CJEU consolidates push for overcompliance with EU public procurement rules in the provision of public services (C-446/14)

In its Judgment of 18 February 2016 in Germany v Commission (Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung), C-446/14 P, EU:C:2016:97 (only in German and French), the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has supported the approach of the General Court (GC) in the assessment of the Altmark (C-280/00, EU:C:2003:415) conditions for the analysis of State aid regarding a system of financial support for a service of general economic interest (SGEI) consisting in the maintenance of reserve animal disposal capacity in the case of epizootic in a public abattoir in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany.

This appeal was against the GC's Judgment in T-295/12 (EU:T:2014:675, which is discussed by P Nicolaides here), but the analysis of the CJEU was highly relevant for the pending appeal against the GC Judgment in T-309/12 (EU:T:2014:676, discussed here), which has now been abandoned by the appellant (the abattoir, now in liquidation). The intricacies of the case are quite complex, and points of detail are too specific to discuss now. However, there are some general issues to note in view of the CJEU's Germany v Commission (Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung) Judgment. 

From the outset, it must be stressed that the CJEU is following the GC in a trend that may well be modifying the scope of the Altmark test in a way that pushes for overcompliance with the EU public procurement rules as the only effective way in which Member States can achieve legal certainty in the way they organise their SGEIs. This requires to take a long view on some of the arguments in the case.

The CJEU has generally been very clear that 'the four conditions set out in Altmark ... are distinct from one another, each pursuing its own finality' (para 31, own translation from French). In particular, it stressed that the first condition requires 'that the recipient undertaking must actually be required to discharge public service obligations and those obligations must be clearly defined for such compensation to escape the classification as State aid' (para 26, own translation from French), while the fourth condition determines that 'when the choice of the undertaking which is to discharge public service obligations, in a specific case, is not in the framework of a public procurement procedure, the level of compensation needed must be determined based on an analysis of the costs which a typical, well run, undertaking would have incurred in discharging those obligations, taking into account the relevant receipts and a reasonable profit for discharging those obligations' (para 29, own translation from French). In that regard, these would seem to require separate, independent assessments of each of the Altmark conditions.

In contrast, in the challenged decision, the GC had determined that
as part of the review of the question whether the fourth Altmark criterion ... is satisfied, there is certainly room to take into consideration the nature of the service in question and the circumstances of the case, and it is therefore possible that this criterion, which requires a comparison of the costs and revenues directly related to the provision of the SGEI, can not be applied strictly to the present case (see, that effect, case BUPA ea / Commission (T-289/03, EU:T:2008:29) paragraph 246). Indeed, the Court has already held that ... although the conditions set out in Altmark ... concern without distinction all sectors of the economy, their implementation must take into account the specificity of a certain sector and, given the particular nature of the SGEI mission in specific sectors, it should be flexible in the application of the Altmark judgment ... in relation to the spirit and purpose that led to the establishment of said conditions, so that they are suitable to the particular facts of the case (see case of 7 November 2012 CBI / Commission, T-137/10 (EU:T:2012:584) paragraphs 85 and 86, and the cases cited) (T-295/12, para 131, own translation from French).
This was criticised by Germany as a conflation of the first and fourth Altmark conditions, particularly because the analysis supported by these general remarks implied dismissing the existence of an SGEI in the specific case in Rhineland-Palatinate, and a general consideration of the costs incurred by undertakings active in the same sector in other German states that, however, may have been subjected to different public service obligations or where no SGEI may have existed at all (T-275/12, para 130). In Germany's submission, this would have led the GC to a tautological conclusion. 

The CJEU dismisses the argument on the following basis:
... the Court cannot be criticized for having reached a tautological conclusion that would have linked the lack of satisfaction of that fourth condition to a finding of lack of qualification of maintaining a reserve capacity as a service of general economic interest [first condition]. Indeed, as is clear from paragraph 130 of the judgment, the Court, first, discussed the situation in which the maintenance of a reserve capacity in case of an outbreak could have validly received such qualification [of SGEI] and on the other hand, felt that, given the obligations of the competent public authorities in all German states to eliminate the largest quantity of substances ... received during an outbreak [regardless of the way they organised the discharge of that public obligation, and regardless of whether they defined an equivalent SGEI], it was necessary to take into account the existing situation in other German states to determine the necessary level of compensation on the basis of an analysis of the costs which a typical undertaking, well run and adequately equipped, would have incurred in meeting the public service requirements (C-446/14 P, para 35, own translation from French).
Thus, the general conclusion of the CJEU is that the GC did not err in law by conflating the different conditions established in Altmark

