Some thoughts on procurement flexibility and accountability after the 2014 EU Public Procurement Package & recent trends in case law

I had the honour of being invited to deliver a keynote presentation at the annual conference on procurement organised by FCG in Helsinki on 2 June. The organisers invited me to address two topics: first, an overview of the 2014 reform of EU public procurement rules from the perspective of flexibility, discretion and checks and balances. Second, a more focused discussion of recent ECJ case law in three areas of relevance for the Finnish practice after the transposition of the EU rules: the exemption for in-house provision and public-public cooperation, the requirements derived from general principles of procurement law, and the rules on discretionary exclusion and self-cleaning.

These are the two sets of presentations I used, which I hope reflect some of the ideas I presented, and which gave rise to very stimulating debate.

Public procurement in the CJEU's 2016 Annual Report - What a Busy Year and How Much New Case Law To Keep Up With

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has published its 2016 Annual Report, including a detailed assessment of its judicial activity. Even at first read, it is clear that public procurement features more prominently in this year's edition, where the CJEU offers some comments on key ECJ cases, such as Falk PharmaPartner Apelski Dariusz and Wrocław — Miasto na prawach powiatu, and PFE (see Judicial Activity Report, pp 64-65); as well as some comments on key GC cases on public procurement by the EU Institutions and on Commission's Decisions on Utilities Procurement, such as Österreichische Post v Commission, or European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v EUIPO on the concept of conflict of interest (currently under appeal) (pp. 182-183).

The 2016 Annual Report also allows for an expansion of previous statistical analysis of the ECJ's and GC's case load in the area of public procurement (see also analyses for 2015, 2014 and 2012).

Interestingly, 2016 data shows a reduction in the accumulation of procurement-related backlog, which is now reduced to its 2010 level if the institution is taken as a whole. As the graphs below show, this reduction in backlog is mainly due to increased decision-making at ECJ level and to a significant reduction of new cases at GC level. It is worth taking a closer look at both issues.

Sharp reduction in number of new cases before the GC

The number of new procurement cases before the GC dropped from 23 in 2015 to only 9 in 2016, which marks the all time lowest level since 2006, when the statistical series started. This sharp reduction in new cases allowed the GC to catch up with some of its backlog from previous periods and to reduce it by one third (from 35 to 24 pending cases in the 2015-2016 comparison). However, the low number of cases at GC level, which mostly concerns challenges to procurement decisions by the EU Institutions, continues to indicate that the creation of more effective remedies mechanisms applicable to EU institutional procurement remains a priority for regulatory reform (as stressed by the Court of Auditors). 

Increased Decision-Making at ECJ Level

It is particularly remarkable that the ECJ managed to significantly increase its decision-making in the area of public procurement, moving from an average of 10 decided cases in the 2010-2015 period (with a highest output of 14 decisions in 2015) to 31 decisions in 2016. Coupled with a reduction in the number of new cases from 26 to 19 in the 2015-2016 comparison, this increased level of decision-making activity has cut the backlog of pending cases by one third, thus bringing it back to its 2014 level and stopping (at least for now) the worrying trend observed throughout this decade.

It is interesting to dig a bit deeper in the analysis of this remarkable surge in decision-making activity by the ECJ. The graph below shows the evolution of the public procurement decisions adopted by the ECJ, breaking down annual totals between those closed by Judgment or Opinion (ie substantive decision-making) and those closed by Order (ie procedural decision-making).

As the graph shows, the increased volume of decision-making has resulted in an increased total volume of both substantive and procedural decisions. The impact of this evolution on the different type of decisions may be easier to grasp through a simple ratio. As the table below shows, the increase in decision-making has in part been the result of the adoption of a larger proportion of procedure-based decisions. This may point towards the need for further case-by-case analysis in order to understand if this reflects any new trends concerning the ECJ's management of procurement cases, or if it is simply the result of the larger overall case load in this area. In any case, what is clear is that 2016 was a year of unprecedented substantive decision-making by the ECJ in the area of public procurement. No wonder it felt like such a busy year and that it was hard to keep up with all developments!

Some (anecdotal) updates on the transposition of the 2014 Public Procurement Package


At Procurement Week 2016, we had an interesting session on the transposition of the 2014 public procurement package in some of the Member States. So, beyond the official information publicly available through Eur-lex, and for those of you anxiously following the transposition process (or its absence), I thought that it could be interesting to share some additional (anecdotal) updates on the process in the Member States represented in the panel.

Each panelist was asked to report on whether there had been transposition or what are the plans for it, as well as to choose three issues that can be considered controversial in the transposition. My notes of the discussion (responsibility for errors is solely mine) are as follows:

Czech Republic foresees to transpose by 01/10/2016. Their main three worries seem to be around the use of life cycle costing, the use of quality-only tenders in healthcare and the increasing discretion contracting authorities hold in terms of exclusion.

