Interesting case on the boundaries of the in-house exemption from the EU public procurement rules (C-567/15)

In his Opinion of 27 April 2017 in LitSpecMet, C-567/15, EU:C:2017:319, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has addressed a complicated issue concerning the boundaries of the in-house exemption from compliance with the EU public procurement rules. AG Campos' Opinion is based on the 2004 Directives, but his views and the ECJ's ruling in LitSpecMet will be relevant for the interpretation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package (in particular, in relation to procurement derived from transactions covered by Art 12 Dir 2014/24, Arts 28-30 Dir 2014/25, and Arts 13-14 & 17 Dir 2014/23).

Differently from other cases, where the in-house exception was assessed in relation to contracts awarded within the 'public house', LitSpecMet concerns a question on the obligation to comply with procurement rules by 'in-house entities' themselves. And, in particular, the extent of the obligation in situations of relative complexity of control and functional relationships between contracting authorities and their controlled entities, where the controlled entities indirectly contribute to the contracting authorities' role in meeting a need in the general interest that does not have either an industrial or a commercial character. In other words, the LitSpecMet case concerns the boundaries of public procurement obligations for entities pertaining to a corporate conglomerate ultimately controlled by a contracting authority, and which award contracts outside the 'public house'.

In the case at had, the Lithuanian railway company (LG, itself a contracting authority with a public sector mission) fully owned an entity dedicated to the manufacture and maintenance of locomotives and railway carriages (VLRD). At the relevant time, orders from LG accounted for almost 90% of VLRD’s turnover. Therefore, LG and VLRD entered into direct contractual relationships on the basis of the in-house exception to the otherwise applicable obligation to comply with EU public procurement law. In turn, VLRD entered into contracts with third parties in accordance with its own Interim Procurement Regulations, rather than in compliance with Lithuania's Law on Public Procurement (LPP). This legal structure was challenged by LitSpecMet, on the basis that VLRD's procurement should be fully covered by the LPP (as a result of the scope of coverage of the EU rules), regardless of the in-house exemption from which contracts between LG and VLRD benefitted.

The main arguments put forward by LitSpecMet are summarised by AG Campos as follows:

 the ... activity carried out by VLRD falls under general interest, in that it enables LG to ensure provision of the public service for which it is responsible, namely the management of railway infrastructure and the provision of passenger transport. In its view, this activity is not of an industrial or commercial nature, since LG is the only undertaking in Lithuania engaged in it, which means that it can easily operate according to considerations which are not purely economic. To accept that public procurement rules do not apply to VLRD would mean that a contracting authority (LG) would be able to avoid those rules simply by setting up a subsidiary (VLRD) for in-house transactions (para 24, emphasis added).

VLRD and the Lithuanian government oppose this argument on different points, mainly related to the non-transferability of LG's duties to VLRD (paras 26-27). The arguments put forward by intervening Member States are also interesting, with Germany supporting the subjection of VLRD's procurement to the EU rules, while Portugal (and, surprisingly, the European Commission) advocate for the exclusion of VLRD's procurement activities from the EU rules (paras 28-32).

In conceptual terms, the legal dispute can be represented as follows, with the left graph depicting the legal structure adopted by the Lithuanian State, and the right graph depicting the alternative coverage put forward by LitSpecMet:

Ultimately, the issue of whether VLRD (as the in-house entity) is subject to the EU procurement rules depends on the answer to two questions: (a) is VLRD in principle directly covered by the EU rules and (b) is the in-house situation relevant and capable of having the effect of either (i) excluding coverage if VLRD is in principle covered or, conversely, (ii) extending coverage to VLRD despite not being covered in principle? Given that VLRD is not a contracting authority, these questions revolve around the interpretation of the concept of 'body governed by public law'.

At this point, it may be worth recalling that, for the purposes of both the 2004 and the 2014 EU public procurement rules, a 'body governed by public law' is that which meets the three cumulative conditions of: (a) being established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character; (b) having legal personality; and (c) being financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law; or being subject to management supervision by those authorities or bodies; or having an administrative, managerial or supervisory board, more than half of whose members are appointed by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law.

AG Campos stresses that it is commonly accepted that "VLRD satisfies the second and third: it has legal personality and it cannot be disputed that another body governed by public law (LG) has a role in its financing, the supervision of its management or the composition of its administrative, managerial or supervisory board" (para 38). Therefore, he proceeds to the analysis of the first condition in two parts, by first assessing the boundaries of the requirement of directly (or indirectly) meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character (paras 37-59); and then proceeding to a more specific assessment of these conditions where the meeting of needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character, takes place in the context of in-house transactions (paras 60-84).

directly (or indirectly) meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character

Concerning the first aspect, of whether an indirect contribution to meeting needs in the general interest not of an industrial or commercial nature, I find AG Campos' analysis interesting in that he stresses that the

... the key factor in answering the question is not so much the public nature of the need to be met but the conditions in which this is done. When interpreting the expression ‘needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character’ it is essential to ascertain on what terms these are to be met.
... according to the spirit of the procurement directives, what is important is to safeguard competition in the market and to prevent it being altered or distorted by participants who do not operate according to free trade principles. Consequently, the determining factor is not whether, by supplying goods and services to LG, VLRD is itself meeting a need in the general interest, or whether it does so indirectly, but whether, in either case, [VLRD] is operating under the same conditions as any private competitors, that is to say, without incentives to offer unfair advantages to national producers.
... for these purposes it is necessary to take into account multiple legal and factual circumstances, amongst which the Court of Justice has mentioned, by way of example, the circumstances prevailing when the body concerned was formed and matters such as ‘the fact that it does not aim primarily at making a profit, the fact that it does not bear the risks associated with [its] activity, and any public financing of the activity in question’. (paras 54-56, emphasis added and reference omitted).