I disagree with the CJEU because, even if the conditions 'are distinct from one another, each pursuing its own finality', the logic in their application to a same set of factual circumstances requires that, once the scope of the economic activity that the Member State claims is an SGEI is properly established for the purposes of the judicial review (and regardless of whether the first condition is upheld or not in terms of whether those obligations are clearly defined), the analysis of the fourth condition (ie either procurement of that 'alleged' SGEI or analysis of the costs of a notional well-run undertaking providing that 'alleged' SGEI) needs to remain within that context.

Otherwise, the assessment of the notional, well-run undertaking's cost structure outside of the remit of the 'alleged' SGEI under dispute comes to basically neutralise the second alternative test in the fourth condition of Altmark by allowing the Commission and the GC (and ultimately the CJEU) to find any other comparator they deem to be sufficiently close to that economic activity, which nullifies the economic concept of the notional, well-run competitor. Immediately, this pushes Member States to try to avoid in this types of assessment, which can only be done by resorting to (certain types of) public procurement procedures under the first test in the fourth Altmark condition [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI', in E Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds) Financing Services of General Economic Interest: Reform and Modernization, Legal Issues of Services of General Interest Series (The Hague, TMC Asser Press / Springer, 2012) 161-181]

This may well be cornering Member States in an impossible situation where, regardless of the way they conceive and delineate an SGEI [which they have exclusive competence to do, under Art 14 TFEU and Protocol No (26) therewith, and, currently, reminded in the provisions of Article 1(4) of Directive 2014/24], an assessment of the fourth Altmark condition only allows them to operate with sufficient legal certainty if they contract out the provision of that service in a way that complies with the EU public procurement rules (and not all of them, at that). This is certainly not a desirable outcome and, once more, the developments supported by the CJEU require a fundamental rethinking of the coordination of State aid and public procurement rules, in particular in the area of SGEIs [for discussion, particularly in the setting of procurement challenges, see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Enforcement of State Aid Rules for Services of General Economic Interest before Public Procurement Review Bodies and Courts' (2014) 10(1) Competition Law Review 3-34].

GC pushes for overcompliance with EU public procurement rules in the provision of public services (T-309/12)

