Why call it essential national interest when you mean control? Thoughts on the converging exceptions to the EU procurement rules a propos the Austrian passports case (C-187/16)


In its Judgment of 20 March 2018 in Commission v Austria (Imprimerie d'État), C-187/16, EU:C:2018:194, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) assessed the extent to which Austria could rely on claims of national security interest and/or essential national interest to justify the direct award of several contracts for the printing of passports and other secure documents to the former Austrian national printing office (ÖS). In rejecting this possibility, the CJEU followed AG Kokott’s strict approach to the interpretation of derogations of the EU public procurement rules (as discussed here) and, crucially, determined that ‘a Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must establish that the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure as provided for by’ the relevant EU public procurement rules (para 79).

The case is interesting, but hardly novel, in the narrow approach taken by the CJEU in the interpretation of exceptions from competitive tendering under the EU procurement rules (paras 69-96), as well as in relation to the standard of proof required to justify the existence of a ‘certain cross-border interest’ in the tendering of contracts not covered by the EU rules (paras 103-111, which largely follow the recent case of Tecnoedi, see here). However, I think that the case is also interesting for the ‘forward continuity’ and systemic convergence it shows amongst the different exceptions to the EU public procurement rules, which requires an appreciation of the case in the context of the evolution of EU public procurement law. I explore this idea in this post.

It is worth stressing that the case was decided in relation to the third and fourth generation of EU procurement rules, as Directives 92/50/EEC and 2004/18/EC were applicable to the case ratione temporis. Differently from the current Directive 2014/24/EU, both the 1992 and the 2004 version of the EU procurement rules preceded the adoption of Directive 2009/81/EC on defence and security procurement, as well as the development (Dir 92/50) and consolidation (Dir 2004/18) of the in-house providing and public-public cooperation exemptions (as Teckal dates back to 1999 and Commission v Germany (Hamburg waste) dates back to 2009). This is relevant in the interpretation of their exemptions based on security or essential national interests.

‘Forward continuity’ in the treatment of security or essential interest-based exemptions

Dir 92/50 foresaw the possibility for Member States to exempt the direct (or less than fully competitive) award of contracts for the provision of ‘services which are declared secret or the execution of which must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned or when the protection of the basic interests of that State’s security so requires’ (Art 4(2), emphasis added). Similarly, Dir 2004/18 contained an equivalent exemption for ‘public contracts when they are declared to be secret, when their performance must be accompanied by special security measures in accordance with the laws, regulations or administrative provisions in force in the Member State concerned, or when the protection of the essential interests of that Member State so requires’ (Art 14, emphasis added).

This functionally-equivalent exemption under the 1992 and 2004 versions of the EU public procurement rules could have been used, for example, to justify the direct award of a contract to an entity controlled (or heavily influenced/supervised?) by the contracting authority in order to protect the relevant essential / security national interest through an organic governance relationship rather than through contract. In fact, this seems to be the thrust of the justifications put forward by Austria in the case now decided by the CJEU, given that most of the arguments are (rather implicitly based) on the ‘special relationship’ that Austria has established with ÖS (or rather, kept after ÖS’ privatisation). These exemptions would, in the end, possibly be seen as simple clarification that the existence of the EU public procurement rules did not require the contractualisation (and prior award) of the management of this type of services—provided that the existence of the security/essential national interest existed and the exemption from EU procurement rules passed muster under a (strict) proportionality assessment—although this approach to exemption based on the relationship between the contracting authority and the service provider seems to now be clearly within the functional realm of the in-house and public-public collaboration exemptions, rather than that of defence-related exemptions (see below).

Since its regulation in Dir 92/50 (and to a large extent, Dir 2004/18), the possibility to avoid contractualising (and tendering) the entrustment of the provision of services involving security or essential interests (through contracts or other types of ‘written agreements’, of which domestic administrative law regulates a garden variety) and/or the tendering of such public contracts has since evolved in two meaningful ways. First, Dir 2009/81 has come to establish a clearer instrument for the regulation of procurement involving defence and security interests and I argue that the subjection of a contract not covered by that specific instrument to the general rules of Dir 2014/24 will be largely dependent on a strict analysis similar to that carried out by the CJEU in the case against Austria, as Art 15(2) Dir 2014/24 echoes the wording of the Judgment. This will ensure ‘forward continuity’ in the assessment of these matters under EU procurement law.

