 P)

In a batch of impatiently expected Judgments of 26 November 2012, the CJEU has ruled on the procedural and substantial rules applicable to a claim that (competition law) litigation before the General Court was of an 'excessive duration' and, consequently, breached Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. In my view, this is another instance of a rather convoluted legal construction by the CJEU whereby it rejects its jurisdiction (on formal points), but actually addresses the substantial points in a way that leaves no room whatsoever for the GC when the matter is presented before it for a fresh consideraton--and, consequently, raises the question whether the system is sensibly designed to begin with...
In its Judgment in case C-40/12 P Gascogne Sack Deutschland (anciennement Sachsa Verpackung) v Commission, the CJEU has clearly indicated that
89 [...] the sanction for a breach, by a Court of the European Union, of its obligation under the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter to adjudicate on the cases before it within a reasonable time must be an action for damages brought before the General Court, since such an action constitutes an effective remedy.

90 It follows that a claim for compensation for the damage caused by the failure by the General Court to adjudicate within a reasonable time may not be made directly to the Court of Justice in the context of an appeal, but must be brought before the General Court itself.

91 As regards the criteria for assessing whether the General Court has observed the reasonable time principle, it must be borne in mind that the reasonableness of the period for delivering judgment is to be appraised in the light of the circumstances specific to each case, such as the complexity of the case and the conduct of the parties (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 181 and the case-law cited).

92 The Court has held in that regard that the list of relevant criteria is not exhaustive and that the assessment of the reasonableness of a period does not require a systematic examination of the circumstances of the case in the light of each of them, where the duration of the proceedings appears justified in the light of one of them. Thus, the complexity of the case or the dilatory conduct of the applicant may be deemed to justify a duration which is prima facie too long (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 182 and the case-law cited).

93 In examining those criteria, it must be borne in mind that, in the case of proceedings concerning infringement of competition rules, the fundamental requirement of legal certainty on which economic operators must be able to rely and the aim of ensuring that competition is not distorted in the internal market are of considerable importance not only for an applicant itself and its competitors but also for third parties, in view of the large number of persons concerned and the financial interests involved (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 186 and the case-law cited).

94 It will also be for the General Court to assess both the actual existence of the harm alleged and the causal connection between that harm and the excessive length of the legal proceedings in dispute by examining the evidence submitted for that purpose.

95 In that regard, it should be noted that, in an action for damages based on a breach by the General Court of the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter, in so far as it failed to have regard to the requirement that the case be dealt with within a reasonable time, the General Court must, in accordance with the second paragraph of Article 340 TFEU, take into consideration the general principles applicable in the legal systems of the Member States for actions based on similar breaches. In that context, the General Court must, in particular, ascertain whether it is possible to identify, in addition to any material loss, any other type of harm sustained by the party affected by the excessive period, which should, where appropriate, be suitably compensated.

96 It is therefore for the General Court, which has jurisdiction under Article 256(1) TFEU, to determine such claims for damages, sitting in a different composition from that which heard the dispute giving rise to the procedure whose duration is criticised and applying the criteria set out in paragraphs 91 to 95 above
(C-40/12 P at paras 89-96, emphasis added).
So far, the general framework depicted by the CJEU makes sense and, even if it creates a potential problem of conflict of interest derived from the 'self-assessment' required from the GC (despite its seating in a different composition), the remedy is clearly outlined and the material or substantive conditions that should be taken into account are also spelled out in a relatively easy to apply test (although some deference towards lengthy competition litigation seems to be readable between the lines).
However, the temptation ends up being too strong and the CJEU, maybe aware of the intractability of that conflict of interest, cannot refrain itself from actually settling the matter (despite concluding it has to reject the ground for appeal!). Hence, the CJEU carries on to make clear that

97 That said, it must be stated that the length of the proceedings before the General Court, which amounted to approximately 5 years and 9 months, cannot be justified by any of the particular circumstances of the present case.

98 It is apparent, in particular, that the period between the end of the written procedure, when the Commission’s rejoinder was lodged in February 2007, and the opening, in December 2010, of the oral procedure lasted for approximately 3 years and 10 months. The length of that period cannot be explained by the circumstances of the case, whether it be the complexity of the dispute, the conduct of the parties or supervening procedural matters.

99 As regards the complexity of the dispute, it is apparent from examining the action brought by the appellant, as summarised in paragraphs 12 and 13 above, that, while requiring a detailed examination, the pleas relied on did not present any particular difficulties. Although it is true that around 15 addressees of the contested decision brought actions for its annulment before the General Court, that fact could not prevent it from scrutinising the documents in the case and preparing for the oral procedure within a period of less than 3 years and 10 months.

100 It must be pointed out that, during that period, the procedure was not interrupted or delayed by the adoption of any measures of organisation of procedure by the General Court.

101 As regards the conduct of the parties and supervening procedural matters, the fact that the appellant requested, in October 2010, the reopening of the written procedure cannot justify the period of 3 years and 8 months which had already elapsed since it was closed. In addition, as the Advocate General observed in point 134 of her Opinion, the fact that the appellant was notified in December 2010 that there would be a hearing in February 2011 shows that that procedural matter had only a minimal effect on the overall length of proceedings, or even no effect at all.

102 In the light of the foregoing, it must be found that the procedure in the General Court breached the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter in that it failed to comply with the requirement that it adjudicate within a reasonable time, which constitutes a sufficiently serious breach of a rule of law that is intended to confer rights on individuals (Case C-352/98 P Bergaderm and Goupil v Commission [2000] ECR I-5291, paragraph 42).

103 It is, however, clear from the considerations set out at paragraphs 81 to 90 above that the fourth ground of appeal must be rejected
(sic) (C-40/12 P at paras 97-103, emphasis added). 
In my view, even if there is no question that the formal treatment of the claim for damages (ie the ground for appeal) is correct, the fact that the CJEU felt the urge to settle the matter from a substantive perspective shows that the attribution of the competence to hear cases concerned with the excessive duration of litigation before the GC to the GC itself (albeit in a different seating) makes poor sense and is likely to result in almost 100% of cases in a further appeal before the CJEU.
To be fair, if the CJEU assumed the competence from the beginning, other problems derived from a single-step or one-shot system where the claims would be shielded from potential appeals would also arise. So, it looks like we may be facing one of those areas where a clear limitation of the institutional design of the EU Courts seems apparent and where pressure for the future potential referral of the cases to the Strasbourg Court may be felt.
However, as indicated yesterday when commenting a timely editorial opinion of Advocate General Sharpston (here), it may well be that the granting of excessive procedural rights to competition law defendants end up in an unmanageable workload for the EU Courts (as well as for the European Court of Human Rights) and, consequently, a deeper revision of the system seems necessary [see my further developed aruments in The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?].

