Interesting case on functional approach to multiple bidding and exclusion of tenderers (C-144/17)

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In its Judgment of 8 February 2018 in Lloyd's of London, C-144/17, EU:C:2018:78, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) confirmed its increasingly pro-competitive and anti-formalistic approach to the exclusion of tenderers on grounds of prohibitions of multiple bidding. The Court provided this clarification along functional lines that may anticipate the direction of its Judgment in Specializuotas transportas (C-531/16, see discussion of the Opinion of AG Campos here).

In Lloyd's, the CJEU established that the 'principles of transparency, equal treatment and non-discrimination ...  must be interpreted as meaning that they do not preclude legislation ... which does not allow two syndicates of Lloyd’s of London to be excluded from participation in the same procedure for the award of a public service contract for insurance merely because their respective tenders were each signed by the General Representative of Lloyd’s of London for that Member State, but instead allows their exclusion if it appears, on the basis of unambiguous evidence, that their tenders were not drawn up independently' (para 47).

Or, in other words, the CJEU declared the compatibility with EU primary (internal market) and secondary (procurement) law of domestic rules that do not impose the mandatory disqualification of bidders seemingly engaged in multiple bidding due to intra-group corporate links, but rather make any such exclusion decisions conditional upon an investigation of the extent to which they are representative of genuine competition for the contract. This is reflective of a functional approach to the treatment of multiple bidding situations that I think should be welcome [for in-depth discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules (2nd, Hart, 2015) 340-347].

As background for the analysis of the case, it is interesting to stress the existence of an Italian rule (Article 38(1)(m), quater of Legislative Decree No 163/2006) requiring the automatic exclusion of tenderers constituting a single decisional unit, whereby 'tenderers which "… are, in relation to another participant in the same tendering procedure, in a situation of control for the purposes of Article 2359 of the Codice civile (Civil Code), or in any relationship, including a de facto relationship, where the situation of control or relationship means that the tenders are attributable to a single decision-making centre" would be excluded from participation in a procedure for the award of concessions and of public works, supply and service contracts, and could not conclude contracts pertaining thereto or sub-contracts' (para 10).

However, the relevant administrative authorities (now ANAC), had established an interpretive practice dating back to 2008 whereby such automatic exclusion would not apply to intra-group competition where the signature of tenders by the same representative was a formality required by the domestic rules concerning the organisation of the tenderers, but did not evidence of intra-group collusion but rather reflected 'independence of syndicates and competition between them', which 'serve to ensure free competition and the equal treatment of candidates' (para 19). The case is coloured by the peculiarities of the Lloyd's market for insurance and reinsurance (on that, see para 27), but this seems reflective of a broader functional approach that mitigates the automaticity and strictness of the general rule in Article 38(1)(m), quater of Legislative Decree No 163/2006.

The question for preliminary interpretation of compatibility of this interpretation of Article 38(1)(m), quater of Legislative Decree No 163/2006 with EU law reached the CJEU because the referring court feared that 'the fact that the same person signs several tenders submitted by different tenderers may undermine the independence and confidentiality of those tenders and, as a result, infringe the principle of competition laid down, in particular, in Articles 101 and 102 TFEU' (para 20). In addressing this issue, there are a few passages of the Lloyd's Judgment that are worth noting:

... according to settled case-law of the Court, ... the automatic exclusion of candidates or tenderers that are in a relationship of control or of association with other competitors goes beyond that which is necessary to prevent collusive behaviour and, as a result, to ensure the application of the principle of equal treatment and compliance with the obligation of transparency ...

Such an automatic exclusion constitutes an irrebuttable presumption of mutual interference in the respective tenders, for the same contract, of undertakings linked by a relationship of control or of association. Accordingly, it precludes the possibility for those candidates or tenderers of showing that their tenders are independent and is therefore contrary to the EU interest in ensuring the widest possible participation by tenderers in a call for tenders ...

It should be pointed out in this regard that the Court has already held that groups of undertakings can have different forms and objectives, which do not necessarily preclude controlled undertakings from enjoying a certain autonomy in the conduct of their commercial policy and their economic activities, inter alia, in the area of their participation in the award of public contracts. Relationships between undertakings in the same group may in fact be governed by specific provisions such as to guarantee both independence and confidentiality in the drawing-up of tenders which may be submitted simultaneously by the undertakings in question in the same tendering procedure ...

Observance of the principle of proportionality therefore requires that the contracting authority be required to examine and assess the facts, in order to determine whether the relationship between two entities has actually influenced the respective content of the tenders submitted in the same tendering procedure, a finding of such influence, in any form, being sufficient for those undertakings to be excluded from the procedure (C-144/17, paras 35-38, references omitted).

This is a good way of synthesising the case law in this area and, as mentioned above, the only missing link concerns the extent to which a contracting authority has a positive duty to investigate potential intra-group collusion and seek exclusion--which is the other side of the coin to a LLoyds-type situation, where the contracting authority has an interest in excluding. This will soon (hopefully) be clarified by the CJEU in its awaited Judgment in Specializuotas transportas (C-531/16). Watch this space.

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.