Litigation in Spanish railroad electrification cartel highlights further inadequacies of regulation of bid rigger exclusion

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In a new episode of the Spanish sainete of the railroad electrification cartel (see here for an overview), it has now emerged that one of the companies affected by the exclusion ground (prohibición de contratar) declared in the resolution of the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC) of 14 March 2019 subsequently secured interim measures suspending its effectiveness on 19 July 2019.

The freezing order prevents (Spanish) contracting authorities from relying on the exclusion ground and thus shortens the maximum period of (future) exclusion of the colluding companies, unless the CJEU revises its case law on the time-limit calculation for such grounds established in Vossloh-Laeis (24 October 2018, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855). The decision also highlights issues concerning the cross-border effects of litigation on exclusion grounds. In this follow-up post, I discuss these two issues.

The interim measures decision

Quick recap: it should be stressed that the Spanish transposition of Article 57(4)(d) has resulted in a system whereby the exclusion of economic operators on the basis of previous infringements of competition law is mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement (LCSP). However, the scope and duration of such exclusion generates some difficulties, in particular when they are not established in the original decision declaring the infraction and imposing the measure—which is precisely the case of the railroad electrification cartel. In such cases, a further administrative procedure needs to be completed and the scope and duration of the mandatory exclusion (prohibición de contratar) are to be established by decision of the competent Minister.

The effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground in the period running from the initial infringement decision and the further Ministerial decision is contested. Two opposing schools of thought exist. One that gives automatic effect to the exclusion ground despite the future specification of its scope and duration, and the opposing view that considers that the measure is incomplete and cannot generate (negative) effects against the sanctioned undertaking until the Ministerial decision is adopted.

The CNMC expressed the first view in its railroad electrification decision, when it stated that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319, own translation full decision available in Spanish).

The Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional), in a Judgment of 19 July 2019 (ES:AN:2019:1673A, hat tip to Alfonso Rincón García-Loygorri for posting it on LinkedIn) adopted the same view and recognised that the measure was bound to immediately restrict the affected undertakings’ ability to participate in public tenders. Considering that it is likely that the final decision on the main appeal of the cartel decision arrives after the expiry of the three year maximum duration foreseen for the exclusion ground and that (should the appellant prevail) the effects of such exclusion would be very difficult, if not impossible to correct at that stage, the High Court decided to suspend the effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground.

Implications in terms of maximum duration of the exclusion

Quick recap: the CJEU has established that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42).

I criticised the CNMC for creating legal uncertainty by not establishing the scope and duration of the exclusion ground in its initial decision. I argued that the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of the prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any finally imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.

The High Court’s Judgment raises the same criticisms. While the High Court explicitly took into account the fact that the undertakings could find themselves in a position of not being easily compensated for the undue exclusion from public tenders in case of prevailing in their appeal of the CNMC decision, the High Court ignored that its freezing order will create the reverse effect in case the appeal is dismissed. By preventing (Spanish) contracting authorities from excluding the competition infringers from tenders for an indefinite period starting on 19 July 2019, the High Court has created the risk that the undertakings are never excluded from public tenders because such exclusion is time barred by the time the CNMC decision becomes final—which does not solely depend on the outcome of the High Court’s proceedings, but is subject to a potential further appeal to the Supreme Court.

This highlights once again the inadequacy—or, at least, partiality—of the CJEU Vossloh criterion that the maximum period of exclusion starts running at the time of adoption of the initial infringement decision. It seems clear that, where that decision is contested and, in particular, where interim measures are obtained to freeze its effects—the maximum period of exclusion needs to be calculated taking that into account. Otherwise, the simple fact of litigating buys competition infringers immunity from the debarment system foreseen in Directive 2014/24/EU and thus excludes its effet utile. That cannot be right.

Territoriality of effects

The new episode of the Spanish sainete also raises questions concerning the cross-border effects of the CNMC decision. While Spanish contracting authorities are effectively enjoined from giving effect to the mandatory exclusion ground, the situation is by no means necessarily the same in other EU/EEA jurisdictions. Non-Spanish contracting authorities could (justifiably) be tempted to apply domestic mandatory or discretionary exclusion grounds based on the fact that the relevant undertakings were sanctioned for bid rigging by the CNMC. This could be the case whether they are aware or not of the High Court Judgment, in particular where they have discretion in this matter.

Should any such decision be challenged, the issue should make its way to the CJEU, which would have a hard time finding ways of squaring this practical difficulty with the differentiated treatment that Art 57 of Directive gives to grounds based on a ‘conviction by final judgment‘ (Art 57(1)) and those based on decisions and judgments not subjected to that finality requirement (notably, Art 57(4)), as well as with the self-imposed constraint of the way the maximum time-limit is calculated as per Vossloh.