GC on #quality assurance #standards in #publicprocurement: A knee-jerk reaction (T-288/11)

In its Judgment of 6 May 2013 in case T-288/11 Kieffer Omnitec v Commission (only available in French), the General Court of the European Union (GC) was presented with an important issue concerning the proportionality of quality assurance requirements under EU public procurement rules. In a setting that resembled the issue addressed a year ago by the Court of Justice (CJUE) in relation to general corporate social responsibility / fair trade requirements in Commission v Netherlands (Fair trade beverages) (C‑368/10), the GC was asked to consider whether requiring that tenderers be ISO certified for all their maintenance activities is disproportionate and, consequently, breaches the applicable EU rules.

In the case at hand, the European Commission had tendered a contract for the maintenance of HVAC, sprinklers and other equipment in one of its buildings. As a part of the tender requirements, the Commission requested that all tenderers furnished proof of ISO certification valid for the whole of their maintenance activities. A tenderer that failed to provide such proof (but which engaged a third party to ISO-audit its activities in the Commission's building in case it was awarded the contract) and was, hence, not considered for the award of the contract challenged this requirements on various grounds. Amongst the challenges raised by the disappointed tenderer, it is worth noting that it considered that extending the requirement to all maintenance activities instead of limiting it to the activities covered by the contract was excessive and disproportionate.

One of the arguments presented by the disappointed tenderer was that, despite the Commission not being directly subjected to the provisions of Directive 2004/18 on public procurement, the rules established in its article 49 should be taken into consideration. Such provision specifically addresses the issue of quality assurance standards and mandates that:
Should they require the production of certificates drawn up by independent bodies attesting the compliance of the economic operator with certain quality assurance standards, contracting authorities shall refer to quality assurance systems based on the relevant European standards series certified by bodies conforming to the European standards series concerning certification. They shall recognise equivalent certificates from bodies established in other Member States. They shall also accept other evidence of equivalent quality assurance measures from economic operators (emphasis added).
However, before entering the discussion of the proportionality of the requirement, the GC strangely separated itself from the use of Directive 2004/18 as a valid interpretation guide (by analogy). The GC considered that:
22 Before turning to the examination of the matter at hand, it is important at the outset to recall that, regarding the law applicable to procedures for the award of public service contracts undertaken by the institutions of the European Union, these procedures are governed by the provisions of Title V of Part I of the Financial Regulation as well as its Implementing Rules.

23 These provisions are based, of course, on the EU directives in this area (see, to that effect, judgment of 12 July 2007, Evropaïki Dynamiki / Commission, T-250/05, not published in the ECR, paragraph 1, and judgment of 9 September 2010, Evropaïki Dynamiki / EMCDDA, T-63/06, not published in the ECR, paragraph 4). However, Member States are the sole addressees of these directives and, therefore and in principle, these rules only govern public procurement by the institutions of the Member States. Such directives do not apply to public contracts awarded by the institutions of the Union on their own account, save for the question regarding the thresholds that determine the manner of publication, the choice of procedures and the applicable deadlines (judgment of 19 March 2010, Evropaïki Dynamiki / Commission, T-50/05, p. II-1071, paragraph 104).
24 It follows that, in this case, in the examination of the first plea raised by the applicant, only the provisions of the Financial Regulation and the Implementing Rules need to be taken into consideration. Reversely, however, there is no need to take into account Article 49 of Directive 2004/18, cited by the applicant. (T-288/11 at paras 22 to 24, own translation from French).
With these remarks, the GC is departing from its previous practice to consider the rules under Directive 2004/18 as a valid guide for interpretation and is generating a risk of inconsistency in the development of EU public procurement law. Moreover, there is no good reason why the general criteria encapsulated in article 49 dir 2004/18 could not be expressly referred to since, it must be stressed, they are no more than a specification of the general principles of 'technical neutrality' (in broad terms) and proportionality that the GC must take into consideration anyway. Nonetheless, as we shall see, by excluding the use of the general provision as a valid analytical framework and 'chopping off' the last bit of article 49 dir 2004/18, the GC conveniently avoids the issue of having to consider if the Commission failed to accept 'equivalent quality assurance measures'.

Once the assessment is carried out precisely in terms of the proportionality of the ISO requirement, the GC finds that:
38 [...] the requirement [of full ISO certification] does not appear disproportionate to the extent that, on the one hand, Article 137, paragraph 3a of the Implementing Rules provides that "[w]hen the contracting authorities require the production of certificates drawn up by independent certification bodies attesting that the economic operator complies with certain standards of quality assurance, they shall refer to quality assurance systems based on the relevant European standards certified by bodies conforming to the European standards series concerning certification."

39 Moreover, as the Commission has rightly pointed out in its defense, in the selection of tenderers, when it comes to ensuring their technical capacity, the ISO certification must necessarily target the agent itself and not the contract to be awarded. In fact, ISO 9001 specifies requirements for the quality management system when an organization needs to demonstrate its ability to provide a product that meets customer and regulatory and legal requirements. This standard of "quality" is applicable to the process that a company uses to make its products or services and so can attest to the effectiveness and quality of its organization and its ability to provide the deliverables covered by the contract.

40 It is true that, except for ISO certifications attesting to the quality of the organization of the company, there are ISO certifications to attest to the quality of products or specific projects. However, as pointed out by the Commission, only the former may be required under the selection criteria of a given tender. The latter can only be used, as appropriate, as a contract performance condition, since they can only be obtained once the contract is in place in order to certify that the project or the product has been made in accordance with ISO standards.

