Rejection of tenders for EU research funding, any lessons for procurement? (T-76/15)


In its Judgment of 18 January 2018 in Kenup Foundation and Others v EIT, T-76/15, EU:T:2018:9, the General Court of the Court of Justice of the EU (GC) assessed the compatibility with EU law of the rejection of a tender for funding under the Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation. Some of the GC's analysis in this context can provide interesting insights for the rejection of tenders in procedures controlled by the EU public procurement rules, if evaluation and award decisions are adopted through two-tier bodies (eg a technical evaluation and an overall 'political' decision-making). This could be particularly relevant in the context of competitive dialogues or innovation partnerships. To be sure, the Kenup case hinges on EU administrative law, but I think it raises issues that can be comparable in some domestic settings in the Member States.

In Kenup, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) issued a call for the designation of a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) in the field of innovation for healthy living and active ageing. The cooperation established between the EIT and the KIC would take the form of a framework partnership, with an initial duration of seven years, in the course of which grants could be paid by the EIT on the basis of the conclusion of specific agreements. The call for proposals established specific criteria for the exclusion, eligibility and selection of proposals, which were to be undertaken under EIT's responsibility. The decision on the designation of the KIC was subjected to a three-tier process, as follows:

According to the rules in ... that call for tenders, which the parties agree were complied with both by the independent experts and by the EIT, eligible proposals were to be evaluated by high-level independent external experts. Each proposal was thus examined by five experts, that is to say three thematic experts and two ‘horizontal’ experts, each responsible for an evaluation report for each proposal. The panel of experts was then required to draw up a consolidated evaluation report for each proposal. Next, the three proposals with the best rankings were evaluated by a second panel of high-level independent experts responsible for making a final recommendation containing an overview of those three proposals as well as recommendations for their improvement or reinforcement. Finally, representatives of the three proposals with the best scores were to be heard by the governing board before it designated the selected KIC (T-76/15, para 58).

Therefore, the decision on the designation of the KIC was to be made by the EIT's governing board, on the basis of the recommendation made by the second panel of experts, which only had to take into consideration the three top proposals as 'filtered' by the first panel of experts. In principle, this seems like a rather robust evaluation mechanism, in particular of the technical aspects of the proposals. However, it can also raise issues of compliance with rules on 'fully-informed' decision-making or 'unrestricted' executive discretion, as the Kenup case evidences.

In response to the call for proposals, the Kenup consortium submitted a tender under the coordination of the Stiftung Universität Lüneburg. After assessment of the proposals received in accordance with the evaluation mechanism described above, the governing board of EIT selected a  proposal for the KIC and rejected the other proposals, including Kenup's. Kenup then challenged the EIT's decision on several grounds, including issues concerned with an alleged failure by EIT to state the reasons for its decision, as well as a breach of the principles of transparency and equal treatment of tenderers.

All of these arguments are common place in the challenge of procurement decisions and their analysis would have been interesting. However, the case was decided solely on an issue concerning the implicit constraints on the exercise of executive discretion by the EIT's governing board due to the initial 'filtering' of proposals by a panel of high-level experts. This merits some close analysis.

As presented by the GC,

It follows from the evaluation process for the proposals ... that the panel of experts responsible for the final recommendation only had to examine the three proposals with the best scores following the evaluation by the first panel of experts. In addition, only representatives of those three proposals were to be heard by the governing board. In that regard, it should be noted that the call for proposals clearly indicated that the KIC would be selected by the EIT on the basis, first, of the consolidated evaluation reports relating to the three best proposals, as established by the panel of experts, secondly, of the report drawn up by the panel responsible for the final recommendation and, thirdly, of the outcome of the hearings. Accordingly, the EIT was required to make its selection only on the basis of the work carried out by the independent experts on the three proposals with the best scores and the outcome of the hearings carried out with the representatives of those proposals.

... the members of the governing board had access, via a protected website, to all the proposals submitted for the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’, including the Kenup consortium’s proposal. Furthermore, before the hearings, the director of the EIT indicated to the governing board the various stages of the evaluation procedure, including the various scores awarded overall and for sub-criteria to the five proposals submitted. However, none of the analyses of the Kenup consortium’s proposal carried out by the independent experts were submitted to the members of the governing board. Annex 1 to the information note of 1 December 2014 drawn up by the director of the EIT for the members of the governing board, produced by the EIT at the Court’s request, included merely a summary of the evaluation reports drawn up by the panel of experts relating solely to the proposals selected for the hearings. In addition, it does not follow from the procedure for the call for proposals, nor is it claimed, that members of the governing board attended the experts’ working sessions.

It is true, as the EIT maintains in its defence, that members of the governing board were free to raise questions and to request additional information concerning all the proposals and their evaluation by the experts. However, ... the members of the governing board did not possess any of the evaluations or a summary of the evaluations carried out by the panel of experts concerning the two proposals not selected for the hearings.

In any event, any initiatives of the governing board were unlikely to call into question the fact that only the three proposals with the best scores awarded by the experts could have been designated as the KIC on ‘Innovation for healthy living and active ageing’. The procedure established by the call for proposals entirely ruled out any possibility of the governing board’s selecting the Kenup consortium’s proposal and inviting its representatives to participate in the hearings, since that proposal was ranked in fourth position by the independent experts. That finding is confirmed by the wording of the letter of 10 December 2014 informing the coordinator of the Kenup consortium that its proposal had been rejected, which clearly links that exclusion with the ranking of the consortium’s proposal below third place. On that point, it may be noted ... that, in its reply to their request for further information, the EIT stated that the experts had been granted, by the call for proposals, a delegated power to preselect proposals.

Therefore, in accordance with the procedure defined in the call for proposals, the governing board could, following the hearings, only alter the ranking of the three best proposals selected by the experts ... The fact that, according to Article 15 of Regulation No 1290/2013, the selection of a KIC is made on the basis of the ranking of the proposals, in accordance with the evaluation carried out by independent experts, cannot mean that the EIT is bound, even in part, as regards the order of the proposals thus selected.

67      It follows from all the foregoing considerations that the applicants are justified in maintaining that the governing board failed fully to exercise its powers in respect of the selection of proposals, in breach of the provisions of Article 4 of Regulation No 294/2008, those powers having been delegated in part to experts without that board having, at any time, had the opportunity to make a proper assessment of the work they carried out on the proposals which were not ranked in the first three places (T-76/15, paras 61-65 & 67, emphases added).

As mentioned above, the Kenup Judgment is largely conditioned by a point of EU administrative law concerning the implicit delegation of the power to preselect proposals to the initial high-level expert panel. However, I find the case troubling in that context, and for any implications it could have in the context of procurement covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package. I have two main issues with this Judgment.

First, and foremost, that it seems to follow the worrying trend of disrespect for expert opinion. Implicit in the GC Judgment, there is an assumption that the governing board of EIT would have been able to challenge expert reports prepared in a seemingly robust manner. This seems difficult to share. Either the independent technical evaluation was needed because the governing board does not have the expertise (or time) to sift through all proposals--in which case the assumption that the governing board will look at all documents and sort of reassess all proposals from scratch is ludicrous--or it was not needed at all, and should be abandoned--which seems equally unpersuasive. More generally, it seems that the GC misunderstands the context and boundaries of the executive discretion given to EIT's governing board by the relevant EU provisions, as well as the fact that EIT had endorsed the specific evaluation mechanism (thus potentially self-constraining any broader discretion it may have had, in a manner that the GC hardly demonstrates to run contrary to any relevant constraints). From that perspective, this Judgment is at best extremely formalistic and, at worse, simply misguided.

Second, and also of importance, depending on the rules applicable under the general administrative law of the Member States, the thrust of the Kenup Judgment can result in significant difficulties (and potential challenges) in the context of complex procurement procedures where the overall (political) decision-making is supported by one or several rounds of technical evaluation aimed at filtering the initial proposals into shortlists or recommendations. If the logic in the Kenup Judgment was adopted, and the ultimate decision-makers of the contracting authorities and entities covered by the 2014 Public Procurement Package were required to have before them (and effectively engage with) the entirety of the documentation with a view to (potentially) challenging technical evaluations, complex procurement procedures could become exceedingly burdensome and/or (even more of a) box-ticking exercise. Moreover, it would be possible to generate inadvertent corruption risks if the non-expert (ie political) board could second-guess or deviate from robust technical assessments and have unfettered discretion. This would run in stark contrast with the case law of the CJEU on award criteria and unlimited freedom to choose a tender.