Indeed, in relation to the pre-2014 rules, the CJEU has found that a ‘Member State which wishes to avail itself of those derogations must show that such derogation is necessary in order to protect its essential security interests’ (para 78) and that ‘the protection of such interests could not have been attained within a competitive tendering procedure’ (para 79), which assessment needs to take into account that ‘the requirement to impose an obligation of confidentiality does not in itself prevent the use of a competitive tendering procedure for the award of a contract’ (para 89) and that this is compatible with ‘the confidential nature of data can be protected by a duty of secrecy, without it being necessary to contravene public procurement procedures’ (para 90). Moreover, the exemption of a direct award needs to overcome a strict proportionality based on the absence of less intrusive measures, such as the possibility of establishing effective control mechanisms (para 86) and screening the trustworthiness of potential service providers based in a different Member State (para 87).

This is mirrored by the 2014 Directive’s requirement that it ‘shall not apply to public contracts and design contests … to the extent that the protection of the essential security interests of a Member State cannot be guaranteed by less intrusive measures, for instance by imposing requirements aimed at protecting the confidential nature of information which the contracting authority makes available in a contract award procedure as provided for in this Directive’ (Art 15(2) emphases added). This basically comes to ‘consolidate’ or sum up the requirements set by the CJEU in the Judgment in Commission v Austria, which is thus fully aligned with the rules in Dir 2014/24. In that regard, there will be a clear continuity in the analysis of these situations despite the approval of Dir 2009/18 in the intervening period.

Convergence with exemptions based on control of the service provider

Second, and maybe less self-evidently, the interpretation of the exemptions in Dir 92/50 and Dir 2004/18 need to be coordinated with the consolidation of the in-house and public-public cooperation exemptions in the case law of the CJEU to date—which may however experience further transformation in the future, as the rules in Dir 2014/24 start being interpreted by the CJEU.

It seems clear that, as a result of the Teckal and Hamburg doctrines, and even before their ‘recast’ in Art 12 of Dir 2014/24, Member States could have exempted the direct award of contracts for the printing of passports—or any other contracts involving security/essential national interests—not on those grounds, but on the basis of the ‘special’ relationship between the contracting authority and the provider of those ‘sensitive’ services. Where the relationship was one of ‘administrative mutualism’, the direct award could be exempted under the public-public exemption. Where the relationship was one of ‘similar control’ by the contracting authority, the exemption could be justified on the in-house providing doctrine.

In either of the cases, the relationship underlying the exemption requires a certain element of intuitu personae (to put it that way) between the entities participating in the non-tendered (contractual) arrangement. The existence of that ‘special nexus’ would justify a conceptualisation of the decision to award the contract as subjected to organic relationships and administrative governance, rather than contractualised mechanisms based on market-based governance and competition-based checks and balances. Conversely, where the contracting authority decided to contractualise the management of the relationship, and in the absence of special links with the arm’s length provider of the services, the contracting authority had to comply with the EU procurement rules.

The Commission v Austria case is interesting in that, underlying the reasoning of the Court (as well as the analysis of AG Kokott in her Opinion, see here) is an element of dismissiveness of the ‘special relationship’ created between Austria and ÖS. To put it in rather simple and tentative terms, my reading of the Judgment is that the CJEU is reluctant to recognise the exemption of a direct award where the mechanisms set up by the Member State to administer the security/essential national interest implicit in the provision of the services are fungible, in the sense that they could be easily recreated in relation to an alternative provider (or providers).

This is clear in the same paragraphs where the CJEU demonstrates the lack of proportionality of the direct award of the contract for the printing of passports (mainly, paras 80-94), where the Court repeatedly stresses the possibility for the Austrian authorities to have created adequate safeguards through contractual mechanisms aimed at: (i) ensuring the centralised execution of the contract (paras 81-83), (ii) the establishment of effective administrative supervision mechanisms (paras 84-86), (iii) guarantee of supply (para 87), (iv) the screening of the trustworthiness of the provider and confidentiality of sensitive information (paras 88-94).

This is compatible with the fact that, under the in-house and public-public cooperation doctrines, the entrustment of the provision of services to entities lacking that intuitu personae or special nexus—ie those governed by contract rather organic relationships—must comply with EU public procurement rules. This excludes the exemptability of direct awards such as that attempted by Austria, which is implicitly what the CJEU has established here by stressing the replicability with a suitable alternative provider of the ‘control’ or influence/oversight mechanisms that Austria has over ÖS—which would then fail to justify both (or either) exemption under the defence/essential interest doctrine and the in-house/public-public cooperation approach.

In my view, this is welcome as it reflects internal functional convergence across exemptions from compliance with EU public procurement rules on the basis of a distinction between the governance of relationships based on organic/administrative relationships and those based on markets and a competition logic. I think that this is a perspective worthy of further consideration, and it will be interesting to see of the CJEU makes this more explicit in future judgments.

Increasing space for unfair competition from the public sector in procurement markets ~ What now?


Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the Scottish Competition Forum discussion on 'Unfair competition from the public sector in commercial markets'. In my presentation (slides below), I concentrated on the increasing space that recent reforms in EU public procurement law have created for situations of potential unfair competition and crowding out of private economic initiative by the commercial activities of the public sector, in particular in small markets.

The discussions at SCF indicated that there is scope (and need) for additional regulation ensuring competitive neutrality where "arms' length" organisations (such as in-house entities, vehicles for public-public cooperation, or central purchasing bodies) engage in economic activities in competition with the private sector. This is along the lines of the work that my co-author Dr Ignacio Herrera Anchustegui and I have been carrying out concerning the submission of these entities (in particular, central purchasing bodies) to competition rules -- see here and here.

This is also in line with some of the insights resulting from other discussions in a recent event organised by the Finnish Procurement Association, on which I plan to blog soon. Keep an eye on this space if you are interested in the emerging challenges derived from increased marketisation / commercialisation of the activities of instrumental entities carrying out procurement.

In-house providing and (minimum) "effective" public control: Sunset or breaking dawn for purely public (commercial) service providers? (C‑182 and 183/11)

In its Judgment of 29 November 2012 in Joined Cases C‑182/11 and C‑183/11, Econord SpA v Comune di Cagno and Comune di Varese (C-182/11) and Comune di Solbiate and Comune di Varese (C-183/11), the Court of Justice of the EU has offered a succinct reminder of its case law on in-house providing as an exception to the applicability of the EU public procurement Directives.  

According to this line of case law, contracting entities can award contracts directly (ie without a competitive tender) where they exercise over the contractor a control similar to that which they have over their own departments, and the contractor carries out the essential part of its activities with the contracting authorities to which it belongs. In those cases, it is assumed that there is no potential for competition and that the market is not affected by the decision of the contracting authority to retain the activity "in-house".

However, in Econord, the CJEU has taken an additional step in the fine tuning of the concept of "similar control" required under the in-house providing exception. In its Judgment, the CJEU has stated that:
27 According to settled case-law, there is ‘similar control’ where the entity in question is subject to control enabling the contracting authority to influence that entity’s decisions. The power exercised must be a power of decisive influence over both the strategic objectives and the significant decisions of that entity (Parking Brixen, paragraph 65; Coditel Brabant, paragraph 28; and Sea, paragraph 65). In other words, the contracting authority must be able to exercise a structural and functional control over that entity (Commission v Italy, paragraph 26). The Court also requires that this control should be effective (Coditel Brabant, paragraph 46).
28 According to the case-law, where use is made of an entity jointly owned by a number of public authorities, the ‘similar control’ may be exercised jointly by those authorities, without it being essential for such control to be exercised individually by each of them (see, to that effect, Coditel Brabant, paragraphs 47 and 50, and Sea, para. 59). 
29 It follows that, if a public authority becomes a minority shareholder in a company limited by shares with wholly public capital for the purpose of awarding the management of a public service to that company, the control that the public authorities which are members of that company exercise over it may be categorised as similar to the control they exercise over their own departments when it is exercised by those authorities jointly (Sea, para. 63). 
30 In those circumstances, although, where a number of public authorities make use of a common entity for the purposes of carrying out a common public service task, it is certainly not essential that each of those authorities should in itself have an individual power of control over that entity, nevertheless, if the very concept of joint control is not to be rendered meaningless, the control exercised over that entity cannot be based solely on the controlling power of the public authority with a majority holding in the capital of the entity concerned
31 Where the position of a contracting authority within a jointly owned successful tenderer does not provide it with the slightest possibility of participating in the control of that tenderer, that would, in effect, open the way to circumvention of the application of the rules of EU law regarding public contracts or service concessions, since a purely formal affiliation to such an entity or to a joint body managing it would exempt the contracting authority from the obligation to initiate a tendering procedure in accordance with the EU rules, even though it would take no part in exercising the ‘similar control’ over that entity (see, to that effect, Case C-231/03 Coname [2005] ECR I-7287, paragraph 24).
32 Consequently, in the cases before the referring court, it is for that court to verify whether the signing, by the Comune di Cagno and the Comune di Solbiate, of a shareholders’ agreement conferring on them the right to be consulted, to appoint a member of the supervisory council and to nominate a member of the management board, in agreement with the other authorities concerned by that shareholders’ agreement, can enable those municipal councils to contribute effectively to the control of Aspem.
33 In the light of the foregoing, the answer to the question referred is that where, in their capacity as contracting authority, a number of public authorities jointly establish an entity with responsibility for carrying out their public service mission, or where a public authority subscribes to such an entity, the condition established by the case-law of the Court to the effect that, in order to be exempted from their obligation to initiate a public tendering procedure in accordance with the rules of EU law, those authorities must jointly exercise over that entity control similar to the control they exercise over their own departments, is fulfilled where each of those authorities not only holds capital in that entity, but also plays a role in its managing bodies. (Joined Cases C‑182/11 and C‑183/11, paras. 27 to 32, emphasis added).
In my view, the Judgment of the CJEU must be interpreted in a functional manner and has refined the requirement for similar control and transformed it into a requirement for "similar, active and effective control". The requirement for contracting authorities to "play a role" in the management bodies of the entities that are considered to remain "in-house" must be active and effective, and it will not suffice that they (jointly) "take a seat" in the relevant boards (as that would fall short for ensuring that they have (more than) "
the slightest possibility of participating in the control of that tenderer" and that they "
take [...] part in exercising the ‘similar control’ over that entity"

Therefore, the answer in view of the specific circumstances of the cases joined in Econord, where the contracting authorities merely entered into "a shareholders’ agreement conferring on them the right to be consulted, to appoint a member of the supervisory council and to nominate a member of the management board, in agreement with the other authorities concerned", should be that they do not exercise a similarly effective control over the contractor as they do with their own administrative units.

If that is the correct interpretation of the Econord Judgment, it would generate difficulty for the creation of purely public (commercial) service providers, whereby a public authority would create and retain majority control of an entity entrusted with the provision of SGEIs, SSGIs or other local services and then offer its services to other contracting entities that would acquire a minority stake and not get involved in its day to day operations. In my view, such development would be welcome and a consistent complement to the competition rules in articles 106 and 107 TFEU. If contracting authorities want to cooperate directly (thorugh public-public partnerships) or indirectly (through instrumental entities), they need to remain actively engaged in the provision of the services contracted out (in-house). 

Otherwise, if the contracting authorities want to disengage from the direct management of those services and take the back seat (eg in a board of directors), there is no reason to see why public contractors should be shielded from the competition of private contractors, since both would be offering a commercial relationship to the outsourcing contracting authority and there would be an effective risk of generating relevant distortions of competition [see Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 240-242]. Therefore, in the lack of a sufficiently active involvement, in the absence of an actual organic link between the contracting authority and the "in-house" entity, there is no good reason to exclude the application of the EU public procurement rules, as the CJEU has quite clearly stressed.

Therefore, it will be interesting to see what is the final decision of the Italian courts in the domestic cases leading to Econord, but a decision that upheld the applicability of the in-house exception would be, in my opinion, an inappropriate reading of the CJEU's Judgment.