41 Contrary to what the applicant claims, the Court considers that the requirement of a certificate attesting that the bidders to comply with ISO [for all their maintenance activities] is proportionate to the subject of the contract. (T-288/11 at paras 38 to 41, own translation from French, emphasis added).
In my view, there are several objections to be raised to the finding of the GC. Firstly, as mentioned in passing, this 'maximalistic' approach to quality control that links it to a selection criteria may run contrary to  the approach taken by the CJEU in Commission v Netherlands (Fair trade beverages). Indeed, the CJEU took a very restrictive approach to the use of general technical requirements that go beyond those specified in art 48 dir 2004/18. As the CJEU clearly put it 'Article 48 exhaustively lists the factors on the basis of which the contracting authority may evaluate and assess the technical and professional abilities of the tenderers' (C-368/10 at para 105). 

In that regard, it is worth stressing that art 48 dir 2004/18 only mentions quality assurance in the following respects: i) an indication of the technicians or technical bodies involved in quality control [art 48(2)(b)]; ii) a  description of the technical facilities and measures used by the supplier or service provider for ensuring quality [art 48(2)(c)]; and, only in relation to specific products to be supplied, certificates drawn up by official quality control institutes or agencies of recognised competence attesting the conformity of products clearly identified by references to specifications or standards [art 48(2)(j)(ii)]. Therefore, when art 49 dir 2004/18 refers to the 'production of certificates drawn up by independent bodies attesting the compliance of the economic operator with certain quality assurance standards', it can be said that it is only referring to the requirement of art 48(2)(j)(ii)--and clearly sets a strong link (and limitation) with the specific products (not services) to be supplied in a given contract. Failing that, and in any case, art 49 requires contracting authorities to accept 'equivalent quality assurance measures'.

In my view, then, the finding of the GC in Kieffer Omnitec is irreconcilable with the case law of the CJEU on selection criteria and with the foreseeable interpretation of art 49 dir 2004/18. Moreover, even from a broader perspective--and similarly to what I have argued elsewhere [Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart, 2011) pp. 315]:
Even if rules on qualitative selection and non-discrimination requirements are formally complied with in a given tender, the adoption of certain award criteria could generate the same results as an infringement of those rules. That could be the case if the award criteria or their weighting favoured tenders submitted by certain operators on the basis of conditions that could not have been used for the purposes of the qualitative selection of candidates or that automatically exclude de facto a significant number of tenders (or even restrict the number of compliant tenders to one). For instance, they could do so by requiring the implementation of quality management systems for the purposes of the specific contract that would have proven excessive or irrelevant for the purposes of assessing the general suitability of the tenderer; or that exclude certain operators because they focus on requirements whose implementation would be impossible for tenderers that did not comply with these or other requirements beforehand, or whose partial implementation would not be economically viable with regard exclusively to the specific contract.[1] In these instances, the adoption of such award criteria could generate significant distortions or restrictions of competition—without, it must be admitted, generating a substantial potential for discrimination. Therefore, such a strategy should be banned and contracting authorities should guarantee that the award criteria and their weighting ensure equality of opportunity of all tenderers and, consequently, should not focus on or advantage compliance with criteria not restricted to the tender itself—ie criteria that undertakings would be in a position to comply with or not depending on previous or general conditions unrelated (or not specifically related) to the subject-matter of the contract.[2]

[1] In similar terms, rejecting the possibility of establishing general requirements that go further than required by the object of the contract, see P Trepte, Regulating Procurement. Understanding the Ends and Means of Public Procurement Regulation (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004) 197–8.

[2] For instance, if certifying compliance with a given quality standard for the product required the previous certification of the general operations of the undertaking as being compliant with a more general quality control system, and the tender documents did not require tenderers to be certified under that standard—then, giving better evaluations to certified than to non-certified products would generate a distortion of competition by de facto excluding or reducing the chances of award to non-certified undertakings (which would not be in a position to get the products certified only for the purposes of the tender). Therefore, by indirectly advantaging or requiring compliance with a condition not imposed at the qualitative selection stage, which refers to more general conditions unrelated to the specific contract, the contracting authority would be distorting competition in a way that should be declared to run contrary to the directives.
As the discussion above shows (despite it being referred to award criteria), the GC has opened the door to the requirement of general certification for undertakings to  participate in tenders. In my view, this is incorrect, in that contracting authorities can only be concerned with the quality assurance of the products they are supplied or the services they receive, but cannot use procurement as a regulatory tool to mandate quality assurance compliance that goes beyond the remit of the contractual object--in the same manner that the CJEU clearly said in Commission v Netherlands (Fair trade beverages) that public procurement cannot be used to mandated corporate social responsibility.

In my opinion, the Judgment of the GC in Kieffer Omnitec is a knee-jerk reaction to an action brought by a disappointed bidder that clearly did not meet the technical requirements (properly) set by the European Commission. It will be desirable to hear the CJEU interpret art 49 dir 2004/18 and to rule on its (analogous) application to the procurement conducted by the EU Institutions--particularly because the trends to potential inconsistent development of EU public procurement law and the regulatory use of procurement for quality control purposes are not desirable at all.

Latest GC on contract modification in #publicprocurement: Practical difficulties and the need for new rules in the 2013 Directive

In its Judgment of 31 January 2013 in case T-235/11 Spain v Commission (AVE), the General Court has set a very rigid position against the permissibility of contract modifications under EU public procurement rules. 

In a nutshell, and further developing the previous case law in Succhi di Frutta and Pressetext Nachrichtenagentur, the GC has declared that (non-insignificant) contract modifications amount to direct award of (complementary) public contracts and that, consequently, failure to do so in accordance with the rules of the Directives implies a breach of EU law by the contracting authority or entity.

Indeed, the GC has declared that:

69 [...] nor can the argument of the Kingdom of Spain that despite the alteration of certain of the characterizing elements of the services contracted, by keeping the contract initially concluded, the modification of the original contract cannot be considered substantial. As is clear from the case law, in order to ensure transparency of procedures and equal treatment of tenderers, amendments to the provisions of a public contract during its validity constitute a new award of the contract when they have characteristics substantially different from those of the original contract and therefore highlight the willingness of the parties to renegotiate the essential aspects of the contract (see, to that effect, the judgment of the Court of 5 October 2000, Commission / France, C-337/98, ECR p. I-8377, paragraphs 44 and 46, see, by analogy, Pressetext Nachrichtenagentur, paragraph 60 above, paragraph 34).
70 The modification of a contract in force may be considered material when it introduces conditions that, had they been included in the initial award procedure, would have allowed the participation of tenderers other than those initially admitted, or would have allowed the selection of a tender other than the initially selected. Also, a modification of an initial contract can be considered substantial when the contract extends largely to works not originally foreseen. An amendment can also be considered substantial when it changes the economic balance of the contract in favor of the contractor in a way that was not foreseen in the terms of the original contract (see, by analogy, Case Pressetext Nachrichtenagentur [C‑454/06, Rec. p. I‑4401] paragraphs 35 to 37).
71 In the present case, the technical specifications that were modified cannot be considered ancillary, but of a greater importance, as they relate, in particular, to the implementation of important works (such as the execution false tunnels, a viaduct, deepening of foundations, strengthening of technical armor blocks, extension of drainage works, etc..). Therefore, the Kingdom of Spain cannot claim that the work to be executed remains the one initially designed, ie, the high-speed train line, not that the object of the initial contract remained essentially unaltered. (T-231/11 at paras. 69-71, own translation from Spanish; emphasis added).
This position generates practical difficulties, particularly in technically complicated projects, where the use of non-modifiable fixed-price contracts could deter bidders from participating or could generate an increase of total procurement costs due to the need of contractors to create a 'financial cushion' in their offers to cover any unexpected needs for amendments in the scope of works.

This seems now recognized in the current version of the Compromise Text for the reform of current EU public procurement Directives, which includes a (more flexible) rule on contract modification that reduces the risk of (illegal) direct award of public contracts where modifications are justified and necessary.
Article 72 Modification of contracts during their term
1. A substantial modification of the provisions of a public contract or a framework agreement during its term shall be considered as a new award for the purposes of this Directive and shall require a new procurement procedure in accordance with this Directive. In the cases referred to in paragraphs 3, 4 or 5, modifications shall not be considered as substantial.
2. A modification of a contract or a framework agreement during its term shall be considered substantial within the meaning of paragraph 1, where it renders the contract or the framework agreement materially different in character from the one initially concluded. In any case, without prejudice to paragraphs 3, 4 or 5, a modification shall be considered substantial where one of the following conditions is met:
(a) the modification introduces conditions which, had they been part of the initial procurement procedure, would have allowed for the admission of other candidates than those initially selected or for the acceptance of an offer other than that originally accepted or would have attracted additional participants in the procurement procedure;
(b) the modification changes the economic balance of the contract or the framework agreement in favour of the contractor in a manner which was not provided for in the initial contract or framework agreement;
(c) the modification extends the scope of the contract or framework agreement considerably to encompass supplies, services or works not initially covered.
3. Modifications shall not be considered substantial within the meaning of paragraph 1 where they have been provided for in the initial procurement documents in clear, precise and unequivocal review clauses or options. Such clauses shall state the scope and nature of possible modifications or options as well as the conditions under which they may be used. They shall not provide for modifications or options that would alter the overall nature of the contract or the framework agreement.
4. Where the value of a modification can be expressed in monetary terms, the modification shall not be considered to be substantial within the meaning of paragraph 1, where its value does not exceed the thresholds set out in Article 4 and where it is below 10% of the initial contract value, provided that the modification does not alter the overall nature of the contract or framework agreement. Where several successive modifications are made, the value shall be assessed on the basis of the net cumulative value of the successive modifications.
5. A modification shall not be considered to be substantial within the meaning of paragraph 1, where the following cumulative conditions are fulfilled:
(a) the need for modification has been brought about by circumstances which a diligent contracting authority could not foresee;
(b) the modification does not alter the overall nature of the contract;
(c) any increase in price is not higher than 50% of the value of the original contract or framework agreement.
Contracting authorities shall publish in the Official Journal of the European Union a notice on such modifications. Such notices shall contain the information set out in Annex VI part G and be published in accordance with Article 49. 
6. Without prejudice to paragraph 3, the substitution of a new contractor for the one to which the contracting authority had initially awarded the contract shall be considered a substantial modification within the meaning of paragraph 1. However, the first subparagraph shall not apply in the event of universal or partial succession into the position of the initial contractor, following corporate restructuring, including takeover, merger, […] acquisition or insolvency, of another economic operator that fulfils the criteria for qualitative selection initially established provided that this does not entail other substantial modifications to the contract and is not aimed at circumventing the application of this Directive.
As can be seen, the current proposal incorporates the (formalistic) criteria used by the GC in Spain v Commission (AVE), but also creates some flexibility both in terms of setting a value threshold that excludes the need to run a new procurement procedure to increase contract value of up to 10% (as long as the addition remains below EU thresholds, which does not seem to be a necessary or practical requirement), and recognizing that there are sets of circumstances where contract modifications are simply needed and, consequently, legitimate.

In my view, the adoption of new Article 72 in the 2013 EU public procurement Directive is much needed from a practical perspective, although the final wording could still be improved to enhance the effectiveness of its paragraph 4.

Confidentiality and understandability of EU Courts' Judgments: An impossible balance? (T-135/09)

Today's Judgment of the General Court in case T-135/09 Nexans v European Commission offers an example of a case where protection of confidential information makes it very difficult (if not completely impossible) to understand the reasoning followed by the GC to (partially) quash the appealed Decision by the European Commission (in this case, ordering an inspection in a competition law matter).

One of the grounds for appeal was that the European Commission did not have reasonable suspicions of an infringement of the competition rules on the part of the applicants  concerning certain of the products covered by the inspection decision; and, consequently, the decision ordering the inspection was faulty due to lack of a proper motivation. 

The General Court addresses this issue at paras 60 to 94 of the T-135/09 Judgement. However, the substantial suppression of confidential information in some parts of the case (for instance, paras 82 and 86 to 88 are suppressed almost entirely) makes it almost impossible to follow the GC's line of argument and leaves the readers scratching their heads and trying to make some sense out of the context provided by the rest of the Judgment--which may lead to improper conclusions, unfortunately.

In these cases, maybe it would be useful to obtain a less limited confidential version if at all possible, or at least a summary of the (general) reasons for the decision reached by the GC--which help practitioners and scholars make some sense of the case and be able to use it in the future, at least as a matter of principle. Otherwise, such important Judgments (which deal with important matters of due process rights, as in the case at hand) will remain impossible to understand and will not contribute to the development of sound practice and fair adjudication in competition law matters. Nonetheless, proper protection of confidential information and ensuring the understandability of case law may not always be attainable simultaneously...