This is largely in line with the clarification that recital (10) of Directive 2014/24/EU sought to introduce by establishing that "a body which operates in normal market conditions, aims to make a profit, and bears the losses resulting from the exercise of its activity should not be considered as being a ‘body governed by public law’ since the needs in the general interest, that it has been set up to meet or been given the task of meeting, can be deemed to have an industrial or commercial character." It is also substantively aligned with the exemption from the utilities procurement rules for entities exposed to competition (Art 35 Dir 2014/25, and previously Art Dir 2004/17). Therefore, this logic seems to carry significant weight and to match adequately the tests applicable in other parts of the EU public procurement system.

The only difficulty with this test is that it has elements that may conflate two of the conditions in the definition of a body governed by public law, in particular where the third condition is met due to the entity being 'financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law'. Therefore, in applying this test, it would be particularly relevant to take into account that it will be almost impossible to establish that the in-house entity is not a body governed by public law because, by the fact of having to derive at least 80% of its turnover from its activities with its controlling entity or entities, it will hardly be in the situation of operating in normal market conditions.

In my view, the sole fact that the controlling entities are directly awarding contracts to the in-house entity without having to comply with the procurement rules suffices to exclude a consideration that those entities are actually exposed to the vagaries of the market (to use the expression from the field of concessions contracts) because they have a captive demand from the controlling entities--which significantly insulates them from market risk where such demand is enough to absorb 80% of the entities' turnover. Ultimately, then, either there is an exemption at the level of the relationship between the contracting authority and the in-house entity, or there is an obligation to tender at that level (which then frees the otherwise in-house entity from public procurement duties). But, either way, the logic of exposition to competition in the market does not allow for both exclusions.

meeting needs in the general interest in the in-house context

From a different but not unrelated perspective, AG Campos also engages in an assessment of the relationship between these VLRD and LG to determine "whether the former is a proxy entity of the latter (or its own resource) which can use the ‘in-house exemption’ ... [by] analysing the substantive issue from an organic perspective as opposed to the perspective of the activity" (para 60). In that regard, he considers that it is necessary to make a

... distinction between ‘marginal’ activities and the ‘essential’ activities of proxy entities which justify the application of the in-house exemption. ... in relation to [marginal] activities the undertaking is operating within the market and can compete on an equal footing with rival economic operators.
... the same is not true of the ‘essential’ tasks which have been entrusted or assigned to the subordinate undertaking by the contracting authority under the in-house system. Where in order to carry out those tasks the undertaking (VLRD in this case) needs to obtain goods, services or supplies from third parties to a value which exceeds the level for harmonised procurement, then the public procurement directives apply.
Any other interpretation would give rise not only to inconsistency but to a potential circumvention of the law; the former because it would be inconsistent with the single effective identity of the two bodies, which was acknowledged for the purposes of exempting them from procurement procedures when dealing with each other, and the latter because it would make it easy to escape the application of the EU public procurement rules (paras 75 to 77, reference omitted).

I am not sure I fully understand the distinction between 'marginal' and 'essential' activities that AG Campos is proposing and, for the reasons above, I do not think it arguable that the in-house entity carries any activities in the market under normal conditions. However, this does not seem to be determinative of his analysis, as AG Campos more clearly states that

In other words, the contracting authority can make use of proxy entities, within the limits already mentioned, by entrusting them with particular tasks which should, in principle, be subject to public procurement procedures but which are exempted. This exception is not, of itself, open to question, legally speaking, in the light of the case-law of the Court of Justice (and, now, Article 12(1) of Directive 2014/24). However, where such proxy entities do not have the resources needed to themselves carry out the tasks assigned by the contracting authority and are obliged to have recourse to third parties in order to do so, the reasons for relying on the in-house exemption disappear and what emerges is actually a hidden public (sub-)procurement where the contracting authority, through an intermediary (the proxy entity) obtains goods and services from third parties without being subject to the directives which should govern the award.
... if the connection between LG and VLRD is such as to justify the application of the in-house exemption to transactions between them, then the external transactions that are essential to the performance of the tasks entrusted to VLRD by LG cannot avoid being caught by the procurement directives (provided they are in excess of the relevant value threshold). Otherwise, simply by reorganising the activities of LG through the establishment of VLRD, LG would be able to avoid the consequences that flow from its status as a contracting authority (paras 79 and 81, emphasis added).

This seems the appropriate functional approach and is completely aligned with the considerations made above in relation with the exposition of the activities of the in-house entity to the vagaries of the market. Therefore, I think that the two prongs of the substantive assessment proposed by AG Campos lead to the same conclusion: that the in-house exemption can only be used once, or that it is exhausted at the first step of avoiding access to the market (except in cases where the in-house entity has, in a complex public house infrastructure, the possibility of entrusting works or services to another, second-tier in-house entity).

Therefore, I hope that the ECJ will follow the approach outlined by AG Campos and confirm that, in simple terms, nobody can have two bites of the in-house cherry.