Consequently, my overall view of the Kenup Judgment is that it does not offer any valuable (or at least useful) lesson for procurement, and that the GC would have been well-advised to have followed the opposite direction of travel. By taking into consideration the case law on procurement that requires discretion to be constrained by solid technical evaluation, the decision in Kenup could (and should) have been the opposite. I can only hope that this case is limited to the way EU research funding is administered, and that the Kenup Judgment results in a change of EIT's internal governance rules in a way that preserves and enhances the role of independent high-level technical evaluations against the erosion that the GC's Judgment has generated.

GC supports exercise of discretion in the assessment of technical compliance in public procurement (T-30/12)

In its Judgment in IDT Biologika v Commission, T-30/12, EU:T:2015:159 (only available in DE and FR and involving public procurement by the EU Institutions), the General Court (GC) has decided on an issue involving the contracting authority's discretion to assess the sufficiency of technical reports and certificates submitted by the tenderer in order to proof conformity of its offer with requirements set out in the technical specifications. This is an important case because it supports the exercise of technical discretion in the assessment of compliance with specifications in public procurement processes and, in my view, consolidates a welcome anti-formalistic development of this area of EU public procurement law.

In the case at hand, there was a tender for the supply of anti-rabies vaccines to a region in Serbia. The technical specifications determined that the vaccines had to meet certain conditions, amongst which it was necessary to demonstrate that the vaccine had been registered by the European Medicines Agency or equivalent agency of an EU Member State, and that its use was also authorised by the Serbian medicines agency prior to its distribution.

Bioveta made an offer to supply anti-rabies vaccines based on a type of virus ("SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10") that differed from the one included in the registration and the authorisation documents it submitted as part of the technical documentation (referring to "SAD-Bern"), which had been obtained for commercialisation in both Serbia and the Czech Republic. 

In view of that discrepancy, the contracting authority required Bioveta to clarify and confirm that, despite the use of a different virus, the vaccine it offered did not require a new registration with a medicines agency, and that the commercialisation under a different name did not breach the initial authorisation to distribute the product in the Serbian market. 

In simple terms, Bioveta explained that the virus had been changed in 1992 and that the "SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10" was the virus used when the product had been authorised for distribution in Serbia. It also submitted a written explanation of the mere commercial orientation of the change of name (implemented to distinguish Bioveta's vaccines from those of competitors that also sold solutions based on the "SAD-Bern" virus), and submitted that it did not require new registration. It also furnished a report by the Czech medicines agency that confirmed that the products were equivalent and the name "SAD-Bern MSV Bio 10" had been used in all registrations and renewals that had taken place since 1992. 

The contracting authority considered that the clarification was sufficient and the contract was eventually awarded to Bioveta. The decision was subsequently challenged by the competing bidder IDT Biologika on several grounds (some of them very technical in veterinary terms). In my view, the interesting ground for challenge rests on the discretion of the contracting authority when it comes to the assessment of technical aspects of a tender for a contract to be awarded on the basis of the lowest price (or in post-2014 terms, to the most cost-effective offer).  

IDT Biologika fundamentally submitted that the explanations and certificates provided by Bioveta had been improperly assessed and taken into consideration by the contracting authority, and that the award decision was flawed due to the exercise of excessive discretion in accepting them--as, in IDT Biologika's view, the contracting authority should have taken a formalistic approach and rejected Bioveta's tender.

In order to resolve this issue, the GC builds on CMB and Christof v Commission, where it was established that "in the context of a public procurement procedure where ... the contract is awarded to the tenderer who has submitted the lowest priced administratively and technically compliant tender, the contracting authority limits its margin of discretion with regard to the award of the contract to the lowest priced tender among the compliant tenders. However, its margin of discretion must remain broad with regard to the evaluation of the conformity of the tenders presented, and in particular the documentation provided in that regard" (T-407/07, EU:T:2011:477, para 116, emphasis added). It then goes on to determine that, in view of the information supplied by Bioveta, it was not unreasonable or manifestly wrong for the contracting authority not to reject the tender.

In my view, this is a significant consolidation of the case law and, under the CMB and Christof v Commission and IDT Biologika v Commission line of case law, contracting authorities and their evaluation teams should be confident in sticking to a possibilistic approach towards the assessment of the tenders--so as to move past strict formalities and accept sufficient technical evidence as to ensure compliance with the technical specifications.

This is certainly the correct approach from the perspective of maximization of competition and the assessment of technical requirements from a functional perspective--and, consequently, the one that best fits the framework set by Art 44 of Directive 2014/24 on test reports, certification and other means of proof of conformity with requirements or criteria set out in the technical specifications, the award criteria or the contract performance conditions (in particular, art 44(2) dir 2014/24 on alternative means of proof).

CJEU confirms strict approach against acceptance of incomplete submissions in public procurement (C-42/13)

In its Judgment in Cartiera dell’Adda and Cartiera di Cologno, C-42/13, EU:C:2014:2345, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has confirmed its strict approach against the acceptance of incomplete submissions in public procurement procedures, at least where the tender documentation imposes the (automatic, non-discretionary) rejection of non-compliant or non-fully compliant submissions. This Judgment is fully in line with its previous Judgment in Manova, C-336/12, EU:C:2013:647 and, consequently, Cartiera dell'Adda does not advance EU procurement law in a significant manner. However, given its brevity and the harshness of the solution adopted by the CJEU (at least if analysed in functional or practical terms), I think that the case deserves some further consideration.
In short, the CJEU has confirmed that the exclusion of a tenderer that omitted a declaration is acceptable under EU law, even if the declaration was not necessary or, in any case, the facts concerned by the declaration would not trigger exclusion. In an extreme reading, the case confirms the legality under EU procurement law of an absolute obligation to reject submissions that are 'merely' affected by strictly formal shortcomings [for discussion, see A Sanchez Graells, 'Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions', in M Comba & S Treumer (eds), Award of Contracts in EU Procurement, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013) 289]. As mentioned, this is an area of very significant practical relevance and there is a need to properly understand the conditions under which such a stringent case law is being developed.
In that regard, it is important to highlight that, as the CJEU emphasises, the grounds for exclusion of tenderers expressly disclosed by the contracting authority in the tender documentation included situations where 
one of the documents and/or one of the sworn statements the purpose of which is to demonstrate that both the general and special requirements have been complied with is incomplete or irregular, except where any irregularity is of a purely formal nature and may be remedied but is not decisive for the assessment of the tender (C-42/13, para 10).
After juggling with the other (rather complicated) circumstances of the case, the CJEU clarifies the relevant legal dispute as a question of the
compatibility with European Union law of the fact that it is impossible for ... a tenderer, after submitting his bid, to remedy the fact that he failed to annex ... a statement to his bid [confirming that its technical director was not affected by mandatory exclusion grounds related to criinal records], whether by submitting such a statement to the contracting authority directly or by showing that the person concerned was identified as the technical director in error (C-42/13, para 40).
At this point, the CJEU reiterates its position in Manova, and stresses that "the contracting authority must comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself established, so that it is required to exclude from the contract an economic operator who has failed to provide a document or information which he was required to produce under the terms laid down in the contract documentation, on pain of exclusion" (para 42, emphasis added). The CJEU further reiterates that this strict requirement derives from the principles of equal treatment and transparency (paras 43-49).
It is also important to stress that the CJEU clearly indicates that "in so far as the contracting authority takes the view that that omission is not a purely formal irregularity, it cannot allow the tenderer subsequently to remedy the omission in any way after the expiry of the deadline for submitting bids" (para 45), which seems to create significant space for the flexibilisation of ommissions that can be remedied, particularly before the expiry of the deadline for submission of tenderers--but equally of omissions that can be reduced to purely formal irregularities.
More generally, in my view, the Manova - Cartiera dell'Adda line of case law offers some interesting opportunities for Member States and contracting authorities to avoid such impractical situations, provided they restrict themselves to the general rules under the new art 56(3)  of Directive 2014/24. This provision indeed stresses that
Where information or documentation to be submitted by economic operators is or appears to be incomplete or erroneous or where specific documents are missing, contracting authorities may, unless otherwise provided by the national law implementing this Directive [or excluded by themselves in the specific tender documents, as per Manova and Cartiera dell'Adda], request the economic operators concerned to submit, supplement, clarify or complete the relevant information or documentation within an appropriate time limit, provided that such requests are made in full compliance with the principles of equal treatment and transparency.
Consequently, any criticism against the Manova - Cartiera dell'Adda line of case law seems rather unjustified in view of the fact that the origin of any potential obligation to automatically and non-discretionally exclude non-compliant or incomplete submissions does not have an origin on the EU rules or their general principles (now in art 18(1) of dir 2014/24), but on excessively stringent domestic rules or, even worse, in the specific conditions imposed by the contracting authority in its own tender documentation. In the absence of those restrictions, EU law as interpreted in Manova - Cartiera dell'Adda does not constrain the proper exercise of administrative discretion in this area. Hence, contracting authorities (and Member States) will be clever not to put a noose around their own necks. In the end, the only thing the CJEU has done in Manova - Cartiera dell'Adda is to pull their legs...

CJEU flexibilises treatment of formally non-compliant bids in public procurement (C-336/12)

In its Judgment of 10 October 2013 in case C-336/12 Manova, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has  followed its own approach in Slovensko and created some room for the flexible interpretation of the rules on formal compliance of bids submitted in public procurement procedures.
In Manova, the contracting authority had requested some of the tenderers to provide financial statements that had not been included in their bids after the deadline for their submission had ellapsed. Given that this decision was challenged on the grounds of a potential breach of the principle of equal treatment, the referring court decided to request a preliminary ruling from the CJEU, which was asked "whether the principle of equal treatment is to be interpreted as precluding a contracting authority from asking a candidate, after the deadline for applying to take part in a tendering procedure, to provide documents describing that candidate’s situation – such as a copy of its published balance sheet – which were called for in the contract notice, but were not included with that candidate’s application".
In rather clear terms (although some caveats may have been dispensed with, in my opinion), the CJEU ruled that:
the principle of equal treatment must be interpreted as not precluding a contracting authority from asking a candidate, after the deadline for applying to take part in a tendering procedure, to provide documents describing that candidate’s situation – such as a copy of its published balance sheet – which can be objectively shown to pre-date that deadline, so long as it was not expressly laid down in the contract documents that, unless such documents were provided, the application would be rejected. That request must not unduly favour or disadvantage the candidate or candidates to which it is addressed (C-336/12 at para 42).
In my view, the Manova Judgment must be welcome, both for its functional approach and for its alignment with domestic practices in a significant number of EU Member States--as discussed in Sánchez Graells, A, "Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions", in S Treumer and M Comba (eds), Award of Public Contracts under EU Procurement Law, vol. 5 European Procurement Law Series, (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2013) 267-302. This seems a good step in the direction of avoiding that overly strict formal requirements get in the way of actual good public procurement practices.

Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions

In this new paper, I attempt a concise comparison of the rules applicable to the rejection of abnormally low and non-compliant tenders in a number of EU jurisdictions (namely, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain and the United Kingdom). 

In order to set the common ground for the analysis of such domestic rules, which are solely applicable to non-negotiated procedures, the paper first offers a description of the rules in the EU public procurement Directives and the case law of the European Courts (ie GC and CJEU), and then proceeds to compare them against this benchmark and amongst themselves. Where possible, the paper highlights innovative or different solutions, as well as potential deviations from EU law.

  • Sánchez Graells, Albert, Rejection of Abnormally Low and Non-Compliant Tenders in EU Public Procurement: A Comparative View on Selected Jurisdictions (April 11, 2013). European Procurement Law Series, Vol 6 (forth).