Summum ius, summa iniuria? GC supports a very narrow approach to the dismissal of non-fully compliant tenders (T-216/09)

In it Judgment of 25 October 2012 in case T-216/09 Astrim SpA and Elyo Italia Srl v European Commission, the General Court has backed up the Commission in its decision to dismiss a tender offer where 0,33% of the itemised prices required by the tender documents were not provided by the tenderers. 

In the invitation to tender, the Commission had indeed expressly stressed "the importance of completing all sections of files", and specifically mentioned that" [t]he omission of one or more of [the itemised prices] may result in the exclusion of the bidder from the tender". On the basis of this clear warning, the GC finds no fault in the decision of the Commission to dismiss the tender submitted by the appellants--which, as mentioned, failed to indicate prices for 7 of the 2091 items included in the contractual object.

According to the GC (only French and Italian versions available):
97 L’article 148 du règlement n° 2342/2002 prévoit, quant à lui, que, « [a]près l’ouverture des offres, dans le cas où une offre donnerait lieu à des demandes d’éclaircissement ou s’il s’agit de corriger des erreurs matérielles manifestes dans la rédaction de l’offre, le pouvoir adjudicateur peut prendre l’initiative d’un contact avec le soumissionnaire, ce contact ne pouvant conduire à une modification des termes de l’offre ». 
98 Il y a donc lieu de considérer que, en l’espèce, le pouvoir adjudicateur, après avoir constaté l’omission affectant certaines rubriques et avoir vérifié qu’il ne s’agissait pas d’erreurs matérielles manifestes dans la rédaction de l’offre, n’était tenu ni d’apprécier la gravité de l’omission ni, par conséquent, de consacrer une motivation spécifique à l’importance des rubriques non complétées
99 Il s’ensuit que la Commission n’a pas enfreint le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation en décidant d’exclure les requérantes au motif que certaines rubriques des listes de prix n’avaient pas été complétées
100 Troisièmement, s’agissant de la prétendue violation de l’article 89 du règlement n° 1605/2002 en ce qui concerne le principe de proportionnalité, il suffit de rappeler que le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation souligne « l’importance de remplir toutes les rubriques des fichiers » et indique que « l’omission d’une ou de plusieurs d’entre elles pourrait avoir pour effet d’exclure le soumissionnaire de l’appel d’offres »
101 Le point 17 de la lettre d’invitation indique donc clairement que l’omission d’une seule rubrique peut entraîner l’exclusion d’un soumissionnaire de l’appel d’offres. À cet égard, il convient de relever que cette disposition de la lettre d’invitation vise à fournir au pouvoir adjudicateur, en l’occurrence à la Commission, une explication détaillée quant à la manière selon laquelle le prix global offert pour le marché public en cause par chaque candidat se décompose en des prix individuels pour les différents produits et services inclus dans ce marché public
102 En outre, l’obligation de chaque candidat de mentionner un prix pour toutes les rubriques de la liste des prix vise à permettre la vérification aisée, par la Commission, du caractère exact du prix global offert par chaque soumissionnaire ainsi que du caractère normal de ce prix, conformément à l’article 139, paragraphe 1, du règlement n° 2342/2002 (voir, en ce sens, arrêt Antwerpse Bouwwerken/Commission, précité, point 62). 
103 Enfin [...] il y a lieu de rappeler que, si l’un des prix composant une offre n’est pas indiqué et que cette absence d’indication n’est pas le fruit d’une erreur matérielle manifeste et mineure qui permette, même grâce à des précisions et des explications du soumissionnaire, de déduire le prix de l’offre de manière facile et certaine, le pouvoir adjudicateur ne peut qu’exclure ladite offre
104 Dans ces circonstances, contrairement à ce que soutiennent les requérantes, la Commission n’a pas violé le principe de proportionnalité en décidant d’exclure leur offre sans tenir compte de l’incidence des rubriques non complétées sur la valeur de cette même offre. (GC T-216/09 at paras 97 to 104, emphasis added).

Even if the legal reasoning followed by the GC is formally sound, in my opinion, it sets a negative precedent that potentially restricts the possibilities to take into account marginally-faulty tenders, particularly in its paragraphs 98 and 103, where the GC adopts an absolute approach to the duty to dismiss incomplete or faulty bids (ie non-fully compliant tenders), regardless of the material relevance of the defects--which the contracting authority would be under no obligation to assess. I think that an alternative approach would be preferable.

As indicated elsewhere [A. Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) pp. 318-323]:

During the tender evaluation process, and as a result of applying the evaluation rules […] contracting authorities can determine that a given tender is not fully compliant with the technical specifications or other requirements regulating the tender. This deviation from the tender requirements should be determined in accordance with the mandate to accept functional and performance equivalents and, consequently, cannot be justified on purely formal terms or by relation to a given standard—at least if alternative standards are available and if the tenderer has proven the equivalence of the proposed solution under the latter (art 23(4) and 23(5) dir 2004/18). In any case, deviations from the requirements set by the contracting authority in the tender documents can still take place under the test of functional or performance equivalence, and a determination that a bid is not fully compliant with the tender requirements can clearly take place under the regime regulating technical specifications. In that situation, however, there is room for significant variation as regards the degree of non-compliance of bids. At the one extreme, bids can be completely unsuitable for the purposes intended by the contracting authority and, at the other extreme, tenders can be merely non-compliant with marginal or secondary issues that would not significantly alter the ability of the tender to satisfy the contracting authorities’ needs. Any imaginable situation lying in the middle of these two extremes is possible and, consequently, a rigid rule applicable equally to all instances of formal non-compliance seems to offer relatively limited results. In this regard, contracting authorities might be willing to accept relatively minor deviations from the tender requirements provided that, overall, the tender is beneficial to their interests. Therefore, an automatic and non-waivable requirement to reject non fully compliant bids could limit unnecessarily the alternatives of the contracting authority.
Non-Fully Compliant Tenders and Non-Fully Compliant Variants. Regardless of whether contracting authorities authorise or not the submission of variants, the issue of the treatment of non-fully compliant bids remains largely open. On the one hand, where no variants are authorised, bids can be non-fully compliant with the general requirements included in the tender documents. Similarly, where variants are accepted, both ‘standard’ and ‘variant’ tenders can be non-fully compliant with the ‘minimum’ requirements contained in the tender documents. In either case, contracting authorities could have an interest in accepting non-fully compliant bids that, however, are substantially suited to satisfying their needs, and prove to be superior to fully compliant bids in some relevant respects—ie, bids that would be considered the most economically advantageous under the relevant award criteria (even taking into consideration their partial or non-full compliance with one or several criteria) and which might not be admissible precisely (or only) because of such partial or non-full compliance. As suggested, these decisions on the treatment granted to non-fully compliant bids can alter the outcome of the tender and can have an impact on competition and, consequently, merit further scrutiny. 
Directive 2004/18 does not contain express rules determining whether contracting authorities are bound to reject non-fully compliant bids in all cases or, on the contrary, whether they can retain a certain degree of discretion to accept them. Nonetheless, this issue has been addressed by the case law of the EU judicature, which has determined that ‘the principle of equal treatment of tenderers requires that all the tenders comply with the tender conditions so as to ensure an objective comparison of the tenders submitted by the various tenderers’ and that ‘[t]hat requirement would not be satisfied if tenderers were allowed to depart from the basic terms of the tender conditions … except where those terms expressly allow them to do so’. In principle, it might seem that—unless contract documents expressly allow for specific departures from the basic requirements (ie, unless variations are authorised)—there is an absolute obligation to dismiss non-fully compliant bids as a requirement or corollary of the principle of equality of treatment. Therefore, it might seem that, other than according to the rules on variants, the acceptance or rejection of a non-fully compliant bid is not within the discretion of the contracting authority—which must automatically reject all non-fully compliant bids in order to guarantee equality of treatment. However, it is hereby submitted that such a reading of the interpreting case law is unnecessarily restrictive and might lead to excessive limitations of competition based solely on largely formalistic criteria that might also diminish the ability of contracting authorities to obtain value for money. Consequently, while complying with the requirements of the principle of equal treatment, an alternative reading might give leeway to more pro-competitive results. 
In this regard, it seems compatible with the abovementioned case law to allow contracting authorities to include in the tender documents a rule allowing for the acceptance of non-fully compliant bids—and, therefore, to make known to all potentially interested tenderers right from the beginning that such a possibility exists—where certain stringent conditions are met, so that i) the partial non-compliance does not materially affect the ability of the tender to satisfy the needs of the contracting authority and/or does not grant the tenderer a material advantage over other competing bidders (which, in the case of quantitative criteria could be limited by authorising a given percentage of deviation from the set requirements)—ie, where the tender is not unsuitable, but merely non-fully compliant; ii) the tender is superior to fully compliant bids in some relevant respects—ie, it is the most economically advantageous under the relevant award criteria— even taking into account the partial and non-material non-compliance with one or various requirements included in the tender documents; and iii) the rules do not confer on the contracting authority unrestricted freedom of choice amongst tenderers. Such rules could be supplemented by setting a penalisation system for non-fully compliant bids (either fixed, or varying with the number of criteria with which the tender is non-fully compliant), in order to ensure that their overall superiority compensates for and exceeds the potential deficiencies derived from partial non-compliance with one or several tender requirements. Also, contracting authorities could always establish that certain tender requirements are not subject to partial compliance (ie, awarding constraints). 
In our view, effective competition for the contract could be fostered by allowing tenderers that cannot fully comply with the specifications to submit tenders for the contract and, as long as the rules applicable to non-fully compliant tenders were clearly set in the tender documents ex ante, no breach of the principle of non-discrimination or the ensuing transparency obligation would arise. Therefore, it seems justified to require contracting authorities to adopt such an approach, whenever clear rules and criteria for the appraisal of non-fully compliant rules permit it. Once again, implementing this approach might raise the complexity and costs of the tender procedure and, consequently, should be subjected to a proportionality test.
Hence, I submit that a more flexible approach should have been adopted by the GC in T-216/09 or that, at least, future developments of EU public procurement law should not be restricted by the very tight corset created by the GC in paras 98 and 103 of the Astrim SpA and Elyo Italia v Commission Judgment. As the classics said, summum ius, summa iniuria...

Duty to give reasons under EU procurement law and EU trademark law: is there a contradiction?

Even if they may seem two rather disconnected areas of legal practice, reading cases on EU public procurement and on EU trademark law sometimes offers interesting insights into broader issues of EU Economic Law or, more generally, EU Law. For instance, some recent case law on the duty to provide reasons under each of the specific adminsitrative procedures that govern contract tendering and trademark registration shows what, in my view, is rather a contradiction.

On the one hand, and as commented recently here, the General Court issued his Judgment in Sviluppo Globale GEIE v Commission where it imposed a very demanding standard for the duty to give reasons in procurement cases. Indeed, the GC held that:
27 [...] despite the information contained in [debriefing] letters, and taking into account the relevant case law [Evropaïki Dynamiki/OEDT, T-63/06 at para 112, and Evropaïki Dynamiki/Commission, T-300/07 at para 50] the applicant has not received a response from the Commission showing in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision. [...]
30 [...] the Commission has not made a formal comparison of the projects described by the applicant in its expression of interest against the benchmark of the three criteria set out in paragraph 21.3.a) of the contract notice. In particular, it did not explain which of these three criteria was not satisfied by the projects [submitted by the applicant]. In these circumstances, the applicant was not able to know if the reason for the rejection of her expression of interest in the procurement in question concerned the minimum number of projects implemented, their budget, their completion in a timely manner or the areas in which they were executed. [...]
35 [...] when, as in this case, a European institution has a wide discretion, the guarantees conferred by the Community legal order in administrative procedures is of an even more fundamental relevance. Those guarantees include, in particular, the duty of the competent institution to state sufficient reasons for its decisions (Technische Universität München, C-269/90 at para 14; Le CanneCommission, T-241/00 at paras 53 and 54, and Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission, T-300/07  at para 45). [...]
40 In light of the foregoing, it must be held that the applicant properly submits that, to the extent that the Commission has not developed further the reasons why her candidacy did not meet the technical selection criteria set in the contract notice, it has not received in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning of the Commission, which would have allowed her to know the reasons for the decision not to be included in the shortlist of the contract at issue. Moreover, she could not sue without knowing what those reasons are. It is noteworthy in this regard that the right to good administration under Article 41 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (OJ 2007 C 303, p. 1) sets an obligation on the administration to justify its decisions and that this motivation is not only in general, the expression of the transparency of administrative action, but it must also allow the individual to decide, with full knowledge of the facts, if it is useful for her to apply to a court. There is therefore a close relationship between the obligation to state reasons and the fundamental right to effective judicial protection and the right to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. (GC T-183/10, at paras 27 to 40, emphasis added, own translation from French).
As I said, this detailed debriefing standard imposes a very high burden on the contracting authorities and entities to provide very detailed reasons concerning every single criterion used in the evaluation of bids. Therefore, contracting authorities and entities will have a powerful incentive to be extremely cautious in the level of detail they provide in debriefing letters and meetings and, in case of doubt, they may feel that the safer position is to err on the side of providing excessive rather than insufficient information. And this generates some troubling incentives and risks, as discussed here.