Once again, we are yet to see the final act of this sainete…

Bid rigging conspiracy in railroad electrification works: A very Spanish 'sainete'

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A case of bid rigging in works contracts for high-speed and conventional railroad electrification in Spain evidences a number of shortcomings in the domestic transposition of the 2014 rules on discretionary exclusion of competition law offenders from public procurement tenders, as well as some dysfunctionalities of their interpretation by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in its Judgment of 24 October 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855. The unilateral price adjustment of live contracts sought by the main victim of the cartel, the Spanish rail network administrator ADIF comes to raise very significant issues on the limits to the ‘self-protection’ (or private justice) for contracting authorities that are victims of bid rigging. In this post, I point to the main issues that puzzle me in this very Spanish sainete. I am sure there will be plenty debate in Spanish legal circles after the holidays…

Legal background: EU level: Art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU

As is well known, Article 57(4) of Directive 2014/24/EU establishes discretionary grounds for the exclusion of economic operators from public procurement tenders. In relation to economic operators that have breached competition law, there are two relevant grounds.

First, Art 57(4)(c) foresees the possibility of exclusion ‘where the contracting authority can demonstrate by appropriate means that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable‘. This was interpreted by the CJEU as covering entities that had been sanctioned for breaches of competition law in relation to the earlier rules of Directive 2004/18/EC (Art 45(2)(d)) as an instance of their being ‘guilty of grave professional misconduct proven by any means which the contracting authorities can demonstrate’. The CJEU established in unambiguous terms that ‘the commission of an infringement of the competition rules, in particular where that infringement was penalised by a fine, constitutes a cause for exclusion under Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18’ in its Judgment of 18 December 2014 in Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (para 35).

Second, Art 57(4)(d) allows for the exclusion ‘where the contracting authority has sufficiently plausible indications to conclude that the economic operator has entered into agreements with other economic operators aimed at distorting competition‘. The relationship between both exclusion grounds relating to competition law infringements is somewhat debated. I have argued elsewhere that Art 57(4)(c) should still be used as the legal basis for the exclusion of economic operators that have already been sanctioned for previous bid rigging offences, whereas Art 57(4)(d) creates an additional ground for exclusion based on indicia of contemporary collusion. For details, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (2nd ed, Hart, 2015) 296-301.

Of course, discretionary exclusion on grounds of infringements of competition law can be modulated by the rules on self-cleaning in Art 57(6) Directive 2014/24/EU. It is also important to add that these discretionary exclusion grounds can be applied for a period not exceeding three years from the date of the relevant event, as per Art 57(7) Directive 2014/24/EU. The CJEU has interpreted the ‘relevant event’ in this context, and clarified that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42)

Legal background: domestic level: the transposition by Law 9/2017

The transposition into Spanish law of these provisions has introduced some important modifications.

First, these exclusion grounds have been made mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement, as discussed by P Valcarcel, ‘Transposition of Directive 2014/24/EU in Spain: between EU demands and national peculiarities‘ in S Treumer & M Comba (eds), Modernising Public Procurement: The Member States Approach, vol. 8 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2018) 236-237. For a broader description of the Spanish system of mandatory exclusion (ie through ‘prohibiciones de contratar,’ or prohibitions on contracting), see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Qualification, Selection and Exclusion of Economic Operators under Spanish Public Procurement Law' in M Burgi, S Treumer & M Trybus (eds), Qualification, Selection and Exclusion in EU Procurement, vol. 7 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2016) 159-188.

Second, the grounds in Art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU have been transposed in a seemingly defective manner. Art 57(4)(d) has been omitted and Art 57(4)(d) is reflected in Art 71(1)(b) of Law 9/2017, according to which there is a prohibition to enter into a contract with an ‘economic operator … guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable, in matters such as market discipline, distortion of competition … in accordance with current regulations’ (own translation from Spanish).

Thirdly, Art 72(2) of Law 9/2017 foresees two ways in which the mandatory exclusion ground based on a prior firm sanction for competition infringements can operate. On the one hand, the prohibition to enter into a contract with competition law infringers ‘will be directly appreciated by the contracting bodies when the judgment or administrative resolution [imposing the sanction] had expressly established its scope and duration, and will be in force during the term indicated therein’ (own translation from Spanish). On the other hand—and logically, as a subsidiary rule—it is also foreseen that ‘In the event that the judgment or administrative resolution does not contain a ruling on the scope or duration of the prohibition to contract … the scope and duration of the prohibition shall be determined by means of a procedure instructed for this purpose, in accordance with the provisions of this article’ (own translation from Spanish). Such procedure is rather convoluted and involves a decision of the Minister of Finance on the advice of the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement.

Fourthly, and in an extreme pro-leniency fashion, Art 72(5)II of Law 9/2017 has established that the prohibition to enter into contracts will not apply to economic operators that have self-cleaned and, in particular, to those that have obtained leniency in the context of competition enforcement procedures. That is, there is an exemption from the otherwise applicable exclusion ground based on infringements of competition law for undertakings that demonstrate the ‘adoption of appropriate technical, organisational and personnel measures to avoid the commission of future administrative infractions, which include participating in the clemency program in the field of competition law‘ (own translation from Spanish).

It is also odd that the provision does not require economic operators to have ‘clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities‘, which was the main issue at stake in the Vossloh Laeis litigation.

A controversial decision by the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC)

On 14 March 2019, the CNMC adopted a decision against 15 construction companies finding them responsible for a long-lasting bid rigging scheme to manipulate the tenders for public contracts works relating to different aspects of high-speed and conventional railroad electrification (full decision available in Spanish). One of the novel aspects of the decision is that the CNMC explicitly activated the prohibition to enter into contracts against the competition infringers. However, the CNMC did so in very peculiar manner.

The oddity of the decision mainly lies on the fact that CNMC decided not to establish the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract, but simply to refer the case to the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement (see pages 317-320). This was the object of criticism in a dissenting vote by Councillor María Pilar Canedo, who stressed that the CNMC should have set the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract in its decision (pages 366-370). The position of the CNMC is certainly difficult to understand.

On the one hand, the CNMC stressed that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319). On the other hand, however, the CNMC decided to (potentially) kick the effectiveness of such prohibition into the long grass by not establishing its scope and duration in its decision—and explicitly saying so (unnecessarily…). No wonder, contracting authorities will have some difficulty applying the automaticity of a prohibition which time and scope are yet to be determined.

Moreover, the CNMC was aware of the CJEU decision in Vossloh Laeis (above), to which it referred to in its own decision (in a strange manner, though). In that regard, the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister of Finance via the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of a seemingly prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any fianlly imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.

The (for now) final twist: ADIF takes justice in its own hands

As if this was not enough, according to the Spanish press (see the main story in El Pais), the main victim of the cartel—the Spanish rail network administrator, ADIF—has now decided to take justice in its own hands.

According to the report, ADIF has written to the relevant companies announcing claims for damages—which is the ordinary reaction that could be expected. However, it has also taken the decision of demanding an anticipation of the compensation from those companies with which it has ‘live’ contracts, to which it has demanded a 10% price reduction. What is more, ADIF has decided to withhold 10% of the contractual price and to deposit in an escrow account before a notary, as a sort of sui generis self-created interim measure to ensure some compensation for the damages suffered from the cartel. The legal issues that this unilateral act generates are too many to list here. And these will surely be the object of future litigation.

What I find particularly difficult to understand is that, in contrast with this decisively aggressive approach to withholding payment, ADIF has awarded contracts to some of the competition infringers after the publication of the CNMC decision. And not a small number of contracts or for little amounts. In fact, ADIF has awarded over 280 contracts for a total value close to €300 million.

Thus, ADIF has largely carried out its business as usual in the award of public works contracts, both ignoring the rather straightforward argument of automaticity of the prohibition to contract hinted at by the CNMC— though based on a convoluted and rather strained interpretation of domestic law (Art 72(2) Law 9/2017)—and, more importantly, the discretionary ground for exclusion in Art 57(4)(d) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

There will certainly be some more scenes in this sainete…


Interesting short paper on public procurement and competition law: Blažo (2015)

Reading O Blažo, 'Public Procurement Directive and Competition Law - Really United in Diversity?' (2015), I have found some interesting and thought-provoking remarks on the impact of public procurement regulation over the effectiveness of competition law enforcement. The paper focuses 'mainly on three problematic issues: participation of companies of the same economic group in public procurement procedure, disqualification for cartel infringement, attractiveness of leniency programme'.

Multiple bidding by members of an economic group

Blažo's discussion of the issue of multiple participation by companies of the same economic group discusses Assitur (C-538/07, EU:C:2009:317), where the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) declared contrary to EU public procurement law an Italian rule not allowing companies linked by a relationship of control or significant influence to participate, as competing tenderers, in the same procedure for the award of a public contract. The CJEU determined that, 'while pursuing legitimate objectives of equality of treatment of tenderers and transparency in procedures for the award of public contracts, [a national rule that] lays down an absolute prohibition on simultaneous and competing participation in the same tendering procedure by undertakings linked by a relationship of control or affiliated to one another, without allowing them an opportunity to demonstrate that that relationship did not influence their conduct in the course of that tendering procedure' is incompatible with EU public procurement law (para 33, emphasis added). 

Blažo considers that this 'appears as “over-regulation” and “under-regulation” [at] the same time in his context: it does not solve problem of participation of several companies forming of one economic group in one tender procedure and on the other hand outlaws their automatic exclusion'. I would disagree with this critical assessment and submit that the CJEU reached a good balance of competing interests (ie ensuring sufficient intra-tender competition vs avoiding collusion or manipulation risks). As I wrote in Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 341-342 (references omitted): 

the grounds for exclusion based on professional qualities of the tenderers—and the existence of relationships of control between them, or their control structure, is clearly a professional quality—are exhaustively listed in article 57 of Directive 2014/24, which precludes Member States or contracting authorities from adding other grounds for exclusion based on criteria relating to professional qualities of the candidate or tenderer, such as professional honesty, solvency and economic and financial capacity. Nevertheless, it does not preclude the option for Member States to maintain or adopt substantive rules designed, in particular, to ensure, in the field of public procurement, observance of the principle of equal treatment and of the principle of transparency. Given that the extension of the ban on multiple bidding has as its clear rationale the prevention of discrimination between self-standing entities and those integrated in group structures, prima facie it seems to constitute a case of permitted additional ground for the exclusion of tenderers not regulated by article 57 of Directive 2014/24.
However, as also noted, when establishing these additional grounds for the exclusion of tenderers, Member States must comply with the principle of proportionality and the automatic exclusion of tenderers for the sole fact of belonging to the same legal group seems to be in breach of this latter requirement. Interestingly, EU case law seems to be moving in the direction of restricting the scope of this type of (extended) prohibition by outlawing the automatic exclusion from tendering procedures of tenderers between which there exists a relationship of control (as defined by national law) without giving them an opportunity to prove that, in the circumstances of the case, that relationship had not led to an infringement of the principles of equal treatment of tenderers and of transparency.
This would be in line with the rules applicable to the treatment of conflicts of interest (art 24 Dir 2014/24), which only justify the exclusion of candidates and tenderers ‘where a conflict of interest … cannot be effectively remedied by other less intrusive measures’ (art 57(4)(e) Dir 2014/24). 