In its Judgment in Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung v Commission, T-309/12, EU:T:2014:676, the GC has assessed the compatibility with EU State aid rules of a system of financial support to the maintenance of reserve animal disposal capacity in the case of epizootic. It is a very long and complicated Judgment and its reading is not easy, as the only available versions are in French and German. However, it is a case that should not go unnoticed. In my view, it raises two very fundamental questions where the position of the GC (and the Commission) is at least highly contentious and it will be good to see if a further appeal to the CJEU opens a door to some clarification in this area of EU economic law.
The first contentious issue is the economic or non-economic character of the activity at stake. In para 86 of the Judgment [and relying by analogy on the reasoning in FENIN, C-205/03, EU:C:2006:453 at para 26 and in Mitteldeutsche Flughafen and Flughafen Leipzig-Halle v Commission, C-288/11 P, EU:C:2012:821 at para 44 (but quoting its own argument in T-443/08 at para 95, which the CJEU later endorsed)] the GC concludes that "even if it is true that the applicant was required to maintain a reserve capacity in the event of an epidemic (rectius, epizootic), it does not mean that the implementation of this obligation by the applicant was related to the exercise of the prerogatives of public power" (emphasis added). In my view, and for reasons that I still need to articulate fully, this does not make good sense. However, this is a point I would like to reserve for the near future.
The second contentious issue is that, in the overall assessment of the GC, the fact that the arrangement between the affected German lander (and a multiplicity of regional and local authorities) and the public undertaking providing the reserve animal disposal capacity in the case of epizootic was covered by exceptions to the EU public procurement rules (either under the Teckal in-house exception or the Hamburg public-public cooperation exception, which is not entirely clear in the case) did not have any effect on the application of the Altmark criteria to the case. I know that this is an issue riddled with nuances and jargon stemming from public procurement rules, but I will try to disentangle it in a way that shows the difficulty created by the GC finding, as I see it.
Under the Altmark criteria (4th condition), compliance with applicable public procurement rules is a requirement for State aid granted to the provider of services of economic interest (acknowledgely, an issue related with the first point) to be compatible with Articles 107(1) and 106(2) SGEI (rectius, for State aid not to exist due to the lack of economic advantage) [for discussion, see A Sánchez Graells (2013), "The Commission’s Modernization Agenda for Procurement and SGEI" in E  Szyszczak & J van de Gronden (eds.), Financing SGEIs: State Aid Reform and Modernisation, Series Legal Issues of Services of General Interest (TMC Asser Press/Springer) 161-181]. In the absence of procurement procedures for the selection of the provider, the level of economic support needs to be "determined on the basis of an analysis of the costs which a typical undertaking, well run and adequately provided with [material means] so as to be able to meet the necessary public service requirements, would have incurred in discharging those obligations, taking into account the relevant receipts and a reasonable profit for discharging the obligations". This is a fiendish exercise and, generally speaking, procurement is a much easier road. Hence, structurally, there is a clear pressure on public authorities to resort to procurement procedures in order to be on the safe side re compliance with State aid rules.
At the same time, however, it should be highlighted that public authorities have no obligation to resort to the market in order to discharge their (public service) missions and they are fundamentally free to either cooperate with other public authorities (Hamburg) or entrust the execution of those activities in-house (Teckal). This is an area where the clash between EU Institutions and Member States has been evident and the recently approved Directive 2014/24 tries to provide a compromise solution in Art 12 by recognising that in those cases a public procurement procedure is not required (and allowing for the instrumental entities used to even carry out market activities up to a 20% of their average total turnover). 
In my view, the fact that public procurement rules allow for the avoidance of public tenders in the award of public contracts [including those for the provision of public services (broadly defined)] to public undertakings or other contracting authorities, creates a difficulty from a State aid/procurement interaction perspective. The basic difficulty derives from the fact that a perfectly legal decision to keep certain activities within the public sector creates very significant difficulties for the funding of that activity as soon as there is any (potential) interaction with the market--which, at least under the new rules in Art 12 of Dir 2014/24, is also a perfectly legal situation. This is a structural problem of coordination of both sets of rules that comes to put pressure on the viability of keeping the Altmark criteria untouched.
Indeed, following the general reasoning of the GC in Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung, the absence of a procurement procedure (despite the fact that it was not required) excludes the possibility to benefit from the presumption set out in the 4th Altmark condition and creates a significant risk of breach of EU State aid rules. From the perspective of the consistency of the procurement system and the effectiveness of the general consensus that the procurement rules "should [not] deal with the liberalisation of services of general economic interest, reserved to public or private entities, or with the privatisation of public entities providing services" [Rec (6) Dir 2014/24] , this is problematic. The increased risks of infringement of State aid rules brings a very important limitation on the contracting authorities' actual freedom to resort to schemes covered by Art 12 of Directive 2014/24 and creates a clear incentive for overcompliance with public procurement rules.
Regardless of the benefits that more compliance with procurement rules and public tenders could bring about, the clear limits that EU constitutional rules (and the principle of neutrality of ownership in Art 345 TFEU in particular) create need to be respected and duly acknowldeged. Hence the difficulty in coordinating all these sets of provisions in a manner that is respectful with both the split of competences between Member States and the EU, and the effectiveness of EU State aid rules.
In my view, the CJEU should use the opportunity to clarify these complicated issues in case the GC's Zweckverband Tierkörperbeseitigung Judgment is further appealed. In the meantime, there are lots of issues that require further thought and, in particular, how to exactly reach the adequate balance in the coordination of both sets of rules.

It Won't Last Long? CJEU takes a functional, competition-based approach to in-house provision that questoins the criteria in the new EU procurement directives (C-574/12)

In its Judgment in Centro Hospitalar de Setúbal and SUCH, C-574/12, EU:C:2014:2004, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has issued a new decision concerned with the in-house exception to the application of the EU public procurement rules (for a previous summary of the doctrine, see here). The Judgment is concerned with Directive 2004/18, but the findings are already relevant for the interpretation of the revised in-house exception in Directive 2014/24.
In the case at hand, a Portuguese hospital awarded a services contract for the provision of meals to patients and staff to a non-profit organisation (SUCH) which membership included public entities (such as other hospitals) as well as private social solidarity institutions carrying out non-profit activities. The hospital considered it an in-house provision situation and, relying in the Teckal doctrine (recently revisited and affirmed by the CJEU, see here), did not comply with the transparency obligations of Directive 2004/18.