On the other hand and on the same day, the GC issued its Judgment of 10 October 2012 in case Case T-569/10 Bimbo v OHMI - Panrico (BIMBO DOUGHNUTS), where the challenger of OHIM's decision contended, among other grounds for appeal, that OHIM had not expressly addressed some of the arguments presented during the trademark review procedure. In this case, the GC found that:39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons provided for in the first sentence of Article 75 of Regulation No 207/2009
39 The applicant is in fact arguing that the Board of Appeal infringed the obligation to state reasons [...]
40 It is to be observed that in the present case the Board of Appeal set out in the contested decision the facts and legal considerations which led it to take that decision [...]
41 As regards, more particularly, the applicant’s argument that the Board of Appeal failed to respond to two specific arguments which it had put forward during the procedure before OHIM, the following points should be made.
42 Firstly, with regard to the applicant’s argument that the word ‘doughnuts’ is regarded by the Spanish public as descriptive of the goods in question, the Board of Appeal addressed that argument by stating, in paragraph 18 of the contested decision, that for the average Spanish consumer (excluding those who speak English) the word ‘doughnuts’ did not describe the goods or their qualities. It also held that the earlier sign, like the sign applied for, would be perceived as a foreign or fantasy term ‘by most consumers’.
43 Thus, the Board of Appeal implicitly held that the majority of average Spanish consumers did not speak English or, at least, did not speak it well enough to know the meaning of the word ‘doughnuts’. In that context, it should be observed that the reasoning of the decision of a Board of Appeal may be implicit, on condition that it enables the persons concerned to know the reasons for the Board of Appeal’s decision and provides the competent Court with sufficient material for it to exercise its power of review (Case T‑304/06 Reber v OHIM – Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli (Mozart) [2008] ECR II‑1927, paragraph 55).
44 In this case, the Board of Appeal’s reasoning rejecting the argument based on the allegedly descriptive character of the ‘doughnuts’ element of the trade mark was sufficient to enable the applicant to understand the reasons that had led the Board of Appeal to adopt the contested decision and to enable the Court to exercise its power of review.
45 Secondly, with regard to the applicant’s argument based on the reputation of the ‘bimbo’ element of the trade mark applied for, it is true that the Board of Appeal did not explicitly address that argument in the contested decision. However, it pointed out that the ‘doughnuts’ element in the trade mark applied for ‘[would] catch the attention of the relevant Spanish public, as it appears unusual in Spanish due to the atypical combination of vowels “ou” and the accumulation of consonants “ghn”’. The Board thus held that that element could not be disregarded in the comparison in question. Thus, it follows from the contested decision that the Board of Appeal did not consider that the ‘bimbo’ element of the mark applied for dominated the overall impression created by the mark applied for to such an extent that the other component – the ‘doughnuts’ element – could be disregarded. The reasoning relating to this point was also sufficient to enable the applicant to know the reasons for the contested decision and to enable the Court to review the legality of the decision on that point.
46 The statement of reasons in the contested decision is thus sufficient in law.
(GC T-569/10, at paras 39 to 46, emphasis added).
In my reading, the position of the GC in Bimbo Doughnuts is a more balanced review of the reasons provided by the authority than in Sviluppo Globale, and the focus is ultimately functional. Even if the bottom limit or the minimum standard concerning the duty to give reasons set by the GC in both Sviluppo Globale and Bimbo Doughnuts points towards the same functional requirement [ie that the affected party (either a bidder or a trademark applicant) must be able to decide whether to apply to a court to challenge the decision on the basis of its supporting elements, and that such court must be able to exercise its power of review], there seems to be a clear contradiction--or, at the very least--a significant discrepancy in the level of scrutiny in both cases.

Whereas Sviluppo Globale indicates the need to "show in a clear and unequivocal fashion the reasoning followed in the adoption of the contested decision", Bimbo Doughnuts leaves more room to administrative restrictions of the information provided by accepting that "the reasoning of the decision may be implicit and even not expressly address all points raised by the applicant", provided always that the information given is sufficient to understand the reasons for the contested decision. In my opinion, the second position is much less formal and allows for a more workable system of administration of EU rules. Therefore, it seems preferable and should be extended to the public procurement arena and, more generally, to all areas of EU Law.

In this regard, the codification of a proper set of rules (or standards) on EU Administrative Law seems a worthy regulatory exercise. For very interesting proposals, please see the projects conducted under the Research Network on EU Administrative Law http://www.reneual.eu/.

How precisely must evaluation rules be described in procurement documents? According to the GC, not that precisely

In yet another public procurement case derived from a complaint by the Greek company Evropaïki Dynamiki, the General Court has analysed the issue of the degree of precision required in the description of evaluation methods for contract award purposes in its Judgment of 12 July 2012 in case T-476/07 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Frontex.

Regarding the degree of precision in the publication of the award criteria and the evaluation methods to be used by the contracting authority, the GC has adopted a lenient approach that seems questionable, since it may result in leaving excessive discretion in the hands of evaluation teams. It is worth stressing that the GC in Frontex considers that:
the fact that a precise scale of the calculation of the tenders with regard to that award criterion [multiplication of efficiency by effectiveness] was not given cannot constitute a breach of the tendering specifications consisting in the introduction, by the contracting authority, of a new award criterion. The calculation used to arrive at a well defined score does not constitute an evaluation criterion of the proposed hypothetical IT solution, but rather a consequence of that evaluation (case T-476/07, at para 106, emphasis added).
This seems to me as a highly controversial finding, which may run contrary to the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU, particularly in Lianakis (C-532/06 [2008] ECR I-251), where the CJEU clearly indicated that it is settled case law that: "potential tenderers should be aware of all the elements to be taken into account by the contracting authority in identifying the economically most advantageous offer, and their relative importance, when they prepare their tenders" and that "[p]otential tenderers must be in a position to ascertain the existence and scope of those elements when preparing their tenders" (paras 36 and 37, emphasis added). Even further, the CJEU stressed that "tenderers must be placed on an equal footing throughout the procedure, which means that the criteria and conditions governing each contract must be adequately publicised by the contracting authorities" (para 40, emphasis added).
If evaluation methods do not include the scales to be used by evaluation teams when they assess the tenders submitted by bidders, it is hard to see how all transparency requirements will be made operational and how applicants can effectively tailor their offers to the actual (preferred) requirements of the contracting authority or entity. 

Unless there is a good overriding reason to keep the evaluation methodologies and scales secret or undefined in contract notices and documents, it seems clearly desirable that evaluation methods AND scales are published and available to bidders when preparing their tenders. In the end, it is not very useful to know that your tender will be assessed under a criterion of 'efficiency' or 'effectiveness' if there is no indication whatsoever how such requirements will be operationalized by the evaluation team. 

Therefore, I think that the position of the GC in Frontex clashes with the more general case law highlighted by the CJEU in Lianakis, and that Frontex reflects a too lenient approach towards unjustified restrictions in the transparency of evaluation tools and procedures in public procurement. 

In this regard, it seems desirable that the current revision of the EU Directives further details the obligations of contracting authorities to specify evaluation methods and scales in contract notices (e.g. in article 66 of the proposal for a Directive replacing 2004/18).

On theatre and whisky: GC pushes further in the protection of reputed trademarks

In its Judgment of 6 July 2012 in Case T-60/10 Jackson International Trading Co. Kurt D. Brühl GbmH & Co. KG v OHIM - Royal Shakespeare, the General Court  (Royal Shakespeare), the General Court analyses to what extent the  reputation of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the organisation of theater productions in the United Kingdom granted a right to request the cancellation of the trade mark 'Royal Shakespeare' as a Community trade mark in respect of alcoholic beverages (including beer and Scotch Whisky) and non-alcoholic beverages (mineral water, fruit juices, etc).

In the Royal Shakespeare Judgment, the GC conducts a rather detailed analysis of the elements that are necessary for the prior repute of a trade mark to grant a cancellation request of a similar trade mark under articles 5(3) and 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009. The GC structures the analysis around the delimitation of the relevant public for the analysis of the reputation of the earlier trade mark and the scope of that reputation, and finds that an 'exceptional' reputation in a specific type of services within one class of the Nice Agreement is sufficient to trigger protection, regardless of how different they are from the other products or services for which the similar mark is used (which analysis is reserved for the issue of the likelihood of unfair advantage in the use of the trade mark).

The GC also stresses and clarifies the requirements to be met in order to determine that there is a risk of undue advantage in the use of a trade mark similar or identical to that with ('exceptional') reputation:
47 [...] article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009 covers three separate and alternative types of risk, namely that the use without due cause of the mark applied for will take unfair advantage of the distinctive character or the repute of the earlier mark, or that it will be detrimental to the distinctive character of the earlier mark, or that it will be detrimental to the repute of the earlier mark.
48 The unfair advantage taken of the distinctive character or the repute of the earlier trade mark consists in the fact that the image of the mark with a reputation or the characteristics which it projects will be transferred to the goods covered by the mark applied for, with the result that the marketing of those goods can be made easier by that association with the earlier mark with a reputation.
49 It should, however, be emphasised that in none of those cases is it necessary that there be a likelihood of confusion between the marks at issue; it is only necessary that the relevant public is able to establish a link between them, without having necessarily to confuse them [...]
56 [...] The advantage arising from the use by a third party of a sign similar to a mark with a reputation is an advantage taken unfairly by that third party of the distinctive character or the repute of the mark where that party seeks by that use to ride on the coat-tails of the mark with a reputation in order to benefit from the power of attraction, the reputation and the prestige of that mark and to exploit, without paying any financial compensation, the marketing effort expended by the proprietor of the mark in order to create and maintain the mark’s image
Following this standard refresher of the applicable law, the GC conducts the analysis under the specific circumstances of the case, and finds that the possibility that the public establishes a relatively weak link between the concerned trade marks suffices to grant protection:
59 With regard to the goods and services in the present case, those of the applicant do not appear to be directly and immediately linked to the intervener’s theatre productions. However, despite the differences in the nature of those goods and services, there is, none the less, a certain proximity and link between them. In that regard, it has already been acknowledged in case-law that there is a certain similarity between entertainment services and beer due to their complementarity (see Judgment of 4 November 2008 in Case T161/07 Group Lottuss v OHIM – Ugly (Coyote Ugly), not published in the ECR, paragraphs 31 to 37). It is common practice, in theatres, for bar and catering services to be offered either side of and in the interval of a performance. (emphasis added)
60 Moreover, irrespective of the above, in view of the established reputation of the earlier trade mark, the relevant public, namely the public at large in the United Kingdom, would be able to make a link with the intervener when seeing a beer with the contested trade mark in a supermarket or in a bar.
61 In the present case, the applicant would benefit from the power of attraction, the reputation and the prestige of the earlier trade mark for its own goods, such as beer and other beverages, and for its services. In the beverages market, those goods would attract the consumer’s attention thanks to the association with the intervener and its earlier trade mark, which would give the applicant a commercial advantage over its competitors’ goods. That economic advantage would consist of exploiting the effort expended by the intervener in order to establish the reputation and the image of its earlier trade mark, without paying any compensation in exchange. That equates to an unfair advantage taken by the applicant of the repute of the earlier trade mark within the meaning of Article 8(5) of Regulation No 207/2009.
Therefore, the GC Judgment in the Royal Shakespeare case can be seen as a broadening of the scope of protection or (‘exceptionally’) reputed trade marks under EU law through a reduced standard of risk of association by consumers.