Exclusion of competition law infringers, Self-cleaning & impact on the attractiveness of leniency programmes

Interestingly, Blažo explains that, under the version of Slovak procurement law prior to the transposition of Dir 2014/24, contracting authorities were bound to exclude tenderers that had been convicted of infringements of competition law [on this, see Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469, and discussion here], but 'undertaking[s] who successfully qualified for the leniency program (immunity as well as fine
reduction)
' were not excluded from participation in public procurement procedures. Or, in more detail, 'The scheme excluding entrepreneurs who have been convicted of a cartel in public procurement applies automatically, therefore there is no need to issue any other disqualification decision. It is also a compulsory system, thus the contracting authority authority shall be obliged to exclude such an undertaking ex officio, and the law does not allow any way to alleviate such sanctions. Only the undertaking who takes part in an agreement restricting competition in public procurement can avoid exclusion from public procurement, its cooperation with the Antimonopoly Office in leniency program' (Blažo, p. 1494).

Blažo then goes on to assess the changes that the transposition of Dir 2014/24 will require [in particular, art 57(4)(d) on the exclusion of competition law infringers and art 57(6) on self-cleaning, for discussion, see here and A Sanchez-Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing', in F Lichère, R Caranta & S Treumer (eds), Modernising Public Procurement. The New Directive, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2014) 97-129], noting that 'the directive does not expressly mention leniency program as an exemption from exclusion'; and, in particular, criticises the fact that Art 57(7) requires that Member States 'shall, in particular, determine the maximum period of exclusion if no [self-cleaning] measures ... are taken by the economic operator to demonstrate its reliability. Where the period of exclusion has not been set by final judgment, that period shall not exceed ... three years from the date of the relevant event in the cases referred to in paragraph 4'. In view of this, Blažo concludes that

If the contracting entity wishes to establish an infringement using a final decision of competition authority (or judgment dismissing the action against such a decision), it is almost unrealistic to have these documents available within three years from the infringement, or the time for which the undertaking can be excluded from public procurement will be very short. It is obvious that word-by-word transposition of the PPD into Slovak legal order eliminates current patterns punishment of undertakings for bid rigging and replaces it with a system that does not constitute a sufficient threat of sanctions, which would have preventive effects against cartels in public procurement. Furthermore even in case of effective application of this system, it may discourage leniency applicants and thus undermine effective public enforcement of competition law (p. 1495).

I share some of his concerns about the difficulty of establishing appropriate timeframes for exclusion based on competition law infringements. As I pointed out in Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (2015) 291:

This raises the issue of how to compute the maximum duration, particularly in the case of article 57(4) violations, as the reference to the ‘relevant event’ admits different interpretations (ie, either from the moment of the relevant violation, or the moment in which the contracting authority is aware of it or can prove it). Given that some of the violations may take time to identify (eg, emergence of a previous bid rigging conspiracy that can be tackled under art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24), a possibilistic interpretation will be necessary to avoid reducing the effectiveness of these exclusion grounds. In any case, compliance with domestic administrative rules will be fundamental.

However, I am not sure that I share the concerns about the effectiveness of leniency programmes and their attractiveness for undertakings that may risk exclusion from procurement procedures. First, I am generally sceptical of the claim that leniency programmes need to be protected at all costs (see here, here and here). Second, and looking specifically at the worry that not having a mention to leniency programmes in Dir 2014/24 may exclude or reduce the possibility for contracting authorities (or Member States) to treat leniency applicants favourably in the procurement context, I am not sure that this is the case, mainly, because it would still seem possible for competition rules to foresee that any final decisions declaring the infringement of competition law should not include sanctions concerning debarment from public procurement procedures for leniency applicants (I am not convinced that this is desirable, but it is certainly possible). In that case, there would be no final judgment from which the exclusion could derive and, consequently, contracting authorities intending to exclude the leniency applicant in view of its previous infringement of competition law would be using their discretion to exclude without the constraints derived from the previous decision. This has a significant impact in terms of self-cleaning.

While Art 57(6) in fine foresees that 'An economic operator which has been excluded by final judgment from participating in procurement ... shall not be entitled to make use of the [self-cleaning] possibility ... during the period of exclusion resulting from that judgment in the Member States where the judgment is effective' [something I criticised in 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing' (2014) 113], this restriction does not apply in the absence of a final judgment imposing the exclusion. Thus, the successful leniency applicant would still be able to rely on its leniency application and collaboration with the competition authority in order to claim it has complied with the requirements of the self-cleaning provisions in Art 57(6) Dir 2014/24. The sticky point would be the need to 'prove that it has paid or undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the ... misconduct'. Of course, this takes us back to the claim that leniency programmes will not be attractive if, in addition to exempting the applicant from the competition fine that would otherwise be applicable (let's remember it can be up to 10% of its turnover), they do not also shield competition law infringers from claims for damages--and now public procurement debarment. As mentioned, I am highly sceptical of these claims and, from a normative perspective, I am not persuaded that leniency should come at such high cost.

In any case, these are interesting issues and it would be very relevant to engage in empirical research to see if the entry into force of Dir 2014/24 last month actually has an impact on the effectiveness of leniency programmes in the EU.

 

AG Cruz Villalon on access to leniency applications: A stringent test. Really? (C-365/12)

In his Opinion of 3 October 2013 in case C-365/12 EnBW Energie, Advocate General Cruz Villalon has proposed a holistic interpretation of the regulatory schemes relating to access to documents of the institutions and, more specifically, of access to the European Commission's files in the context of its leniency programme. In my view, the holistic approach advocated for still leaves some important issues unresolved and, consequently, the Judgment of the CJEU in this case will be highly relevant.
 
According to AG Cruz Villalon, when access to the file in cartel investigations is concerned,
63. In short, the presumption [that access should be refused] must operate in relation to documents the disclosure of which is either ruled out or – in the case of Regulation No 1/2003, as compared with Regulation No 1049/2001– possible only on certain conditions. In other words, the presumption should be fully effective vis-à-vis parties who, in accordance with Regulation No 1/2003 and Regulation No 773/2004, have no right, in principle, to access the documents in cartel proceedings, as in the case of EnBW here; and this must also be the case vis-à-vis parties who have only a limited right of access or a right which is recognised solely for the purposes of safeguarding the right of defence.
64. That conclusion must carry a qualification, however. The abovementioned presumption ‘does not exclude the possibility of demonstrating that a given document, of which disclosure is sought, is not covered by that presumption or that there is a higher public interest justifying the disclosure of that document under Article 4(2) of Regulation No 1049/2001 (Commission v Technische Glaswerke Ilmenau, paragraph 62)’. Consequently, the fact that Regulation No 1/2003 does not provide for access by persons who are not parties to the proceedings means only that, in the event that such persons request access, their requests must be dealt with in accordance with Regulation No 1049/2001 (as the general legislation in the area of transparency), interpreted in the light of the general presumption that disclosure of the documents may undermine the purpose of the proceedings under Regulation No 1/2003. This presumption does not in any way rule out access pursuant to Regulation No 1049/2001: it merely imposes more stringent conditions on the access granted under that regulation (emphasis added).
In his Opinion, AG Cruz Villalon takes a very different approach, but basically supports a stringent test that would lead to the same restrictive outcome supported by AG Jaaskinen some months ago in C-536/11 Donau Chemie and others, where he considered that: 
in my opinion a legislative rule would be more appropriate that provided absolute protection for the participants in a leniency programme, but which required the interests of other participants to a restrictive practice to be balanced against the interests of the alleged victims. [...] Furthermore, in my view and except for undertakings benefiting from leniency (sic!), participation in and of itself in an unlawful restriction on competition does not constitute a business secret that merits protection by EU law (para 64, emphasis added).
It is worth stressing that such a radical approach (which I criticised) was rejected by the CJEU in the final Donau Chemie Judgment:
as regards the public interest of having effective leniency programmes [...] it should be observed that, given the importance of actions for damages brought before national courts in ensuring the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union (see Courage and Crehan, paragraph 27), the argument that there is a risk that access to evidence contained in a file in competition proceedings which is necessary as a basis for those actions may undermine the effectiveness of a leniency programme in which those documents were disclosed to the competent competition authority cannot justify a refusal to grant access to that evidence (para 46, emphasis added).
AG Cruz Villalon is aware of the position of the CJEU in Donau Chemie and, consequently (but implicilty), seeks to clarify his proposal for a stringent test on access to the file (and, more specifically, to leniency applications) by stressing that:
the effectiveness of leniency programmes can be safeguarded only (sic!) if it is guaranteed that, as a general rule, the documentation provided will be used by the Commission alone. This would, of course, be the ultimate safeguard. However, other safeguards should also be considered that are less extensive but still attractive for those wanting to take advantage of those programmes. In the final analysis, the rationale underlying leniency programmes is a calculation as to the extent of the harm that might arise from an infringement of competition law. Considered in those terms, to guarantee that the information provided to the Commission can be passed on to third parties only if they can adequately prove that they need it in order to bring an action for damages could constitute a sufficient safeguard, particularly considering that the alternative might be a penalty higher than that which might ensue were the action for damages to be successful. Admittedly, it is possible that a safeguard of that kind might result in fewer parties deciding to take advantage of leniency programmes. However, the objective of maximum effectiveness for that mechanism should not be regarded as justification for a complete sacrifice of the rights of those concerned to be compensated and, more generally, for an impairment of their rights to an effective remedy under Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (para 78, emphasis added).
In my opinion, the carve out that AG Cruz Villalon creates against his own proposal for a general presumption of non-disclosure (which waiver should be subjected to a stringent test) is not terribly consistent in logical terms, but seeks to accomodate the Donau Chemie Judgment. Nonetheless, the safeguard/test is not clearly presented and the AG's Opinion in EnBW Energie does not really clarify this (increasingly?) grey area of EU competition law. In fact, in view of his concern with the protection of the commercial interests of leniency applicants, it seems that he is actually de facto advocating for the strongest (absolute) safeguard presented above (which, in those terms, would basically amount to the absolute protection advocated for by Jaaskinen and rejected by the CJEU in Donau Chemie).
 
Indeed, AG Cruz Villalon weakly criticises the finding of the GC in paras 147-148 of the appealed EnBW Energie Judgment (‘the interests of the undertakings that had participated in the cartel … in non-disclosure of the documents requested cannot be regarded as commercial interests in the true sense of those words. Indeed, [...] the interest which those companies might have in non-disclosure of the documents requested seems to reside not in a concern to maintain their competitive position on the [...] market [...] but, instead, in a desire to avoid actions for damages being brought against them before the national courts’. In any event, that would not constitute ‘an interest deserving of protection, having regard, in particular, to the fact that any individual has the right to claim damages for loss caused to him by conduct which is liable to restrict or distort competition’), by indicating that, in his opinion, 
the possibility that disclosure of the information provided by the undertakings in question might objectively undermine their commercial interests cannot be ruled out. The fact that the information was provided voluntarily and with a view to avoiding or minimising a penalty is, in my opinion, no basis for regarding the commercial interests involved as unworthy of protection. Otherwise, undertakings that have cooperated with the Commission would suffer a further penalty, in addition to whatever penalty is ultimately considered appropriate, in the form of the damage caused to their commercial interests (para 93).
Therefore, in my view, AG Cruz Villalon's EnBW Energie Opinion (because of its different technical approach) does put some pressure on the CJEU to finally and explicitly take a position on the compatibility with EU law of the protection of leniency applications that the European Commission and the National Competition Authorities within the European Competition Network are pursuing (see Resolution of 23 May 2012 on the protection of leniency material in the context of civil damages actions)--beyond the general remarks made in Donau Chemie.
 
Indeed, the CJEU failed to close that door in Donau Chemie by indicating that:
47 By contrast, the fact that such a refusal is liable to prevent those actions from being brought, by giving the undertakings concerned, who may have already benefited from immunity, at the very least partial, from pecuniary penalties, an opportunity also to circumvent their obligation to compensate for the harm resulting from the infringement of Article 101 TFEU, to the detriment of the injured parties, requires that refusal to be based on overriding reasons relating to the protection of the interest relied on and applicable to each document to which access is refused.
48 It is only if there is a risk that a given document may actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme that non-disclosure of that document may be justified.
Hence, the debate is alive and kicking (on the CJEU's door) and a more definite answer is needed. Personally, I would support a very clear indication by the CJEU that leniency applications do not merit special treatment and, consequently, need to be disclosed to (credible) potential damages claimants and always under the supervision and within the context of judicial procedures. Otherwise, the leniency policy will kill damages actions and, even if it is very hard to trade-off the advantages and disadvantages of both policies, it seems clear that allowing for private redress and effective compensation is a requirement under EU law (as the CJEU has been so keen to consistently emphasise since Courage).
 
In the end, I would submit that the CJEU should bring his reasoning a step beyond and determine that "giving the undertakings concerned, who may have already benefited from immunity, at the very least partial, from pecuniary penalties, an opportunity also to circumvent their obligation to compensate for the harm resulting from the infringement of Article 101 TFEU, to the detriment of the injured parties" goes beyond the scope of the leniency programme--which advantages need to be contained within the sphere of the administrative effects (or, put otherwise, within the sphere of public enforcement).
 
Otherwise, the Commission and the NCAs will continue in their schizophrenic quest against cartels, where they try to have their cake (numerous leniency applications leading to resounding fines for the rest of the cartelists) and eat it too [by fostering a system for effective (collective) private reddress that, simply, cannot coexist peacefully with (or at least, cannot blossom under) full-blown leniency protection].

(Non)disclosure of leniency applications in the proposed 'Damages Directive': Commission v CJEU?

The European Commission has finally published its Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on certain rules governing actions for damages under national law for infringements of the competition law provisions of the Member States and of the European Union [COM(2013) 404] (the proposed 'Damages Directive'). 

Amongst many other interesting (and controversial rules), the proposed Damages Directive tackles the issue of the disclosability of leniency materials, which has been recently analysed by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Donau Chemie and had been previously analysed in Pfleiderer (which were discussed here).

The proposed 'Damages Directive' follows the prior Resolution of the Meeting of the Heads of the European Competition Authorities of 23 May 2012, on the protection of leniency material in the context of civil damages actions and is based on the argument that
In the absence of legally binding action at the EU level, the effectiveness of the leniency programmes — which constitute a very important instrument in the public enforcement of the EU competition rules — could thus be seriously undermined by the risk of disclosure of certain documents in damages actions before national courts.
Remarkably, this argument was adopted by Advocate General Jääskinen in his Donau Chemie Opinion (para 56), but was later rejected in very clear terms by the CJEU in the Donau Chemie Judgment, where it very clearly emphasised that:
as regards the public interest of having effective leniency programmes [...] it should be observed that, given the importance of actions for damages brought before national courts in ensuring the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union (see C‑453/99 Courage and Crehan [2001] ECR I‑6297, paragraph 27), the argument that there is a risk that access to evidence contained in a file in competition proceedings which is necessary as a basis for those actions may undermine the effectiveness of a leniency programme in which those documents were disclosed to the competent competition authority cannot justify a refusal to grant access to that evidence (C-536/11 at para 46, emphasis added).
Consequently,  the CJEU restricted the possibility to reject the disclosure of leniency documents to very specific and narrow circumstances by stressing that
The mere risk that a given document may actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme is liable to justify the non-disclosure of that document (C-536/11 at paras 48, emphasis added).
This is in clear contrast with the Commission's policy-based approach in the proposed 'Damages Directive', where specific rules against the disclosure of leniency documents are established in Article 6 on the limits on the disclosure of evidence from the file of a competition authority:
1. Member States shall ensure that, for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts cannot at any time order a party or a third party to disclose any of the following categories of evidence:
(a) leniency corporate statements; and
(b) settlement submissions.
2. Member States shall ensure that, for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts can order the disclosure of the following categories of evidence only after a competition authority has closed its proceedings or taken a decision referred to in Article 5 of Regulation No 1/2003 or in Chapter III of Regulation No 1/2003:
(a) information that was prepared by a natural or legal person specifically for the proceedings of a competition authority;
(b) information that was drawn up by a competition authority in the course of its proceedings.
3. Disclosure of evidence in the file of a competition authority that does not fall into any of the categories listed in paragraphs 1 or 2 of this Article may be ordered in actions for damages at any time.
As the explanatory memorandum clarifies, the rules have the following aims:
To prevent that the disclosure of evidence jeopardises the public enforcement of the competition rules by a competition authority, the proposed Directive also establishes common EU-wide limits to disclosure of evidence held in the file of a competition authority:
(a) First, it provides for absolute protection for two types of documents which are considered to be crucial for the effectiveness of public enforcement tools. The documents referred to are the leniency corporate statements and settlement submissions. The disclosure of these documents risks seriously affecting the effectiveness of the leniency programme and of settlements procedures. Under the proposed Directive, a national court can never order disclosure of such documents in an action for damages.
(b) Second, it provides for temporary protection for documents that the parties have specifically prepared for the purpose of public enforcement proceedings (e.g. the party’s replies to the authority’s request for information) or that the competition authority has drawn up in the course of its proceedings (e.g. a statement of objections). Those documents can be disclosed for the purpose of an antitrust damages action only after the competition authority has closed its proceedings.
(c) Apart from limiting the national court’s ability to order disclosure, the above protective measures should also come into play if and when the protected documents have been obtained in the context of public enforcement proceedings (e.g. in the exercise of one of the parties’ right of defence). Therefore, where one of the parties in the action for damages had obtained those documents from the file of a competition authority, such documents are not admissible as evidence in an action for damages (documents of category (a) above) or are admissible only when the authority has closed its proceedings (documents of category (b) above).
(d) Documents which fall outside the above categories can be disclosed by court order at any moment in time. However, when doing so, national courts should refrain from ordering the disclosure of evidence by reference to information supplied to a competition authority for the purpose of its proceedings. While the investigation is on-going, such disclosure could hinder public enforcement proceedings, since it would reveal what information is in the file of a competition authority and could thus be used to unravel the authority’s investigation strategy. However, the selection of pre-existing documents that are submitted to a competition authority for the purposes of the proceedings is in itself relevant, as undertakings are invited to supply targeted evidence in view of their cooperation. The willingness of undertakings to supply such evidence exhaustively or selectively when cooperating with competition authorities may be hindered by disclosure requests that identify a category of documents by reference to their presence in the file of a competition authority rather than their type, nature or object (e.g. requests for all documents in the file of a competition authority or all documents submitted thereto by a party). Therefore, such global disclosure requests for documents should normally be deemed by the court as disproportionate and not complying with the requesting party's duty to specify categories of evidence as precisely and narrowly as possible.
(e) Finally, to prevent documents obtained through access to a competition authority’s file becoming an object of trade, only the person who obtained access to the file (or his legal successor in the rights related to the claim) should be able to use those documents as evidence in an action for damages.
In my view, the rules that support points (a) to (d) are in contrast with the Donau Chemie Judgment and are bound to clash with existing EU Law in two respects: firstly, they can be disproportionately limiting the possibilities to obtain effective redress and, consequently, limiting the effectiveness of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU as interpreted by the CJEU in Courage. And, secondly, they can be disproportionately restricting the procedural autonomy of Member States by excluding the ability of domestic courts to conduct the balancing of interests between leniency defendants and damages claimants that the CJEU has stressed both in Pfleiderer and Donau Chemie

Hence, in my opinion, the rules in the Commission's proposed 'Damages Directive' are inadequate and should be revised, particularly as the absolute protection of  leniency corporate statements and settlement submissions are concerned, which are based on a policy option that has been disapproved by the CJEU very recently. 

The rest of the rules on temporary protection of evidence and preemption of discovery-like requests of evidence should also be revised, since they may make it very burdensome for potential claimants to actually have access to the requested evidence (for alternative proposals discussed in view of the 2005 Green Paper on Damages, see Sanchez Graells, 'Discovery, Confidentiality and Disclosure of Evidence Under the Private Enforcement of EU Antitrust Rules'). Otherwise, there will be very significant difficulties for the claim of damages in private actions due to infringements of the EU's and Member States' competition rules.

Why is #competition law so special? Or how #leniency will kill private #damages actions (AG C-536/11)

In his Opinion of 7 February 2013 in case C-536/11 Donau Chemie and Others, Advocate General Jääskinen has developed a line of reasoning that goes well beyond the issue at hand (whether access to judicial documents should be granted to a potential claimant for damages derived from anticompetitive behaviour) and encapsulates the growing risk that an excessive level of protection of leniency applicants will kill (all) potentially significant developments in damages litigation. 

Indeed, as clearly emphasised by AG Jääskinen,
36. In my opinion it is inarguable that such proceedings [ie damages actions based on infringement of EU competition law] are comparable to either ordinary civil or criminal procedures, given that neither is concerned with the protection of leniency programmes or other specific features of public law proceedings in the context of enforcing competition policy (emphasis added).
For such strong claims, the AG's reasoning remains rather sparse and implicit, and seems to oversee the fact that in certain criminal procedures a similar scheme of plea-bargain can exist in some Member States and that, in any case, the current trend in competition law enforcement seems to search for a more balanced approach between public and private enforcement, or even for a boost of private enforcement (as is the case in the UK).

Moreover, if his argument was carried to the extreme, there would be no difficulty for Member States to create a 'damages-proof' system that completely excluded damages actions when they risked the effectiveness of the public enforcement of competition law (and, notably, of leniency programmes). 

But surely this cannot be in line with the (declared) policy of the European Commission--or with the functional and pro-effective stance taken by the CJEU in Courage and in Manfredi--despite the very clear Opinion of AG Jääskinen, who expressly states that 'the Courage and Crehan/Manfredi right of private parties to seek damages from economic operators that have breached EU competition law should not, in my opinion, be developed to a point that would imperil the efficacy of public law enforcement mechanisms, whether they be European or national' (para 62). In my opinion, this is a seriously troubling position, as it clearly sets a glass ceiling on the development of private enforcement of competition law in the EU and, ultimately, may be the final thrust against its true development.

I think that the criticism against the bluntness of the AG's Opinion is not dispelled by his effort to square the circle by making compatible the 'damages proofness' of leniency applications with a right of effective access to justice for antitrust litigants. In my opinion, there are two frontally contradicting arguments in the AG's Opinion.

On the one hand, and on the basis of the general requirements of the principle of effectiveness (effet utile) of EU law, the AG claims that

51. […] subjecting access to public law competition judicial files to the consent of the infringer of the competition rules amounts to a significant deterrent of the exercise to a right to claim civil damages for breach of EU competition law. The Court has ruled that if an individual has been deterred from bringing legal proceedings in good time by the wrong-doer, the latter will not be entitled to rely on national procedural rules concerning time limits for bringing proceedings. I can see no reason for confining the application of this principle to limitation periods, and would advocate its extension to onerous rules of evidence that have an analogous deterrent effect. I would further query the compliance of remedies that deter enforcement of EU law rights with Article 19(1) TEU (footnotes omitted, emphasis added).
On the other hand, however, the AG carves out a truly significant exception for leniency applications:
55. Article 47 [of the Charter of Fundamental Rights] is also relevant to the case to hand because it guarantees the fairness of hearings, which serves to protect the interests of the undertakings that have participated in the cartel. In my opinion, access by third parties to voluntary self-incriminating statements made by a leniency applicant should not in principle be granted. The privilege against self-incrimination is long established in EU law, and it is directly opposable to national competition authorities that are implementing EU rules.
56. It is true that leniency programmes do not guarantee protection against claims for damages and that the privilege against self-incrimination does not apply in private law contexts. Despite this, both public policy reasons and fairness towards the party having given incriminating declarations within the context of a leniency programme weigh heavily against giving access to the court files of public law competition proceedings where the party benefiting from them has acted as a witness for the prosecuting competition authority (footnotes omitted, emphasis added). 
In my view, both positions are logically irreconcilable in that leniency applicants would have (by definition) prevented by their own unilateral will, access by third parties to the parts of the file that could be used to claim damages against them (something the AG rightly criticises at para. 51 of his Opinion).

Moreover, I find unjustified the final statement whereby AG tries to balance them exclusively on the basis of the peculiarities of leniency programmes:
64. [...] from the point of view of proportionality, in my opinion a legislative rule would be more appropriate that provided absolute protection for the participants in a leniency programme, but which required the interests of other participants to a restrictive practice to be balanced against the interests of the alleged victims. [...] Furthermore, in my view and except for undertakings benefiting from leniency (sic!), participation in and of itself in an unlawful restriction on competition does not constitute a business secret that merits protection by EU law (emphasis added).
* * *
But, beyond the specifics of the reasoning, I think that the Opinion in Donau Chemie is troublesome because it indicates a very strong resistance against effective private actions and, in my view, excessive deference towards leniency applicants--and, what is more important, low priority to granting effective economic compensation to the victims of cartels. 

Maybe this is just an indication that a 'public enforcement only' model is better suited to EU competition law and its institutional architecture. But then, if such is the case, maybe it is better to accelerate the process and not wait for leniency protection to (slowly) kill private actions. Let's just bury them and avoid unnecessary litigation. Or, if we want them in the EU competition toolbox, let's abandon the 'pro-public' approach expressed in the AG Opinion. Otherwise, competition law evolution will continue running in circles... to everyone's loss.