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.