Denmark transposed and this transposition deviated from the previous copy-out approach, which has significantly changed the nature of procurement regulation in Denmark. It was suggested that a number of rules included in the procurement act are unnecessary and the result of specific lobby demands. Main issues pointed out as problematic included: obligation to disclose evaluation method, explicit obligation to terminate when the award decision is annulled, changes in the identity of participants as well as the possibility of the contracting authority to be obliged to accept certain types of changes, and issues concerning criminal records for the purposes of the ESPD.

Estonia has not yet transposed. The bill is in Parliament and there is hope that the transposition will take force by 1 January 2017. Meanwhile, however, the Estonian Ministry of Finance has issued guidelines with regard to parts of the new directives having a direct effect.*

Finland has not transposed and there is no clear time frame. A draft legislative act was promised by government by the end of June, with a view to have transposition in place by the end of 2016, but this does not seem too realistic.** The delay is remarkable because transposition was on track and a project was submitted to public consultation in good time. However, the process was subsequently derailed due to a change in government.*** [I wonder whether this comes to show the political relevance of procurement in Finland (and in Scandinavian countries more generally)]. Secrecy was mandated on civil servants involved in the transposition, which makes this particularly opaque. Some of the issues that are discussed, though, include the need to create an oversight body (probably to be assigned to the competition authority), issues around the non-public turnover limit for in-house and public-public collaboration and its interaction with domestic competition neutrality rules (which lead to the suggestion that the limit could be set anywhere short of 20%, and possibly in the 0-10% range), the need to review remedies despite lack of action at EU level, and possible gold-plating of SME-friendly measures.

Greece has not transposed. There was a series of public consultations in March for a law that would consist of 5 books and would be implementing the new directive. This law would also reform the public contracts regulations in general and this is where things got complicated and started to go wrong: when reforming the way remedies were sought, the legislator tried to create a special entity that would examine bidders' claims in the second instance (first instance is with the CA; second instance is now with a court). However the Greek Council of State found the creation of this new entity to be against the constitution and made requests for this and other provisions to be amended. This is causing further delay.^^^

Ireland transposed on 5 May 2016, except concessions.Their main issues relate to the light-touch regime, retrospective effect of new rules to contracts tendered after 18 April but before 5 May, and many difficulties concerning the implementation of the ESPD, particularly due to their issues with leaving 'suitability' assessments to the end and how this provides wrong incentives to contracting authorities to be 'lax' about selection and exclusion.

Italy transposed 1 day late, but it is not a full transposition and the implementing regulations are not ready yet. There are significant gold-plating issues, such as the prohibition to tender design and construction together (as per Mario's emails), or the limitation of the authorisation to carry out procurement to only 35 CPBs in the whole of Italy, thus banning the activities of individual contracting authorities except for minor contracts.

In the Netherlands, the transposition act was discussed in the Dutch Senate on 14 June and the subsequent vote will take place on 21 June. This would be the last hurdle for implementation, after which publication in the Staatsblad can follow. Therefore, it seems like the planning of the Ministry of Economic Affairs will be met (1 July). Predominant discussions in the Netherlands have related to: (i) In-house procurement and the question whether additional regulation of the make-or-buy decision is necessary. A proposal (motie) has been floored in the Senate on this subject. This relates to a recent trend of the central government to in-source scanning and cleaning activities; (ii) The question whether Dutch ministries and other organisational parts of the Dutch State are separate contracting authorities for the purpose of the in-house doctrine. This was discussed in parliament and at multiple legal conferences; (iii) In light of the recent decentralisation of many social acts (Jeugdwet, Participatiewet and Wmo) to the municipalities, it has been questioned if the introduced procedure for purchasing social services in relation to article 76(1) Directive 2014/24/EU is an adequate implementation of the Directive.****

Norway has not transposed either, but being an EEA State, it has more time. There has been a project since late 2015 and it is expected to come into force relatively shortly (pending the approval by the Parliament). ***** It interesting to note that all EEA Members had initially indicated 'constitutional requirements' for the transposition of the 2014 public procurement package. In particular, despite the fact that the Joint Committee Decision (JCD) no. 97/2016 was adopted on 29. April 2016 to incorporate Directive 2014/23/EC, Directive 2014/24/EC, and Directive 2014/25/EC into Annex XVI of the EEA Agreement, at the point of adoption all the EEA EFTA States indicated constitutional requirements. The JCD can consequently not enter into force until these requirements have been lifted and all the notifications under Article 103 (1) of the EEA Agreement have been made. The Norwegian parliament has now (16.6.16) approved the incorporation and Norway can therefore lift its constitutional requirements. It is now necessary for Iceland and Liectenstein to follow suit.^^

Poland has not transposed. A legislative proposal was published on 13 May with the intention of transposing in June, and this seems to be likely. Indeed, it seems that the classic and utilities directives could be transposed in July and the concessions directive in September.****** Polish procurement law has been reformed 50 times over 10 years, so there is experience (and complaints) about such continuous process of reform. Their main difficulties are in the transposition of rules in-house provision (particularly due to effects on waste management sector), the application of rules to below thresholds contracts related to investment in revitalization zones, the use of the ESPD, as well as rules on labour law requirements.