However, a competitor of SUCH challenged the award on the basis that the Hospital did not exercise a control over the non-profit organisation that qualified for such an exemption, particularly according to the requirements of Stadt Halle and RPL Lochau, C-26/03, EU:C:2005:5, according to which "the investment, however small, of a private undertaking in the capital of an undertaking of which the awarding authority also forms part prevents, in any event, the awarding authority from being able to exercise a control over it similar to that which it exercises over its own departments" (C-574/12, at para 13).
The main point of law for the CJEU to interpret was, consequently, whether only participation of private for profit undertakings excluded the in-house exception or if, on the contrary, participation of any other sort of non-profit entities triggered the same effect. Following a commendable functional approach to the in-house exception based on the avoidance of distortions of competition, the CJEU opted for the second solution. Indeed, according to the C. H. de Setúbal and SUCH Judgment,
35 […] it must be pointed out that the exception concerning the in-house awards is based on an approach according to which, in such cases, the awarding public authority can be regarded as using its own resources in order to accomplish its tasks in the public interest.
36 One of the reasons which led the Court to the findings established in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...] was based not on the legal form of the private entities forming part of the contractor or on their commercial purpose, but on the fact that those entities obeyed considerations particular to their private interests, which were different in nature from that of the objectives of public interest pursued by the awarding authority. For that reason, that authority could not exercise control over the contractor similar to that which it exercised over its own services (see, to that effect, Stadt Halle [...] paragraphs 49 and 50).
37 Having regard to the fact, pointed out by the referring court, that SUCH is a non-profit association and the private partners which formed part of that association at the time of the award of the contract at issue in the main proceedings were private social solidarity institutions, all of them also non-profit, it must be noted that the fact that the Court referred, in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...], to concepts such as that of ‘undertaking’ or ‘share capital’ is due to the specific facts of the case which gave rise to that judgment and does not mean that the Court intended to restrict its findings to those cases alone where commercial for-profit undertakings form part of the contractor.
38 Another reason which led the Court to the findings in the judgment in Stadt Halle [...] is that the direct award of a contract would offer a private undertaking with a capital presence in that contractor an advantage over its competitors (see, to that effect, Stadt Halle [...] paragraph 51).
39 In the main proceedings, SUCH’s private partners pursue interests and objectives which, however positive they may be from a social point of view, are different in nature from the public interest objectives pursued by the awarding authorities which are at the same time partners of SUCH.
40 In addition, as the Advocate General noted in point 37 of his Opinion, the private partners of SUCH, despite their status as social solidarity institutions carrying out non-profit activities, are not barred from engaging in economic activity in competition with other economic operators. In consequence, the direct award of a contract to SUCH is likely to offer an advantage for the private partners over their competitors (C-574/12, at paras 35-40, emphasis added).
In my view, the CJEU has applied good logic and has incorporated the likely distortions of competition in the market for the provision of meals that could result from non-profit partners of SUCH having preferential (direct) access to the supply to the public sector. This functional approach is economically sound and deserves all praise.

The only difficulty that the C. H. de Setúbal and SUCH Judgment creates is its compatibility/coordination with the new rules under Art 12(1)(c) and 12(3)(c) of Directive 2014/24, which recast the in-house provision exception but modify the Teckal/Stadt Halle doctrine by relaxing the requirement that there is no private participation whatsoever--so that, in the future, the in-house exception can be applied provided "there is no direct private capital participation in the controlled legal person with the exception of non-controlling and non-blocking forms of private capital participation required by national legislative provisions, in conformity with the Treaties, which do not exert a decisive influence on the controlled legal person" (emphasis added).
The explanation provided for such a change in recital (32) of Directive 2014/24 is as follows:
The exemption should not extend to situations where there is direct participation by a private economic operator in the capital of the controlled legal person since, in such circumstances, the award of a public contract without a competitive procedure would provide the private economic operator with a capital participation in the controlled legal person an undue advantage over its competitors. However, in view of the particular characteristics of public bodies with compulsory membership, such as organisations responsible for the management or exercise of certain public services, this should not apply in cases where the participation of specific private economic operators in the capital of the controlled legal person is made compulsory by a national legislative provision in conformity with the Treaties, provided that such participation is non-controlling and non-blocking and does not confer a decisive influence on the decisions of the controlled legal person. It should further be clarified that the decisive element is only the direct private participation in the controlled legal person. Therefore, where there is private capital participation in the controlling contracting authority or in the controlling contracting authorities, this does not preclude the award of public contracts to the controlled legal person, without applying the procedures provided for by this Directive as such participations do not adversely affect competition between private economic operators (emphasis added).
These two justifications for the relaxation of the Teckal/Stadt Halle/SUCH  absolute prohibition of private participation will prove controversial, given that they can give rise to situations where an effective market advantage is derived from the (apparent) in-house award. Indeed, the drafting of the condition in Art 12(1)(c) and 12(3)(c) of Directive 2014/24 seems quite open and it is possible to anticipate the need to conduct an assessment of proportionality between the objectives pursued by the national law imposing private participation and the carve-out that it creates in the application of the EU procurement rules. It will then be for the CJEU to either stick to its functional, competition-based approach to the in-house doctrine, or to defer to the quite express will of the EU legislator (fundamentally, in this case, the Member States). I would personally want it to tilt the balance in favour of the first option, but I can see the difficulties now that the text of the Directive is so clear.

AG Mengozzi on extension of "in-house" to "public house" procurement exception (C-15/13)

In his Opinion of 23 January 2014 in case C-15/13 Datenlotsen Informationssysteme (not available in English), Advocate General Mengozzi advocated for an extension of the "in-house" public procurement exception beyond its current boundaries under the so-called Teckal doctrine.
The AG proposed that the CJEU declares that
A contract concerned with the provision of services which beneficiary, being a contracting authority within the meaning of Directive 2004/18, does not exercise over the entity that provides the services a control similar to that exercised over its own services, but where both entities are subject to the control of an institution that can be classified as a contracting entity within the meaning of that directive, and where both the recipient of the services and the provider thereof conduct the essential part of their activities for the institution that controls them, is a public contract to the extent that it is a written contract between the contractor and the recipient of the services, always provided that such contract has an object which would qualify as the provision of services within the meaning of the directive.
Such a contract is not entitled to an exception to the application of procurement procedures under the EU rules on public procurement unless the controlling entity exercises in an exclusive manner a control similar to that exercised over its own departments both on the beneficiary of the services and on the providing entity, and where both of those entities carry out the essential part of their activities for that controlling entity, or in the case where that contract meets all the requirements for the the exception for public-public cooperation (own translation from Spanish and French).
Therefore, AG Mengozzi suggests a test whereby, if all of the entities involved in the contract would independently qualify for the "in-house" exception in case they were engaged in a vertical contract with the ultimate controlling entity, they can then also benefit from the "public house" exception in their horizontal contractual relationships.
If the CJEU follows the approach suggested by AG Mengozzi, it will be extending the "in-house" exception beyond its current limits (where a direct control is required on the part of the contracting entity over the awardee of the contract) and creating a "public house" exception in public procurement--which was anticipated and discussed by Dario Casalini, 'Beyond EU Law: the New "Public House"', in Risvig Hansen et al (eds), EU Procurement Directives--modernisation, growth & innovation (Copenhagen, DJOF, 2012) 151-178.
It is also interesting to stress that such "public house" exception has also been created for the future by the new Public Procurement Directive (bound to be transposed by early 2016), which article 12(2) frames it in slightly different terms, indicating that the "in-house" exception:
also applies where a controlled legal person which is a contracting authority awards a contract to its controlling contracting authority, or to another legal person controlled by the same contracting authority, provided that there is no direct private capital participation in the legal person being awarded the public contract with the exception of non-controlling and non-blocking forms of private capital participation required by national legislative provisions, in conformity with the Treaties, which do not exert a decisive influence on the controlled legal person (emphasis added).
It is important to stress that the requirements concerning private capital participation deviate from the standard "in-house" exception and (if adopted) from the "public house" exception, which may create some interpretative difficulties in the future. For now, I guess we need to wait and first see if the CJEU supports the "public house" exception as a first step, before worrying about the confines of a (private)-public house exception...