Portugal has not transposed either, although the Azores (being a devolved administration with competence for the transposition of procurement rules), have. The only rule that Portugal transposed in its entirety in August 2015 was art 22 dir 2014/24, which required an act with over 90 provisions. *******

Romania has completed the transposition.********

Spain has not transposed and transposition any time soon is highly unlikely due to the coming general elections on 26 June, which are not likely to result in the quick formation of a new government. Some regions have started to produce reports on direct effect of some provisions of Dir 2014/24 and, controversially, the region of Catalonia adopted a full transposition act on 31 May despite lacking the powers to do so. This raises complex internal constitutional issues and legal certainty is not necessarily fostered by the adoption of unconstitutional rules. This may have to do with the prospect of future liability for fines imposed by the CJEU for late transposition.

Sweden postponed transposition to 1 January 2017 but even that is unlikely. There is significant discussion on direct effect in the meantime, including for contracts below thresholds and reservable contracts for social and special services. The general discussion surrounding transposition is focusing on issues such as the possibility to use procurement to impose labour standards set in collective agreements, as well as innovation related topics.

UK (Eng & Wales) transposed in 2015 and amended rules in 2016. There is discussion in whether any benefits have been obtained from such early transposition. There is indication of increased use of competitive procedures with negotiations and dynamic purchasing systems. There is also an ongoing discussion concerning conflicts between the text of the regulations and guidance published by the Crown Commercial Services, which creates uncertainty at practical level.

I hope this is interesting/helpful/thought-provoking. Please feel free to use the comments function to provide additional updates on other Member States, or to expand the qualitative discussion on any of those mentioned above.

* Added thanks to Dr Mari Ann Simovart.

^^^ I am grateful to Panos Somalis for this update on Greece.

** Thanks to Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen for the precision that draft legislation can still be expected this June.

*** Thanks also to Timo Rantanen for his additional insights.

**** Thanks to W. A. (Willem) Janssen for information on the Netherlands.

***** Thanks to Ignacio Herrera Anchustegui for information on Norway and some comments on Portugal.

^^ Thanks to Werner Miguel Kuhn for this detailed update on the EEA process.

****** Thanks to Dr Paweł Nowicki for further details on Poland.

******* Thanks to Dr Pedro Telles for information on Portugal.

******** Thanks to Ioan Baciu for the update on the Romanian transposition.

New Paper: A critical assessment of the new health care procurement rules in the UK

The recently adopted UK National Health Service (Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition) (No. 2) Regulations 2013 include an interesting (and somehow unsettling) provision authorising anti-competitive behaviour in the commissioning of health care services by the National Health Service (NHS), if that is in the (best) interest of health care users.
As briefly discussed here, generally, it seems that under the new public procurement and competition rules applicable to the NHS, whatever is considered in the “interest of patients” could trump pro-competitive requirements and allow the commissioning entity to engage in distortions of competition (either directly, or by facilitating anti-competitive behaviour by tenderers and service providers)—as long as a sort of qualitative cost-benefit analysis shows that net advantages derived from the anti-competitive procurement activity. The apparent oddity of such general “authorisation” for public buyers to engage in anti-competitive procurement of health care services deserves some careful analysis, which this new paper carries out.

paper assesses Regulation 10 of the NHS Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition Regulations 2013 and the substantive guidance published by the UK's health care sector regulator (Monitor) from the perspective of EU economic law (and, more specifically, in connection to public procurement and competition rules). The paper claims that there is a prima facie potential incompatibility between Regulation 10 of the 2013 NHS Procurement, Patient Choice and Competition Regulations and both EU competition law and public procurement law—which are, in principle, opposed to any anti-competitive or competition restrictive behaviour in the conduct of public procurement activities. Consequently, there is a need for an EU law compliant, restrictive interpretation and enforcement of the provision—at least where there is a cross border effect on competition and/or a cross border interest in tendering for the health care contracts, which triggers the application of both EU competition law and public procurement law.
Sánchez Graells, Albert, New Rules For Health Care Procurement in the UK. A Critical Assessment from the Perspective of EU Economic Law (February 2, 2014). University of Leicester School of Law Research Paper No. 14-03. Available at SSRN: