EFTA Court reverses position on liability threshold for procurement damages (Fosen-Linjen II, E-7/18)

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In its Judgment of 1 August 2019 in Fosen-Linjen AS, supported by Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon (NHO) v AtB AS (E-7/18, Fosen-Linjen II), the EFTA Court has remarkably reversed its earlier position on the liability threshold for procurement damages claims, which it had previously established in its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in (E-16/16, Fosen-Linjen I ).

I had strongly criticised the original Fosen-Linjen I Judgment in this blog (here and here), at a seminar at the University of Bergen and, in extended detail, in A Sanchez-Graells, ‘You Can’t Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law After the EFTA Court’s Fosen-Linjen Opinion' (2018) 1(1) Nordic Journal of European Law 1-23.

Therefore, I am truly glad to see this outcome of the Norwegian Supreme Court’s (creative) referral of the case to the EFTA Court for a second opinion.

It will be recalled that, in Fosen-Linjen I, the EFTA Court controversially found that

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link (E-16/16, para 82).

In a 180-degree U-turn, in Fosen-Linjen II, the EFTA Court has now rather established that

... Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive does not require that any breach of the rules governing public procurement in itself is sufficient to award damages for the loss of profit to persons harmed by an infringement of EEA public procurement rules (E-7/18, para 121).

To be sure, this reversal is likely to generate further commentary (we are thinking of a special issue to collect some different views, so stay tuned) but my hot take is that with the Fosen-Linjen II Judgment, the EFTA Court has corrected the excesses of the earlier Fosen-Linjen I approach and (re)aligned EEA with EU law in the area of liability in damages for breaches of public procurement law.

Important EFTA case on procurement damages: Was the court of one mind, and will the CJEU follow? (E-16/16)

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In its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, the EFTA Court issued an important Opinion on the interpretation of the procurement Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC) and, in particular, on the conditions for the recognition of a right to damages compensation where the contracting authority uses an illegal award criterion and subsequently decides to cancel the tender for that reason. That is, cases where it is clear (and acknowledged by the contracting authority itself) that the procurement procedure was not fully compliant with substantive EU/EEA public procurement rules--which comes to constrain the legal analysis to the question whether the irregularity is such as to allow disappointed tenderers to claim damages compensation.

The Fosen-Linjen case raised a number of issues in the six questions sent to the EFTA Court, such as the threshold for liability, evidentiary requirements, causation, exoneration causes and due diligence requirements. All of them are important but, in my view, the main relevance of the case concerns the threshold of liability, on which the EFTA Court found that 

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link (E-16/16, para 82).

The EFTA Court reached this position in answer to a series of questions and sub-questions concerning whether liability under the Remedies Directive was conditional upon the contracting authority having deviated markedly from a justifiable course of action, upon it having incurred a material error that justified a finding of culpability under a general assessment, or upon it having incurred in an inexcusable'material, gross and obvious error' (question 1), or whether liability can be triggered under a test of 'sufficiently qualified breach' where the contracting authority was left with no discretion as to how to interpret or apply the infringed substantive rule (question 2). 

In the case at hand, the EFTA Court decided to group these questions and address them together. In my view, this has been determinative of the outcome of the case. Had the Court addressed the questions sequentially, and inverting the order, it would have been possible to establish that a breach of a substantive provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion constitutes a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law triggering liability (if all other requirements are met) (question 2), which would have rendered the other issues (question 1) moot and unnecessary in this case. By choosing not to do so, the EFTA Court grabbed an opportunity to influence the development of EU/EEA law in the area of procurement remedies in a way that I am not sure will be productive in the long run, particularly because the rather extreme position taken by the EFTA Court--ie that any simple breach of EU/EEA procurement law suffices to generate liability for damages--was not really necessary under the circumstances and does not easily sit with previous developments in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Ultimately, this finding is controversial because of (1) the way the EFTA Court couches the deviation of liability standards under the Remedies Directive and under the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law, as well as (2) due to the fact that the EFTA Court engages in contradictory normative assessments in the reasoning that leads to this conclusion--which makes the interpretation and operationalisation of its main finding rather tricky. In my view, these two points of contention make it unclear that the CJEU--which is not bound by the EFTA Court's interpretation--will adopt the same approach. I will explore these two issues in turn.

Is public procurement special?

One of the normative and doctrinal issues in the background of the discussion surrounding the threshold of liability under the Remedies Directive concerns its relationship with the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law. The position taken by the EFTA Court on this point is not very clear--despite explicit submissions to that effect by the parties, the Norwegian government and the EFTA Surveillance Authority--but it seems to indicate that the Court considers that procurement law is somehow special.

While it is commonly accepted that the State liability doctrine is premised on the existence of a sufficiently serious breach of EU/EEA law (as seminally established in Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, para 35, and in Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79, paras 31 and 51, and consistently reiterated by the CJEU, most recently in Ullens de Schooten, C-268/15, EU:C:2016:874, para 41), the EFTA Court is not willing to retain this threshold of liability in the area of procurement. As the EFTA Court indicated

... it has already been established that a national rule making the award of damages conditional on proof of fault or fraud would make actions for damages more difficult and costly, thereby impairing the full effectiveness of the public procurement rules ... The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability (E-16/16, para 77, emphasis added).

In other words, the EFTA Court is not willing to tolerate a situation where what could be termed de minimis breaches of EU/EEA public procurement law remain unchallenged and, in that regard, the Court seems to have been influenced by the European Commission's position that 'any infringement of public procurement law should be followed up and should not be left unattended because the breach is not “sufficiently serious”' (E-16/16, para 59). The EFTA Court thus seems to consider that the establishment of an almost absolute right to claim damages is necessary to ensure the desirable effectiveness of EU/EEA procurement law.

The Court also considers that '[a] requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision on EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State' (E-16/16, para 78), which is by no means obvious, in particular if the preliminary reference mechanism works appropriately. 

In my opinion, this general line of reasoning conflates two separate issues. First, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should trigger a ground for the review of the procurement decision concerned and, if justified, to set it aside. Second, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should provide a right to claim damages. By conflating both issues, the EFTA Court implicitly assumes that claims for damages are the only effective remedy. The Court does not take into account the existence of public oversight mechanisms able to 'pick up' on those de minimis infringements of EU/EEA public procurement law, and seems not to think it possible for disappointed tenderers to exercise rights of review in the absence of the financial incentives resulting from damages claims. This comes both to establish a hierarchy of remedies that is absent in the Remedies Directive [see A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018) forthc.], and to create the same risk of deformation of EU tort law that we have witnessed in other areas of EU economic law [see O Odudu & A Sanchez-Graells, 'The interface of EU and national tort law: Competition law', in P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017); as well as the rest of contributions to that volume].

From a normative perspective, I find this approach problematic due to the perverse incentives it creates--and which I think the EFTA Court was somehow aware of (see below). Moreover, I am not persuaded that this would necessarily be the position of the CJEU, which has in the past held that Art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 'gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible' (Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751, para 87, emphasis added). From that perspective, and even if the CJEU is likely to continue developing its line of case law that prevents the creation of additional requirements for the existence of liability in damages (as is clear it did by rejecting the imposition of a requirement of fault in Strabag and Others, C-314/09, EU:C:2010:567), I see no reason why it would accept that the requirement for a 'sufficiently serious breach' does not apply in this sub-field of State liability.

In my view, this is particularly important because the position taken by the EFTA Court was both unnecessary for the resolution of the case, and not explicitly premised on a deviation of the State liability doctrine, which leaves the CJEU an easy way out if it decides to take a different approach in the future. In my view, this is likely, because from a normative point of view, the position taken by the EFTA Court is not easily tenable.

What are the implications for contracting authorities and tenderers?

One of the important normative aspects on which the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment rests concerns the incentives that different liability thresholds and requirements create. In that regard, the Court seems to adopt two contradictory normative standpoints in dealing with the twin question of the threshold for liability and the causality requirement--which are indivisibly interlinked in its overall finding that 'A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability ... provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link' (E-16/16, para 82, emphasis added). The contradiction is as follows.

On the one hand, the EFTA Court considers that a simple infringement of EU/EEA public procurement rules must suffice to trigger liability because

... damages seek to achieve a three-fold objective: to compensate for any losses suffered; to restore confidence in the effectiveness of the applicable legal framework; and to deter contracting authorities from acting in such a manner, which will improve future compliance with the applicable rules. Liability through damages may also provide a strong incentive for diligence in the preparation of the tender procedure, which will, ultimately, prevent the waste of resources and compel the contracting authority to evaluate the particular market’s features. Were liability to be excluded, this may lead to a lack of restraint of the contracting authority (E-16/16, para 76, emphasis added).

Thus, in this part of the Judgment, the EFTA Court considers a high likelihood of liability a proper incentive for adequate diligence and decision-making on the part of the contracting authority.

Conversely, on the other hand, when assessing the causality requirements for the recognition of a right to damages compensation (in the context of the fourth question referred by the Norwegian court), the EFTA Court stresses that

... there must be a balance between the different interests at stake. While liability of the contracting authority for any errors committed promotes, in principle, the overall compliance with the applicable legal framework, exaggerated liability of the contracting authority could lead to excessive avoidance costs, reduce the flexibility of the applicable framework and may even lead to the unjust enrichment of an unsuccessful tenderer. Furthermore, excessive liability may provide an incentive for a contracting authority to complete award procedures, that were evidently unlawful, or impinge upon the freedom to contract (E-16/16, para 101, emphasis added). 

This clearly indicates that the existence of liability needs to be constrained or modulated. The EFTA Court seems to want to do so by establishing a complicated approach to causality requirements that would distinguish between those applicable to claims for negative and positive damages (ie bid costs and loss of profits). Even in the context of the first question, the EFTA Court had already shown some inconsistency when establishing that 'a claim for damages can only succeed if certain other conditions are fulfilled, such as the condition that there must be a sufficient causal link between the infringement committed and the damage incurred' (E-16/16, para 81, emphasis added)--which, however, is not equally reflected in the wording of its general finding, which only makes reference to 'the condition of a causal link' (para 82). 

In my view, the approach (implicitly) followed by the EFTA Court is not better than the alternative approach of having closely stuck to a requirement for a sufficient breach of EU/EEA public procurement rules. Even if a combination of low liability threshold (simple breach) and high causality requirements ('sufficient causality') could lead to the same practical results that a requirement for 'sufficiently serious breach', the EFTA approach creates legal uncertainty and more scope for divergence across EU/EEA jurisdictions, not the least because causation is within the remit of domestic law. more importantly, it can create a wave of litigation based on any (minimal, formal, irrelevant) errors in the conduct of procurement procedures in an attempt to test the boundaries of that test.

In my view, on the whole, it would have been preferable to stick to the general framework of the State action doctrine as specified in the Remedies Directive, which is compatible with a finding of a requirement for there to be a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law and, at the same time, with a finding that breaching a provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion (eg the obligation to be in a position to verify the content of tenders against its requirements and award criteria, as in Fosen-Linjen) suffices to trigger liability (the same way that the mere lack of transposition of a Directive triggers State liability under the general test). Therefore, I very much hope that this issue is brought to the CJEU soon, and I would strongly advocate for the CJEU to explicitly reject the EFTA Court's approach.

 

New Paper on Extraterritoriality of EU Procurement Rules

I am presenting a paper on the extraterritoriality of EU public procurement rules at the research workshop "Extraterritoriality of EU Law & Human Rights after Lisbon: Scope and Boundaries", held at the Sussex European Institute on 13 & 14 July 2017.

The paper is entitled "An Ever-Changing Scope? The Expansive Boundaries of EU Public Procurement Rules, Extraterritoriality and the Court of Justice", and is available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3000256.

As the abstract indicates:

This paper looks at how the EU public procurement rules have shown a tendency to permanently expand their scope of application, both within and outside the EU. Inside the EU, the expansion has primarily resulted from blurred coverage boundaries and a creeping application outside their explicit scope. Outside the EU, the extraterritoriality has concerned scenarios such as the applicability of EU financial rules to procurement carried out as part of the EU’s external action in other areas (such as common foreign and security policy), or the regulatory transfer (or ‘export’) of EU procurement rules as part of trade deals—notably, the EU-Canada CETA, but also the EU-Ukraine DCFTA.

Concentrating solely on the ‘external’ dimension of the expansive scope of EU public procurement rules, in trying to explore some of the impacts of the extraterritorial effects of EU public procurement law on the legal and regulatory systems of third countries, this paper focuses on the implications that this expansion and extraterritoriality can have in terms of jurisdiction of the Court of Justice, as well as in terms of difficulties for the coordination of remedies systems in the area of public procurement. The paper concludes that the extraterritorial expansiveness of the EU’s public procurement rules is creating areas of potential legal uncertainty that deserve further analysis. Given the highly speculative nature of those scenarios at this stage, however, the paper does not attempt to provide any specific answers or tentative solutions to the issues it raises.

I intend to review the paper after the workshop and will appreciate any additional feedback that helps me improve it so, if you have the time and inclination to read the paper, please email me any comments to a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk, or feel free to post them in the comments section. Thank you in advance for any input.

[Input sought] Access to procurement remedies and reciprocity in EU/EEA Member States

I have been thinking for a while about a comparative procurement law question on which I would appreciate your help and input (please comment below or send me an email to a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk if you have information about your jurisdiction that you can share, for which I would be most grateful). The question concerns the extent to which contracting authorities in the EU/EEA Member States apply an access filter for bids coming from non-EU/non-GPA covered states -- that is, whether contracting authorities check that the tenderer/tender are covered by trade-liberalising instruments or not at the initial stages of a procurement process -- and the extent to which that filter or its absence may then carry on to the access of non-EU/non-GPA tenderers to domestic remedies in those jurisdictions -- that is, whether remedies are limited to EU/GPA tenderers or are more broadly available.

My interest in this topic comes from the fact that, one of the issues that keep arising in the context of the Brexit debate (particularly in view of Prof Arrowsmith's proposals, which I criticised here, and Pedro Telles also criticised here) concerns the future access for UK tenderers/candidates to domestic remedies in the EU27/EEA jurisdictions in case of no deal with the EU and the UK resorting to GPA rules. This links to the broader question of which tenderers/candidates have access to procurement processes and to domestic remedies in the EU27/EEA jurisdictions, as mentioned above.

In my view, Member States can either control coverage by EU/GPA rules at the start of the process or not, and this may result from either an obligation to check or discretion to check. Later, in relation to the point on remedies, there are probably only four relevant (legal) options:

(a) all tenderers/candidates have access to all domestic remedies regardless of their nationality (ie totally open remedies system).

(b) all tenderers/candidates have access to some domestic remedies regardless of their nationality, but only EU/EEA tenderers/candidates have access to 'premium' remedies mandated by EU law (ie those with standstill, etc) (ie open EU+ remedies system).

(c) only tenderers/candidates covered by GPA/WTO, EU/EEA or bilateral FTAs have access to all domestic remedies (ie trade-led remedies system).

(d) only tenderers/candidates covered by GPA/WTO, EU/EEA or bilateral FTAs have access to some domestic remedies, but only EU tenderers/candidates have access to 'premium' remedies mandated by EU law (ie those with standstill, etc) (ie trade-led EU+ remedies system).

I am interested in writing a short paper on this issue and would really appreciate your input on: (i) whether there is some other legally-compliant model I may have overlooked and, (ii) more importantly, what is the model in your jurisdiction (specially if you are based in an EU27/EEA country). So far, the information I have been able to gather is as follows [apologies to those of you who have helped me with this if I have misinterpreted it -- corrections welcome; when reading this, please bear in mind that the content evolves as I discuss these issues with national experts and explore the ideas further, particularly in terms of the contours between models (a) and (c)]:

  1. Austria (thanks to Michael Fruhmann): Federal Procurement Law states, that procurement procedures shall be carried out in compliance with the fundamental principles of EU Law, the principles of free and fair competition and the equal treatment of all applicants and tenderers. However, different treatment of applicants and tenderers on grounds of their nationality or of the origin of goods which is permissible under international law remains unaffected by this obligation. The (legal) consequence is, that if no union or international obligations (re latter: this depends on the existence and scope of FTAs, RTAs also) exist to open PP procedures to foreign bidders, contracting authorities are free to admit participation or to deny the participation of such bidders. However, if such bidders are allowed to participate they have the same standing as national/EU bidders (also as regards remedies). In practice this comes down to the question, whether the contracting authority wants such bidders to participate. This is a case by case decision depending i.a. on the subject matter of the contract, the interest to intensify/safeguard competition in a given procedure. This decision (no admittance) can of course be reviewed (and has been reviewed) but the courts confirmed that without any EU/international obligation it's fully within the competence of the contracting authority to decide either way. Generally, this points towards the model being generally (c), but with the possibility of going beyond that and getting closer to (a) depending on the contracting authority's discretion.
  2. Belgium (thanks to Baudoin Heuninckx): a contracting authority may reject the request to participate or tender by undertakings from countries outside of EU/WTO or without an FTA, so there is a potential "filter" at the very beginning of the procedure. In terms of remedies, every candidate or tenderer has access to all remedies regardless of nationality. Potentially, this leads to the remedies model being (c).
  3. Czech Republic (thanks to Jaroslav Mencik): contracting authorities may not restrict participation in public tenders of suppliers from the EU, the EEA, Switzerland, or other states with which the Czech Republic or the EU has concluded international agreements which guarantee that suppliers from such a state will have access to the public contract being awarded. It follows that contracting authorities are required neither to check the nationality of tenderers nor exclude non-EU/non-GPA tenderers (but may choose to do so). Remedies follow model (a), all tenderers participate on equal terms.
  4. Denmark (thanks to Carina Risvig Hamer): it is not foreseen in legislation, but contracting authorities can decide not to allow participation from non-EU/non-GPA tenderers. All candidates and tenderers have full access to remedies. Potentially, this leads to the remedies model being (c). 
  5. Estonia (thanks to Mari Ann Simovart): remedies are available to any "interested party" without any restriction based on the country of origin. In short, model (a) applies. However, a contracting authority can restrict access to a particular procurement procedure for tenderers of EU/EEA/WTO only - in which case, tenderers outside EU/EEA/WTO can be regarded as having no "interest" towards the particular procurement and thus no standing to claim review.
  6. Finland (thanks to Kirsi-Maria Halonen): contracting authorities would not always check whether a tenderer is covered by the agreements, but could do so at the beginning of the tendering procedure. If accepted to participate/tender, the candidate/tenderer would likely have access to all domestic remedies. This leads to the remedies being closer to model (c), but it is possible that de facto, contracting authorities may be granting equal treatment beyond GPA/EU/FTA coverage in sui generis basis (model (a)). It is in the contracting authorities' discretion whether to even look into the matter/exclude. If tenderers are not excluded, they'll have equal rights for remedies. However, it is worth bearing in mind that this is untested in the courts.
  7. Germany (thanks to Gabriella Gyori): not taking into account decentralized matters (due to the differences among the "Bundesländern"), according to the federal public procurement legislation related to above threshold procedures, tenderers from outside of Germany are allowed to participate, treated equally and have equal rights. Remedies follow model (a). 
  8. Greece (thanks to Marios Skiadas): in order to be eligible to participate in a public tender, economic operators must be based in an EU, EEA, GPA or other countries which have signed bilateral or multilateral agreements with the EU in matters related to public procurement procedures. Contracting authorities have a first chance of checking this requirement when they assess the ESPD or equivalent documentation. Additionally, during the final stage of the awarding phase, the winning bidder is required to submit all legal documents regarding company establishment, operation and representation. Therefore, the contracting authority will in practice have a “second chance” to check conformance. Access to remedies applies to all parties with an interest in being awarded a public contract. By combining this to the eligibility criteria stated above,Greece follows model (c).
  9. Hungary (thanks to Gabriella Gyori): economic operators shall be excluded from participating in the procedure as a tenderer, candidate, subcontractor or an organization participating in the certification of suitability, if have their fiscal domicile in a country outside the EU, the EEA or the OECD or in a non WTO/GPA country or outside the overseas countries specified in the TFEU or in a country which has not signed any agreement with Hungary on avoiding double taxation or which has not signed a bilateral agreement with the EU concerning public procurement. Claims can be submitted by a contracting authority, a tenderer(s) or any other interested person whose right or legitimate interest is being harmed or risks being harmed by an activity or default which is in conflict with the procurement legislation. This brings the remedies system close to model (c).
  10. Ireland (thanks to James Farrell): based on long-standing practices, there are not requirements of EU/EEA/GPA membership as a qualifying requirement for tenderers, or references to different treatment of tenderers emanating from non-EU/EEA/GPA countries in any policy or guidance documents issued by the relevant Irish authorities. The general approach, driven by Ireland's open trading policy, is to take value wherever it can be found. There have been no court challenges in Ireland where an unsuccessful tenderer sought to argue that a winning tender should be disqualified because of the country of origin/registration/domicile of the tendering entity. Regarding remedies, apart from reliefs arising under the Remedies Directive there are also domestic reliefs such as Judicial Review, Injunctions etc that would be available to tendering entities regardless of nationality. Therefore, Ireland follows model (a).
  11. Italy (thanks to Roberto Caranta): only tenderers/candidates from MS/parties to GPA/WTO, EU/EEA or bilateral FTAs are eligible to bid. Eligible suppliers then have access to all domestic remedies; so the systems follows model (c).
  12. Lithuania (thanks to Deividas Soloveičik): there is no obligation for contracting authorities to check non-EU/ non-GPA suppliers. Remedies follow model (a), all suppliers participate on equal terms.
  13. Netherlands (thanks to Tim Beukema): Dutch law states that a contracting authority shall not grant any advantage in regard to the tender and the contract that is not granted to parties from countries within the EU. In regard to rejection of participants, contracting authorities may reject the request to participate by undertakings from countries outside of the GPA, EU or FTA. Entities operating in the water, energy, transport and postal services sectors (special sectors) have the possibility to reject a participation or tender if the goods that a party provides consists of more than 50% from countries on which the EU has no obligation to, i.e. countries outside the GPA, EU or FTA. A special sector company has the obligation to decline an offer of such party in the case of an equal bid from a undertaking within the GPA, EU or FTA that has less than 50% of the goods from within these countries. Claims can be submitted by parties who are interested in the tender in the case that his rights are being harmed or could be harmed because of the fact that the tender procedure breaches the procurement rules, which is a remedies system in accordance with model (c).
  14. Norway (thanks to Eirik Rise): follows model (c); only tenderers/candidates covered by GPA/WTO, EU/EEA or bilateral FTAs have access to domestic remedies, and only to the extent that it is covered in the relevant FTA.
  15. Poland (thanks to Paweł Nowicki and Piotr Bogdanowicz):  There is a newly introduced obligation to comply with WTO GPA and other international agreements to which the EU is a party, and there is no explicit obligation to exclude non-EU/non-GPA tenderers. Remedies follow model (a).
  16. Portugal (thanks to Pedro Telles): [not clear yet whether there is an initial filter]. Remedies follow model (a).
  17. Romania (thanks to Dacian Dragos): [not clear yet whether there is an initial filter]. Remedies follow model (a).
  18. Slovenia (thanks to Njives Prelog): suppliers from all over are allowed to participate, treated equally and have equal rights. Remedies follow model (a). 
  19. Spain: at the initial stage, contracting authorities have an obligation to check coverage by EU/GPA rules or to require confirmation of reciprocal access for Spanish tenderers in the country of origin of non-EU/non-GPA tenderers (which are also required to have a branch office in Spain). Remedies follow closely model (a) because remedies are open to all those admitted to tender procedures [ie go beyond (c), but are still somehow trade-led due to reciprocity requirement].
  20. Sweden (thanks to Andrea Sundstrand): there is no check at the start of the procedure and suppliers from all over are welcome to participate on equal terms. Remedies follow model (a) and all suppliers have access to exactly the same remedies regardless of whether they are from countries that Sweden has trade agreements with.
  21. United Kingdom (thanks to Aris Christidis and Pedro Telles for discussions): The UK system replicates the EU Directive in terms of extending equal treatment (which can be seen to include access) to economic operators covered by EU law, the WTO GPA, or other international agreements by which the EU is bound (see reg. 25 PCR2015). The remedies system is limited to those economic operators to which contracting authorities are legally taken to owe a duty to comply with public procurement rules. Effectively, this is limited to economic operators from the EEA, GPA signatories (provided the procurement is covered) and countries with bilateral agreements in force (see regs. 89 and 90 PCR2015).

This initial scoping exercise seems to indicate clustering around models (a) and (c). It would be amazing if we could collectively cover most of the EU27/EEA and complete the exercise, not only in order to gain a better understanding of this issue, but also because this will be relevant for Brexit negotiations around procurement in the immediate future. Your contribution will, of course, be duly acknowledged and gratefully received.

ECJ creates randomness in right to challenge procurement decisions by excluded tenderers (C-355/15)

In its Judgment of 21 December 2016 in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, C-355/15, EU:C:2016:988, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) offered additional interpretation of the rules on active standing to challenge public procurement decisions under the Remedies Directive (RD) and, in particular, its Article 1(3), according to which 'Member States shall ensure that the review procedures are available, under detailed rules which the Member States may establish, at least to any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement'.

This provision had been interpreted in broad terms ('favor revisionis') in Fastweb (C‑100/12, EU:C:2013:448, see here), where the ECJ strengthened the right of non-compliant tenderers to challenge procurement decisions. It is in comparison to Fastweb that Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich raises some tricky issues--and, once more, it is surprising that this ECJ judgment was adopted without an Advocate General opinion.

In the case at hand, and given the wording of the Austrian transposition of Art 1(3) RD granting active standing to 'An[y] undertaking which had an interest in the conclusion of a contract...', the legal question for the ECJ concerned a new aspect of the concept of 'any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract', as it relates to economic operators that have participated in the tender, but are no longer under active consideration by the contracting authority.

The interpretive difficulty stemmed in part from the contrast between the open wording of Art 1(3) RD and the seemingly more limited concept that could be extracted from Art 2a(2) RD, when it establishes a standstill obligation in relation only to concerned tenderers, which are defined as those who 'have not yet been definitively excluded. An exclusion is definitive if it has been notified to the tenderers concerned and has either been considered lawful by an independent review body or can no longer be subject to a review procedure'. Given that Art 2a(1) RD establishes that 'Member States shall ensure that the persons referred to in Article 1(3) have sufficient time for effective review of the contract award decisions taken by contracting authorities, by adopting the necessary provisions respecting the minimum conditions set out in paragraph 2 of this Article', the link between the general rule on active standing in Art 1(3) RD and the more limited rule on standstill in Art 2a(2) that aims to make that active standing effective does raise some complex issues.

In Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich, the question arose from the fact that the challenger of the procurement decision had been excluded from the procedure by a decision of the contracting authority that had become final (after two appeals) at the time of the challenge. The Austrian review courts considered that the finality of the exclusion extinguished the right to challenge the award decision because 'the rights of a tenderer whose bid has been properly excluded cannot be infringed by illegalities relating to the procedure followed to select another bid for the purposes of awarding the contract' (C-355/15, para 16).

In order to determine the compatibility of this position with EU law, the ECJ broke down the issue in two parts. It first distinguished the current case from Fastweb. It then proceeded to clarify the purpose of the challenge rights provided by Art 1(3) RD. While each of the two parts of the reasoning make some sense independently, their lack of coordination can create difficult cases under spurious circumstances.

In distinguishing the cases, the ECJ indicated that

29 ...  the judgment of ... Fastweb ... gave concrete expression to the requirements of the third subparagraph of Article 1(1) and Article 1(3) of Directive 89/665 in a situation in which, following a public procurement procedure, two tenderers bring an action for review, each seeking the exclusion of the other. In such a situation, both of the tenderers have an interest in obtaining a particular contract.
30      However, the situation at issue in the main proceedings is very clearly distinguishable from the situations at issue in the two cases giving rise to the judgments of ... Fastweb and ... PFE (C‑689/13, EU:C:2016:199).
31      First, the bids of the tenderers concerned in [Fastweb and PFE] had not been the subject of an exclusion decision of the contracting authority, unlike the bid submitted by the consortium in the main proceedings in the present case.
32      Secondly, it was in the course of the same, single set of review proceedings relating to the award decision that, in both cases, each tenderer challenged the validity of the other tenderer’s bid, each competitor having a legitimate interest in the exclusion of the bid submitted by the other, which may lead to a finding that the contracting authority is unable to select a lawful bid ... In the main proceedings in the present case, by contrast, the consortium brought an action, first, against the exclusion decision adopted in respect of it and, secondly, against the award decision, and it is in the course of that second set of proceedings that it contends that the successful tenderer’s bid is unlawful.
33      It follows that the principle of case-law stemming from the judgments of [Fastweb and PFE] does not apply to the procedure and litigation at issue in the main proceedings (C-355/15, paras 29-33, references omitted).

Despite being very formalistic and relying on procedural aspects of the litigation rather than on the material situation (ie, tenders with only two bidders in which each holds an interest in the exclusion of the other so that, in case of dual exclusion, the contracting authority is obliged to re-run the procedure and, thus, each has a fresh opportunity to participate), this is not an unreasonable approach and the ECJ seems clear in establishing an implicit condition for active standing that requires the contracting authority itself to not have excluded the tenderer (or its offer) at the time where the challenge of the award decision takes place. This is however a restriction of the (potential) widest interpretation of Art 1(3) RD. And this restriction brings complications in light of the second part of the analysis carried out by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich.

Indeed, in addressing the specific issue of the finality of exclusion decisions that exclude the right to challenge under Art 1(3) RD, the ECJ considered that

34 ... as is apparent from Article 1(3) and Article 2a of Directive 89/665, that directive ensures effective review of unlawful decisions adopted in the context of a public procurement procedure, by enabling any excluded tenderer to challenge not only the exclusion decision, but also, as long as that challenge has not been resolved, the subsequent decisions which would harm it if its exclusion were annulled.
35 In those circumstances, Article 1(3) of that directive cannot be interpreted as precluding a tenderer such as the consortium from being refused access to the review of the award decision, provided that it must be considered a definitively excluded tenderer within the meaning of the second subparagraph of Article 2a(2) of that directive (C-355/15, paras 29-33, emphases added).

In my view, this interpretation is criticisable both in own terms, and due to the effects it creates. The ECJ has adopted an interpretation of Art 1(3) that is conditioned by Art 2a(2)--that is, a sort of systemic interpretation where the special rule may be seen to exclude or restrict the general rule--without first addressing the possible coordination of both provisions without the second altering the scope of application of the first one--ie, in a true systemic interpretation.

This excludes an alternative, broader interpretation of the rules on active standing in the Remedies Directive that I would have much rather preferred, which would have determined that all economic operators having had an interest in the award of the contract (included definitely excluded ones) have the right to challenge the award decision under Art 1(3) RD, even if only those that are concerned tenderers or candidates benefit from the facilitative procedural measures derived from standstill under Art 2a(2) RD [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 439-441]. This would have respected the fact that, in the revision of the RD in 2007 (when Art 2a(2) was introduced), the wording of the relevant part of Art 1(3) was not amended. It would also not diminished or altered the effectiveness of Art 2a(2) RD, as the standstill period would in any case not benefited excluded tenderers ro candidates, who would have to overcome the additional burden of following the tender procedure very closely when they intended to challenge the final award decision.

Additionally, the position adopted by the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich creates an element of randomness derived from the uncertainty around decision times for challenges, appeals (and further appeals) of exclusion decisions. Thus, in swift jurisdictions where exclusion decisions can very quickly become final, the rights to challenge award decisions by tenderers excluded by the contracting authority can be effectively suppressed. In contrast, in slower jurisdictions where finality of exclusion decisions takes longer to reach, tenderers excluded by the contracting authority will still have the opportunity to challenge award decisions. In either case, there is no requirement for a coordination of both procedures, so it could well be that the challenge brought by an excluded tenderer is decided before an eventual confirmation of the exclusion decision, which seems to create an undesirable situation under the logic of the ECJ in Technische Gebäudebetreuung and Caverion Österreich. Overall, this Judgment creates this element of randomness in the recognition or not of active standing to challenge award decisions to tenderers excluded by the contracting authority, which is undesirable.

More generally, this case indicates once more the shortcomings of the system created by the Remedies Directive, which is patchy and incomplete, and requires a fundamental revision [see A Sanchez-Graells, "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts", S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming]. If nothing else, to clarify whether this is solely about justiciability of review rights of economic operators that can have an interest in being awarded that specific contract under the conditions in which it is tendered (a narrow interpretation), or whether it serves broader purposes of control and review of procurement activity, as a substitute for faltering public oversight of this important public sector function (a broad interpretation). There are arguments both ways, but not having this very basic and foundational aspect clear does create problems as the case law of the ECJ continues shaping the system one preliminary reference at a time...

A second look at the CJEU's public procurement activity--and a reflection on its implications in terms of remedies and the effectiveness of eu judicial activity

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has now published the final version of its Judicial Activity 2015 Annual Report. The release of these final statistics on the CJEU activity for the past year provides a chance to take a second look at the evolution of procurement cases over a long(ish) time period--statistics are now available for a full decade regarding the General Court (GC) and for the period since 2010 for the Court of Justice (ECJ). A quick look at the the statistics shows a continuation of the trend of increasing backlog in this area (see here), and a closer look reveals how the backlog at the ECJ level has been deteriorating rather quickly in recent years.

There are some limitations of the statistical information that need to be stressed from the outset. First, as with previous editions of the judicial activity report (see previous comments of the 2012 and 2014 reports), having had more information on the status of pending cases would have helped gain a better understanding of the situation, particularly at ECJ level. It is still hard to understand why the GC explicitly reports on pending cases, while the ECJ does not. Second, not all cases are exactly comparable. While the activity at GC level is limited to challenges to procurement procedures carried out by the EU Institutions, the activity of the ECJ includes a mix of preliminary references (the vast majority of new cases) and appeals against GC decisions. In 2015, of the 26 new cases before the ECJ, 22 were preliminary references and 4 were appeals. This makes the assessment of the overall evolution of public procurement activity not very meaningful. Thus, I will rather discuss the evolution at the GC and ECJ level separately.

Evolution of procurement cases at GC level--what are the implications in terms of the effectiveness of remedies for eu institutions' procurement?

The GC has been managing to slightly reduce its backlog of pending cases in the last 5 years and the trend seemed to roughly remain stationary in 2015, when it opened 23 new cases and completed another 22. Provided that no cases are "left at the bottom of the pile", it would thus seem that the GC is in a position to manage and cope with its public procurement docket.

However, this should not be too surprising, given the low pressure that being the review court for all the procurement activities developed by the EU Institutions creates. According to the recent Special Report No 17/2016 of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on EU institutional procurement (see here), the EU Institutions carried out procurement for a value of €4.2 bn in 2014. According to ECA: "In the 6‑year period from 2009 to 2014 the General Court completed 3,419 cases of which 106 dealt with public procurement by the EU institutions (3.1 %), or on average 17.6 cases per year. The 106 cases relating to public procurement gave rise to a total of 123 decisions: 66 judgments and 57 orders" (p. 44).

The Commission generally estimates that it awards more than 9,000 contracts per year. However, on average, there are less than 20 challenges of those procurement decisions per year. This would roughly indicate that less than 0.25% of procurement decisions of the EU Institutions get challenged before the GC. This is a very low caseload for a court in charge of reviewing procurement activity of a value of €4.2 bn. Searching for valid comparators is difficult because each jurisdiction organises procurement remedies in different ways and there are important cultural and practical factors that can determine very different litigation rates (going from the possible extreme of high litigation in Italy, where around 40% of the cases in the administrative courts are public procurement cases, to the UK, where there is only a handful of public procurement cases every year).

However, one gets the sense that 20 cases per year is a very low litigation rate by taking into consideration that EU Member States with similar or lower estimated procurement expenditure show more intense litigation. For example, based on the Commission's data, Bulgaria has over 1,000 cases per year (estimated procurement covered by the EU rules of €2.83 bn), Latvia has over 200 cases (€3.55 bn), Luxembourg has over 50 cases (€0.56 bn), and the Slovak Republic has over 1,000 cases (€3.98 bn). If we calculate the incidence of litigation by volume of (estimated) expenditure (covered by the EU rules), we would get the (very, very) rough measure of cases by billion Euro of expenditure. Using the information available (which is far from ideal), we can construct the table on the left-handside column.

This information should be taken with immense caution, and none of the specific figures for any of the countries of the list should be used as an indication of the actual intensity of litigation in that jurisdiction. However, I think that his serves to make the broader point that the level of litigation of procurement decisions adopted by the EU Institutions is indeed very low, at least by an order of magnitude.

The implication of this insight in terms of a potential review of the remedies mechanisms available to challenge procurement decisions by the EU Institutions--which has been advocated by ECA and should be strongly supported (see here)--is that the GC (in its current configuration and without a significant expansion of resources) is probably incapable of digesting any relevant increase of procurement litigation to a level in line with the jurisdictions of the Member States, except those with a lower intensity of procurement litigation. 

In my view, thus, it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency in charge of the oversight of the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, in case the provision of additional resources to this entity was considered preferable than a more substantial reform of the remedies system.

Evolution of procurement cases at ECJ level--will a new wave of preliminary references flood the court and dampen the papers?

The ECJ has been accumulating a significant backlog of procurement cases over the last 5 years (no earlier statistics are available). What seems worrying is that, for the last 3 years, the backlog has been increasing at a pace of approximately 10 cases per year, and the total backlog at the end of 2015 trebled the level in 2010.

In view of the expiry of deadline for the transposition of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in 2016 (and even if a significant number of Member States are delayed), it seems reasonable to expect a new wave of preliminary references for the interpretation of the ever so complex new rules and their coordination with the previous case law in this area of EU economic law. Thus, it would seem reasonable to expect the ECJ to consider strategies to cope not only with the existing backlog, but also with the likely increase in referrals in the period between now and, say, 2020.

Of course, it is difficult to develop a strategy that prioritises public procurement over other areas of judicial activity, and there may be good reasons to consider other types of cases (including within EU economic law, such as tax avoidance cases) equally or more relevant or urgent. However, the advantage of procurement is that, it being a very specialistic and relatively self-contained area, it would not be too difficult to create a task force to deal with procurement cases in a swift manner. This would require an investment in human capital for a temporary period.

The European Commission did this in the wake of the financial crisis in order to deal with the increased volume of State aid cases [for discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, “Digging itself out of the hole? A critical assessment of the Commission’s attempt to revitalise State aid enforcement after the crisis” (2016) Journal of Antitrust Enforcement, forthcoming]. The possibility of introducing similar flexibility at ECJ level could help boost the effectiveness of EU law (and public procurement law in particular) through a swifter process for the clarification of new rules that, otherwise, may remain in legal limbo for quite some time.

In terms of looking for resource to do so, of course, the elephant in the room is the issue of the cost of language management (as in translation and interpretation) at the CJEU. This is probably heretical, but I think that a reduction of the resource dedicated to language management would be the easiest and quickest way of boosting the ability of the CJEU to deal with a larger docket of legal issues. The Management Report in the 2015 Annual Report makes this overwhelmingly clear. To my mind, the fact that 37.4% of the posts at the CJEU are judicial (including Cabinets, Registries, Research and Documentation, Library, Protocol, Communication and Publications), while 51.0% of the posts are languages positions (including Translation and Interpretation), is troubling. Basically, because this heaviness of language management has the combined effect of: a) draining resource that could be put to a different use and, b) delaying the functioning of the CJEU.

Overall conclusion

It is probably not surprising that a look at the statistical information on judicial activity shows that the CJEU is not prepared for the likely developments in litigation in the area of public procurement law. It may well be overwhelmed by developments at the EU level that triggered a higher intensity of procurement litigation--should the remedies system for EU Institutional procurement be developed along the lines proposed by the European Court of Auditors; and it is most certainly in a bad position to absorb any significant increase in the number of questions referred for a preliminary ruling that results from the Member States application of the 2014 Public Procurement Package in a systematic manner.

In my opinion, the CJEU (and the EU Institutions more generally) should look for creative ways of preparing for these changes. Otherwise, the effectiveness of the EU public procurement rules may be jeopardised and/or significantly delayed, particularly concerning the interpretation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, which is certainly not without legal controversy.

New paper on the need to review the Remedies Directive

I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN: ‘If it Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It’? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts, to be published in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming.

As detailed in the abstract: 

EU public procurement law relies on the specific enforcement mechanisms of the Remedies Directive, which sets out EU requirements of administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts. Recent developments in the case law of the CJEU and the substantive reform resulting from the 2014 Public Procurement Package may have created gaps in the Remedies Directive, which led the European Commission to publicly consult on its revision in 2015. One year after, the outcome of the consultation has not been published, but such revision now seems to have been shelved. This chapter takes issue with the shelving of the revision process and critically assesses whether the Remedies Directive is still fit for purpose. 

The chapter focuses on selected issues, such as the interplay between the Remedies Directive and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and with the general administrative law of the Member States. It also assesses the difficulties of applying the Remedies Directive ‘as is’ to some of the new rules of the 2014 Public Procurement Package, which creates uncertainty as to its scope of application, and gives rise to particular challenges for the review of exclusion decisions involving the exercise of discretion. The chapter also raises some issues concerning the difficulties derived from the lack of coordination of different remedies available under the Remedies Directive and briefly considers the need to take the development of ADR mechanisms into account. Overall, the chapter concludes that there are important areas where the Remedies Directive requires a revision, and submits that the European Commission should relaunch the review process as a matter of high priority.

The paper is freely downloadable at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2821828. As always, comments welcome.

ECA's Special Report on access to EU Institutions' procurement: will it give a push to further reform?

On 13 July 2016, the European Court of Auditors published its Special Report No 17/2016 "The EU institutions can do more to facilitate access to their public procurement", where it examines how accessible the EU Institutions make their public contracts. I had the honour and pleasure of being invited to act as an academic expert during the preparation of this report, as well as to participate in a stakeholder meeting where the report was discussed with its main addressees, including the business community and the EU Institutions themselves. However, please note that the following only reflects my personal opinions about the report and any future developments.

To put the relevance of the report and the activities under investigation in perspective, it is worth stressing that the European Court of Auditors estimated the procurement carried out by the EU Institutions in 2014 in €4.2 bn. In particular, it is worth stressing that the European Commission manages just over €3 bn, while the Parliament and the European Central Bank manage €500 mn each, and the Council follows with more limited procurement activities of €171 mn.

These figures are important, particularly because they stress how the European Commission's procurement value exceeded that of some of the smaller Member States in 2014, such as Malta (€0.8 bn), Cyprus (€1.3 bn), Estonia (€2.5 bn) or Latvia (€2.7 bn); and the combined procurement of the EU Institutions also exceeded that carried out by Lithuania (€3.6 bn), and was very close to Bulgaria (€4.8 bn) and Slovenia (€4.9 bn). In my view, this indicates that the effects (positive or negative) of the regulation and development of public procurement by the EU Institutions should attract more attention than it usually does.

The report is generally positive on compliance issues, and it is clear that the European Court of Auditors takes no issue with the way in which the EU Institutions manage their procurement activities from a legal compliance perspective, since it found that 'the management and control arrangements were robust and reduced the risk of errors which could deter businesses from participating and prevent fair treatment'. However, the European Court of Auditors considered that the approach to procurement could be more strategic or market-oriented and, in particular, that EU Institutions could do more to facilitate SME access. 

In order to promote a more commercial approach to procurement, in particular, the European Court of Auditors included the following recommendations:

  1. In order to facilitate the monitoring of the accessibility of their procurement activities, all EU institutions should collect and analyse data both on the initial number of requests to participate and offers received and the number of offers which were taken into account for the final award decision.
  2. For the upcoming 2016 revision of the EU Financial Regulation the Commission should consolidate all relevant provisions into a single rulebook for public procurement. Participation of small and medium‑sized enterprises should be explicitly encouraged.
  3. The EU institutions should proactively use preliminary market consultations wherever appropriate with a view to preparing the procurement and informing economic operators of their procurement plans.
  4. The EU institutions should divide contracts into lots wherever possible to increase participation in their procurement procedures.
  5. The EU institutions should create a common electronic one‑stop shop for their procurement activities allowing economic operators to find all relevant information in a single online location and to interact with the EU institutions through this website.
  6. The Commission should propose a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated. Such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts.
  7. To allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts which could be developed as part of TED eTendering.
  8. The European Anti‑Fraud Office OLAF should produce reports and statistics on the different types of allegations under investigation and the outcome of these investigations.
  9. The EU institutions should use peer reviews for mutual learning and exchange of best practice.

Most of these recommendations are welcome and the European Court of Auditors should be encouraged to put some pressure on the EU Institutions, so that they materialise. There are, however, two recommendations that deserve some additional comments: recommendation 6 on remedies and recommendation 7 on the creation of a single public repository.

Recommendation #6 & EU Institution's resistance to facilitate review and flexible remedies

Given the reduced effectiveness of the informal resolution mechanisms provided by the European Ombudsman, which are significantly curtailed by the strictness of the procurement rules, and the cost and delay of challenging procurement decisions of the EU Institutions before the General Court (to these effects, see paras 76-88 of the report), it should come as no surprise that the European Court of Auditors recommended the creation of 'a mechanism for a rapid review of complaints from economic operators who consider that they have been unfairly treated', and that 'such a review should take place before economic operators may turn to the EU Ombudsman or to the EU Courts'.

What is more surprising, or maybe not, is that both the Council and the Parliament decided to omit this recommendation from their replies to the report, and that the Commission expressly opposed it. Indeed, in its reply to the report, the Commission indicated that

As far as the EU institutions are concerned, the Commission considers that the setting-up of a non-judicial review body, in addition to the already existing review mechanism provided for in the Financial Regulation, is neither needed nor appropriate as it would generate disproportionate costs for the benefits sought.
The Financial Regulation already provides that the unsuccessful tenderers are notified of the grounds and details reasons for their rejection and they may request additional information ... Such requests are subject to a strict deadline: the contracting authority must provide this information as soon as possible and in any case within 15 days of receiving the request.
In addition, whenever an act adversely affecting the rights of the candidates or tenderers is notified to the economic operators in the course of a procurement procedure (e.g. rejection), such notification will refer to the available means of redress (Ombudsman complaint and judicial review).
The Commission considers that the limited number of actions before the General court which dealt with procurement by the Union institutions (17) and the fact that compensation for alleged damages is rarely granted by the Court are strong indicators that the system in place is efficient and fit for purpose. Hence, the setting up of the suggested rapid review is not only not needed but it would also represent a disproportionate measure, not in line with cost-efficiency and not a good use of administrative resources (reply to point 78 of the report, emphasis added).

This is surprising because the European Commission does not seem willing to apply to its own procurement activities the standards of independent review that it promotes for Member States. In my opinion, a domestic system could not avoid a serious investigation on the effectiveness of its procurement remedies system with the argument that there are very few cases and those are unsuccessful, not least because the general principle of EU law that requires effectiveness of remedies ultimately requires that the available remedies do not make it practically impossible to claim the corresponding EU rights, which could be the case here.

When the procurement cases in front of the General Court last on average 35 months (see para 82 of the report) and the cost of litigation at the highest EU level is taken into consideration, one should not be too ready to accept the Commission's submission that the reduced number of such cases indicates the lack of need for more accessible, speedier and more effective review mechanisms. Moreover, the creation of such an alternative mechanism could also contribute to reduce the pressures on the General Court's procurement docket and, in general, facilitate specialisation and more flexibility in the resolution of conflicts.

Thus, the blanket rejection of the recommendation by the Commission seems to require some rethinking, and it would seem advisable to explore suitable alternatives, such as the creation of a procurement review agency, the submission of the procurement of the EU Institutions to the procurement remedies system of the relevant Member State, or some other similar option--including the possibility of creating a specialised chamber within the General Court, although this is an unlikely option for reasons that would take us too far from the discussion.

It is also important to stress that the creation of robust remedies mechanisms in public procurement (and in other areas of EU economic law) is not solely for the benefit of undertakings that partake in those procedures, but in the ultimate benefit of the taxpayer and society at large. In the case of procurement, if potential suppliers do not consider that they have a fair chance of protecting their interests, they will refrain from making investments in the submission of tenders. Such reduction of competition for public contracts carries an important implicit cost. Thus, aiming to save on direct administrative costs may well be self-defeating if this results in much larger shadow or indirect costs. This is not to mean that remedies should be promoted beyond the point necessary to ensure the integrity and probity of the procurement process, or that (generous or disproportionate) damages claims are the best way to ensure those remedies. What seems clear to me is that the issue of public procurement remedies under EU law requires further research and thought, and most certainly legal reform to adapt the existing system to the reforms of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. In that regard, it seems desirable for the Commission to carry on with the (seemingly abandoned) review of the Remedies Directive--and that such would be the ideal occasion to include the issue of remedies in the setting of EU Institutions' procurement in the proper considerations.

Recommendation #7 & risk of excessive procurement transparency

The second recommendation that deserves some comments is number 7, whereby the European Court of Auditors recommended that, in order to 'allow effective ex post monitoring of their procurement activities the EU institutions should set up a single public repository of information related to their procurement contracts'.

This raises, once more, the very tricky issue of the appropriate level of transparency of public procurement procedures and their outcomes, and the undesirable (unforeseen) effects that it can create. There is no doubt that the European Court of Auditors, like any audit body at national or international level, requires this information in order to discharge its functions. However, it is far from clear that there is a positive value in publishing all this information. While making this information public could contribute to some aspects of public governance (such as NGO and press scrutiny of these activities), it is by no means less clear that creating excessive transparency would contribute to anti-competitive strategies and potentially result in the cartelisation of public procurement markets.

In that regard, I would reiterate once more the need for a more nuanced approach to the compilation and publication of this type of information. 
As a functional criterion, only the information that is necessary to ensure proper oversight and the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures should be disclosed, whereas the information that can be most damaging for competition should be withheld. 

Generally, what is needed is more granularity in the levels of information that are made accessible to different stakeholders. The full transparency approach implicit in recommendation 7 of the European Court of Auditors' report, whereby all information is made available to everyone via a public registry or repository, falls very short from the desired balance between transparency and competition goals of public procurement. A system based on enabling or targeted transparency, whereby each stakeholder gets access to the information it needs for a specific purpose, is clearly preferable.

In more specific terms, the following normative recommendations should be subjected to further discussion in the roll-out of recommendation #7. They are by no means exhaustive and simply aim to specify the sort of nuanced approach to disclosure of public procurement information that is hereby advocated.

  • Public contract registers should not be fully available to the public. Access to the full registry should be restricted to public sector officials under a strong duty of confidentiality protected by appropriate sanctions in cases of illegitimate disclosure.
  • Even within the public sector, access to the full register should be made available on a need to know basis. Oversight entities, such as the audit court or the competition authority, should have full access. However, other entities or specific civil servants should only access the information they require to carry out their functions.
  • Limited versions of the public contract registry that are made accessible to the public should aggregate information by contracting authority and avoid disclosing any particulars that could be traced back to specific tenders or specific undertakings.
  • Representative institutions, such as third sector organisations, or academics should have the opportunity of seeking access to the full registry on a case by case basis where they can justify a legitimate or research-related interest. In case of access, ethical approval shall be obtained, anonymization of data attempted, and specific confidentiality requirements duly imposed.
  • Delayed access to the full public registry could also be allowed for, provided there are sufficient safeguards to ensure that historic information does not remain relevant for the purposes of protecting market competition, business secrets and commercial interests.
  • Tenderers should have access to their own records, even if they are not publicly-available, so as to enable them to check their accuracy. This is particularly relevant if public contract registries are used for the purposes of assessing past performance under the new rules.
  • Big data should be published on an anonymised basis, so that general trends can be analysed without enabling ‘reverse engineering’ of information that can be traced to specific bidders.
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should regularly publish aggregated statistics by type of procurement procedure, object of contract, or any other items deemed relevant for the purposes of public accountability of public buyers (such as percentages of expenditure in green procurement, etc).
  • The entity in charge of the public contracts registry should develop a system of red flag indicators and monitor them with a view to reporting instances of potential collusion to the relevant competition authority.

CJEU decouples limitation periods for award challenges and for damages actions in EU public procurement (C-166/14)

In its Judgment in MedEval, C-166/14, EU:C:2015:779, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has clarified the rules on the establishment of limitation periods applicable to damages actions based on the infringement of EU public procurement rules. The CJEU has interpreted the EU Remedies Directive in a way that excludes the establishment of absolute time periods. In particular, the CJEU has ruled that , when it comes to damages actions for breach of EU public procurement rules, the establishment of an absolute 6-month limitation period from the day after the date of the award of the public contract in question runs contrary to the principle of effectiveness of EU law. 

In the case at hand, which concerned Austrian procurement rules, actions seeking damages for the illegal award of a public contract could only be derived or of a follow-on nature. That is, damages actions were conditional upon a prior declaration by the competent procurement supervisory authority that the implementation of a public procurement procedure without prior notice or without prior call for competition was unlawful. Such original action, from which the damages claim could only derive, had to be lodged within 6 months of the day following the date of the award of the contract. As a result of this dual requirement, and even if no specific time period was foreseen for damages actions themselves, the latter were absolutely time barred at the expiry of a 6-month period from the day after the date of the award of the public contract.

MedEval challenged this implicit or indirect absolute 6-month limitation period for the exercise of damages claims on the basis that it made it particularly difficult, if not totally impossible, to challenge direct awards that were never disclosed to the public. Under Austrian law, and under a strict interpretation of those cumulative requirements, it would be possible for a contracting authority to enter into an illegal direct award and shield itself from any liability in damages, provided only that it could keep such illegal direct award secret for 6 months. 

In MedEval's view, it should be possible for disappointed bidders to challenge illegal direct awards and obtain reparation in damages provided they acted promptly from the moment when they became aware of the unlawfulness of the procedure at issue. Ultimately, as the referring court stressed, that would be in line with the Judgment in Uniplex (UK) (C-406/08, EU:C:2010:45), according to which the period for bringing proceedings to obtain damages should start to run from the date on which the claimant knew, or ought to have known, of that alleged infringement.

The CJEU has accepted such an approach and has stressed that, indeed, the establishment of absolute limitation periods would have a very negative impact on the effectiveness of EU public procurement law. In the MedEval Judgment, the CJEU reasoned that
35 As regards actions for damages, it must be noted that Directive 89/665 provides ... that Member States may provide that where damages are claimed, the contested decision must first be set aside ‘by a body having the necessary powers’ without, however, laying down a rule as regards the time-limits for bringing actions or other conditions for the admissibility of such actions.
36 In the present case it appears, in principle, that ... Directive 89/665 does not preclude a provision of national law ... under which a claim for damages is admissible only if there has been a prior finding of an infringement of procurement law. However, the combined application [of the 6-month time limit applicable to that prior action] ... has the effect that an action for damages is inadmissible in the absence of a prior decision finding that the public procurement procedure for the contract in question was unlawful, where the action for a declaration of unlawfulness is subject to a six-month limitation period which starts to run on the day after the date of the award of the public contract in question, irrespective of whether or not the applicant was in a position to know of the unlawfulness affecting that award decision.
37 ... it is for the Member States to lay down the detailed procedural rules governing actions for damages. Those detailed procedural rules must, however, be no less favourable than those governing similar domestic actions (principle of equivalence) and must not render practically impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by EU law (principle of effectiveness) (see, to that effect, judgments in eVigilo, C-538/13, EU:C:2015:166, paragraph 39, and Orizzonte Salute, C-61/14, EU:C:2015:655, paragraph 46).
38 In consequence, it is necessary to examine whether the principles of effectiveness and equivalence preclude a national rule such as that set out in paragraph 36 of the present judgment.
39 As regards the principle of effectiveness, it is appropriate to point out that the degree of necessity for legal certainty concerning the conditions for the admissibility of actions is not identical for actions for damages and actions seeking to have a contract declared ineffective.
40 Rendering a contract concluded following a public procurement procedure ineffective puts an end to the existence and possibly the performance of that contract, which constitutes a significant intervention by the administrative or judicial authority in the contractual relations between individuals and State bodies. Such a decision can thus cause considerable upset and financial losses not only to the successful tenderer for the public contract in question, but also to the awarding authority and, consequently, to the public, the end beneficiary of the supply of work or services under the public contract in question. ... the EU legislature placed greater importance on the requirement for legal certainty as regards actions for a declaration that a contract is ineffective than as regards actions for damages.
41 Making the admissibility of actions for damages subject to a prior finding that the public procurement procedure for the contract in question was unlawful because of the lack of prior publication of a contract notice, where the action for a declaration of unlawfulness is subject to a six-month limitation period, irrespective of whether or not the person harmed knew that there had been an infringement of a rule of law, is likely to render impossible in practice or excessively difficult the exercise of the right to bring an action for damages.
42 Where there has been no prior publication of a contract notice, such a limitation period of six months is likely not to enable a person harmed to gather the necessary information with a view to a possible action, thus preventing that action from being brought.
43 Awarding damages to persons harmed by an infringement of the public procurement rules constitutes one of the remedies guaranteed under EU law. Thus, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, the person harmed is deprived not only of the possibility of having the awarding authority’s decision annulled, but also of all the remedies provided for in ... Directive 89/665.
44 Consequently, the principle of effectiveness precludes a system such as that at issue in the main proceedings (C-166/14, paras 35-44, emphasis added).
This Judgment is particularly important for jurisdictions that set absolute time limits for the start of proceedings, particularly if they create similar cumulative effects of definitely time-barring actions for damages based on infringements of EU public procurement law (ie where damages actions are necessarily of a derivative or follow-on nature). Those jurisdictions will likely need to change their procedural rules to adapt to MedEval

In the UK, however, there seems to be no need to reform reg.92 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which already establishes time periods based on the the starting point of when the economic operator first knew or ought to have known that grounds for starting the proceedings had arisen (see here).

Should Damages in Public Procurement Hinge on Disappointed Bidders’ Commercial Interests? A Comment on Energy Solutions EU Ltd v Nuclear Decommissioning Authority



This comment has been previously published in eutopialaw. I am thankful to Christopher Brown for having brought this stimulating case to my attention.

In its recent Judgment of 23 January 2015 in Energy Solutions EU Ltd v Nuclear Decommissioning Authority [2015] EWHC 73 (TCC), the High Court ruled on a preliminary issue in a public procurement dispute and held that the review court has no discretion (not) to grant damages for losses resulting from a breach of the public procurement rules. In my view, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment should be criticised at least for two reasons: firstly, because it misinterprets the EU rules on public procurement remedies and their link with the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law; and secondly, because it creates an analytical framework based on the commercial decisions of disappointed bidders that would result in excessive (strategic) claims for damages. Moreover, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment sheds light on an important shortcoming of the system of public procurement remedies that is perpetuated under the recently adopted Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/102). This comment addresses these issues in turn.

Background

The dispute arises after Energy Solutions (as part of a bidding consortium, but that is not relevant for our purposes) was not chosen as the winning bidder in a tender for a nuclear waste management contract with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). After expressing its disagreement with the award decision and seeking additional information in the ensuing debriefing process, Energy Solutions eventually challenged the tender procedure within the 30-day limit applicable under reg.47D(2) of the applicable Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/5, as amended, primarily by SI2009/2992). By the time the challenge was effected, NDA had already entered into a contract with the winning bidder. Energy Solutions sought compensation for the damages it alleged to have suffered as a result of the improper conduct of the tender procedure

NDA tried to bar the damages action by arguing that a failure to challenge the award decision within the 10-day standstill period provided for under reg.32(3) Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (which could have prevented it from entering into the contract) broke the causal link between any breach of the applicable procurement rules and the ensuing damages (which, If any, would then derive from the tardiness of the challenge). NDA basically claimed that having foregone the possibility to prevent the award of the contract to another tenderer by activating the suspension foreseen in reg. 47G Public Contracts Regulations 2006, Energy Solutions had also lost the possibility to seek damages compensation. In support of that position, NDA submitted that, under reg.47J(2)(c) Public Contracts Regulations 2006, the review court retained discretion (not) to award damages resulting from a breach of public procurement rules in circumstances such as those in the case (ie the lost opportunity of litigating within the standstill period).

The High Court ruled against NDA on both points. Edwards-Stuart J found no basis for the

submission that any award of damages is dependent on the level of gravity of the breach, or any other such factor, and thus dependent on an exercise of judicial "discretion" or judgment, or whether, absent any failure to mitigate its loss, having proved a breach of the [public procurement rules] a claimant is entitled to anything other than damages that should be assessed by reference to ordinary principles. It may well be that the claimant's conduct will have been such that the court will be very reluctant to make any assumptions in its favour in relation to damages, but that is simply an aspect of the usual approach of the court to the assessment of damages (para 86).

As mentioned above, this finding is open to criticism, both for its inconsistency with EU law and because it creates an analytical framework that may result in excessive claims for damages. Each of these issues is addressed in turn. The problem derived from the diverging duration of the standstill period and the time limit for the challenge of award decisions is discussed last, as it also affects the brand new Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

The improper conceptualisation of the damages remedy with an EU law origin

In order to reach a conclusion on the discretionary or automatic nature of the damages remedy under reg.47J(2)(c) Public Contracts Regulations 2006, Edwards-Stuart J embarked on an assessment of the original provision that this regulation transposes, that is, art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EC (as amended by Directive 2007/66/EC), as well as its interpreting case law (primarily, Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751). However, in my view, his Judgment fails to extract the adequate conclusions.

It is worth stressing that, as stressed in paragraph 87 of Spijker (and repeated in para 69 of Energy Solutions v NDA), art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 “gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible” (emphasis added). In my view, Edwards-Stuart J completely misses the point when he tries to distinguish the Energy Solutions v NDA case by stating that

This is not a claim against a Member State for a breach of EU law which was intended to confer a right upon a person such as the Claimant. This is a claim brought by a corporate body against a national public body under the Regulations, an English national provision [sic] (para 83, emphasis added).

If nothing else, this position simply misses the entire EU law doctrine of supremacy and direct effect of Directives (Van Duyn v Home Office, C-41/74, EU:C:1974:133) and the duty of consistent interpretation (Marleasing v Comercial Internacional de Alimentación, C-106/89, EU:C:1990:395). Moreover, it is unnecessary for the analysis the High Court needed to complete in the case at hand. In that regard, it is also worth stressing that, as clearly established by the Court of Justice in Spijker (and repeated in para 70 of Energy Solutions v NDA)

In the absence of EU provisions in that area, it is for the legal order of each Member State to determine the criteria on the basis of which damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated … In the absence of any provision of EU law in that area, it is for the internal legal order of each Member State, once those conditions have been complied with, to determine the criteria on the basis of which the damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated, provided the principles of equivalence and effectiveness are complied with (Spijker, paras 90 and 92, emphasis added).

Hence, in order to stress the point of procedural autonomy (subject only to equivalence and effectiveness), Edwards-Stuart J did not need to take the difficult (and unacceptable) position of trying to decouple Energy Solutions’ claim from its obvious EU origin by rejecting its true essence.

Following on this aspect of the Judgment, it is also important to stress that counsel properly identified a further development of relevance in terms of assessing the effectiveness requirement. Indeed, in Danske Slagterier (C-445/06, EU:C:2009:178), the Court of Justice issued additional guidance on the possibility of imposing certain duties on disappointed tenderers before they can claim compensation for damages. That case concerned a German rule whereby reparation for loss or damage cannot be obtained by an injured party that has wilfully or negligently failed to utilise an available legal remedy (§839(3) BGB). The dispute concerned precisely the level of diligence that could be required under EU law from a claimant in damages that had forgone other (theoretically) available remedies before claiming for compensation.

In a situation that is clearly comparable to the one in Energy Solutions v NDA (as implicitly acknowledged by Edwards-Stuart J in para 73), the Court of Justice ruled that

it is a general principle common to the legal systems of the Member States that the injured party must show reasonable diligence in limiting the extent of the loss or damage, or risk having to bear the loss or damage himself … It would, however, be contrary to the principle of effectiveness to oblige injured parties to have recourse systematically to all the legal remedies available to them even if that would give rise to excessive difficulties or could not reasonably be required of them … [Union] law does not preclude the application of a national rule such as that laid down in para. 839(3) of the BGB, provided that utilisation of the legal remedy in question can reasonably be required of the injured party. It is for the referring court to determine … whether that is so (paras 61 to 64).

In my view, this provides the proper framework for the analysis of Energy Solutions v NDA, as it places the High Court in the position of assessing whether requiring claimants to challenge award decisions within the 10-day standstill period is reasonable and can become a pre-condition for their damages claims, despite the fact that the applicable regulations provide them with a 30-day period to do so. That is the point of “discretion” (rectius, non-automaticity) in the award of damages derived from public procurement infringements on which the parties disagreed, and one to which I will return below.

However, Edwards-Stuart J insisted (para 78) on his view that the domestic remedy has nothing to do with the general principle of State liability under EU law (in a frontal disregard of Spijker para 87), which excludes the applicability of any guidance ultimately based on the State liability doctrine (Brasserie du pêcheur and Factortame, C-46/93, EU:C:1996:79). In my view, this creates significant confusion and implies a breach of EU law within the UK legal system (which could, if not remedied, end up resulting in liability under Köbler, C-224/01, EU:C:2003:513).

The improper focus on the commercial choices or gambles of the disappointed bidder, which could trigger excessive litigation seeking procurement damages compensation

My second criticism of the Judgment in Energy Solutions v NDA derives from the isolated and commercially-led analysis of the system of remedies provided by Directive 89/665, as transposed by the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (and now the Public Contracts Regulations 2015). The point of departure for the analysis of the remedies system and, particularly, the granting of damages, needs to rest on two basic points. 

The first one is a point of law. Damages are conceptualised as an ancillary remedy under Directive 89/665 [for discussion see S Treumer, ‘Damages for breach of the EC public procurement rules - changes in European regulation and practice’ (2006) 17(4) Public Procurement Law Review 159-170]. In my view, this is particularly clear after the 2007 reforms [similarly, S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement. Regulation in the EU and the UK, Vol. 1, 3rd edn (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2014) 178; see also R Caranta, The Comparatist’s Lens on Remedies in Public Procurement (Istituto Universitario di Studi Europei, WP 2011-1) 7-8], which aimed at ensuring the effectiveness of the public procurement rules through stronger requirements of ineffectiveness of contracts concluded in their breach. This is the proper interpretation of the ensemble of remedies established under the EU rules and, in particular, given that art.2e(2) in fine Directive 89/665 expressly indicates that “[t]he award of damages does not constitute an appropriate penalty”.

Hence, damages are not an alternative or substitute remedy for the ineffectiveness of illegally awarded contracts (which can only be replaced with proper penalties imposed on the infringing contracting authority where public interest mandates the continuation of the illegally-awarded contract). Moreover, damages are not a free standing remedy, as they must be based on a (sufficiently serious) breach of procurement rules, which necessarily carries the consequence of either ineffectiveness of the contract or penalties for the contracting authority. This is also very clear from the wording of reg.47J Public Contracts Regulations 2006, which requires the review court to make findings on ineffectiveness and civil penalties, while it (simple?) authorises the court to make findings regarding damages compensation (this is discussed in paras 62ff of the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment, but in a way that goes against the literal reading of the provision).

The second point is a point of general policy based on economic incentives. In my view, disappointed tenderers will always have an incentive to seek damages compensation. Once they have participated in a tender procedure and not been awarded the contract, it is more favourable for them to seek damages (particularly if loss of profits is recoverable) than to seek the specific performance of the tender procedure being brought back to the point previous to the relevant infringement, or even the award of the contract as such. Once they are put in a position where they have an automatic claim for damages based on the infringement of the procurement rules, they will always prefer its exercise to any alternative remedy that either does not secure them the contract (because it forces a re-tendering) or awards them the contract (as getting direct financial compensation for the lost profits is better than having to – properly – execute a contract in order to create them). 

In short, creating an automatic right to damages compensation for breach of public procurement rules would become a ‘winning lottery ticket’ for disappointed bidders. It is simple to see how such unbalanced rights to remedies would trigger excessive litigation. From a policy perspective, then, it should be required that contractors only be entitled to damages when a specific, non-financial remedy is not available (ie, when the illegally awarded contract must be protected in view of a sufficient public interest).

From this perspective, it is hard to understand how Edwards-Stuart J can consider that

If the claimant is seeking to have the award of the contract suspended, then it must start proceedings within the standstill period or, in any event, within the 30 day period and before the award of the contract. However, if the claimant is merely seeking damages, then it need only start proceedings within the 30 day period. I do not see any basis for treating these two remedies as being of different importance: that depends on a claimant's circumstances and what it is seeking to achieve - the Regulations give it a choice (para 79, emphasis added).

The relevant point, in my view, is that the Regulations do not give a choice to the Court (not the claimant) in terms of the content of the challenge against an award decision. If the Court finds that there is an infringement, it must impose the relevant remedies (not only damages), as clearly established in reg.47J Public Contracts Regulations 2006 for cases in which the contract has already been entered into (and in relatively less stringent terms, in reg. 47I Public Contracts Regulations 2006 when the contract has still not been entered into). Hence, regardless of whether the claimant complements the claim for damages with a claim for ineffectiveness or not, the Court must always consider the possibility and desirability of setting the illegally-awarded contract aside. Consequently, there should actually not be any difference, from the point of view of the Court, between the two sets of remedies indicated above. Maybe in blunter terms, under the applicable Regulations, a claimant is never allowed to actually only seek damages because the Court is never allowed to only rule on damages.

Hence, considerations such as those developed in paragraphs 87 to 91 of the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment must be rejected, since they rely on the consideration that a claimant can legitimately conclude “for various commercial reasons, that damages would be an adequate remedy in all the circumstances” (para 87, emphasis added), and that this needs to be the guiding principle in the construction of the system of remedies for public procurement infringements.

I of course acknowledge that this is an approach that implicitly recognises that disappointed bidders do not challenge award decisions only in their own interest, but also exercise a (residual, implicit) ‘general attorney-like’ function aimed at catching and sanctioning infringements of (EU) public procurement law—in a sort of private enforcement akin but different from that developed for the equivalent competition law rules. However, I struggle to see how the system of remedies could be developed in satisfactory way exclusively considering disappointed bidders’ commercial interests.

The source of the problems: diverging time-limits beyond mandatory standstill periods

The final issue that bears comment (and much further thought) refers to the existence of time-limits for the challenge of procurement decisions that reach beyond mandatory standstill periods. The situation created under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 has just been perpetuated under the recently adopted Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which regs.87 and 92(2) perpetuate the problem of a general time-limit for the start of proceedings that exceeds the mandatory 10-day standstill period. As Edwards-Stuart J rightly pointed out in the Energy Solutions v NDA

the Regulations permit an unsuccessful tenderer to start proceedings after the expiry of the standstill period, and therefore at a time after which the authority may have entered into the contract with the successful tenderer: indeed, the Regulations expressly contemplate this eventuality. I therefore have considerable difficulty in seeing how a decision not to start proceedings within the standstill period could be said to be unreasonable. But, as I have already said, this is a question of fact (para 54).

Hence, the problem that is (now, clearly) on the table is that the part of the time-limit for the start of proceedings that runs beyond the duration of the mandatory standstill creates space for strategic litigation, particularly if coupled with the ‘automaticity’ (or lack of discretion) for the award of damages resulting from a breach of public procurement rules discussed above. There are two possible options. On the one hand, to overrule Energy Solutions v NDA and go back to a Spijker-compliant interpretation of the Public Contracts Regulations (2006 and 2015), so that a judgment of ‘reasonableness’ of the time at which the proceedings are started is conducted by the court on a case by case basis. This option creates legal uncertainty and may trigger further litigation at EU level. On the other hand, to amend the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 so that the standstill period and the time-limit to initiate actions coincide. In that case, I would expect the standstill to be extended, rather than the time-limit to be reduced. One way or the other, though, the system needs fixing in order to close the gaps that can now trigger excessive (strategic) litigation.

AG proposes to reduce safe harbour for directly awarded public contracts subjected to prior transparency (C-19/13)

In his Opinion of 10 April 2014 in case C-19/13 Fastweb, Advocate General Bot has proposed an interpretation of Art 2d(4) of Directive 89/665 (as amended by dir 2007/66) that would seriously erode the safe harbour (apparently) created by that provision for contracts that have been directly awarded by the contracting authority (without competition), provided that the following cummulative conditions are met: 
 
— the contracting authority considers that the award of a contract without prior publication of a contract notice in the Official Journal of the European Union is permissible in accordance with Directive 2004/18/EC,
 — the contracting authority has published in the Official Journal of the European Union a notice (...) expressing its intention to conclude the contract, and,
 — the contract has not been concluded before the expiry of a period of at least 10 calendar days with effect from the day following the date of the publication of this notice (emphasis added).
 
The key element of his Opinion is, in my view, his interpretation of the extent to which the discretion of the contracting authority in 'considering' that it can avail itself from the possibility to award a contract without prior publication of a contract notice is subject to judicial review. A literal reading of the provision seems to indicate that the standard of review is very low (if not inexistent) and that, provided the transparency requirement and standstill period are respected, the directly awarded contract cannot be declared ineffective--leaving the challenging tenderer with the only option of seeking compensation for damages.
 
However, AG Bot argues that this would create a paradox and opposes such a literal interpretation of the provision, subjecting that exercise of discretion to effective (full) judicial review. As AG Bot argues,
74. Indeed, it should be noted that Directive 89/665 is specifically designed to increase the guarantees of transparency and non-discrimination in the context of procedures for the award of public contracts so that the injured economic operator receives complete legal protection. Moreover, it should also be remembered that the European Union legislature opted to strengthen in Directive 2007/ 66 the effectiveness of review procedures to combat the illegal direct award of public contracts and to protect potential tenderers against the arbitrariness of the contracting authority.
 
75 . Secondly, [if the judgment made by the contracting authority was not open to judicial review], in these circumstances, the contracting authority [would be allowed] to directly award a contract in contravention of the requirements laid down in Directive 2004/18, by serving minimum formalities and exposing itself to a minimum punishment, giving rise to potential abuses of the rights thereby recognized (AG Bot in C-19/13, at paras 74-75, own translation from Spanish and references omitted).
 
Further, AG Bot considers that
One must not lose sight of the dact that the maintenance of the effects of the contract provided for in Article 2d paragraph 4 of Directive 89/665 is based on the good faith of the contracting authority and seeks to preserve legal certainty for the contracting parties. The European Union legislature expressly recognized this in the twenty-sixth recital of Directive 2007/66, by insisting on the need to "avoid legal uncertainty which may result from ineffectiveness" of the contract. In addition, the Court has expressly admitted this in the judgment in Commission / Germany [EU:C:2007:432, para 33] (AG Bot in C-19/13, at para 82, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added).
In view of these (and other) considerations, AG Bot proposes that the CJEU interprets that
Article 2d , paragraph 4 of Council Directive 89/665 (...) read in the light of the principle of equal treatment and the right to effective judicial protection, must be interpreted as not precluding that a Member State grants the body responsible for appeal proceedings the freedom to appreciate the extent to which a contract awarded without prior publication of a notice in the Official Journal of the European Union must be declared ineffective when it finds that, despite the publication in the Official Journal of the European Union of a notice stating its intention to conclude the contract and the observance of a minimum standstill period of ten days, the contracting authority has violated in a deliberate and intentional way the advertising standards and the requirements of opening up to competition laid down in Directive 2004/18 (own translation from Spanish, emphasis added).
Basically, AG Bot argues against an automatic exclusion of the possibility to declare contracts ineffective under Art 2d(4) of Directive 89/665 and advocates for an extension of the scope of judicial review in order to assess whether contracting authorities acted in good faith. In my view, this potential development in the interpretation of EU procurement rules is troubling because it points towards a tendency to include subjective assessments in procurement review procedures (see Art 18 Directive 2014/24) and departs from the standards of judicial review: manifest error in law or in fact, and abuse of power/procedure.
 
The same result [ie inapplicability of the safe harbour of art 2d(4) of dir 89/665] could be achieved by simply stating that the first condition (that is, that the contracting authority considers that the award of a contract without prior publication is permissible in accordance with Directive 2004/18) is subject to that 'consideration' not being manifestly incorrect in law or in fact, or that the contracting authority has not abused its powers in the award of the contract.
I would prefer the CJEU to rule in that regard without embarking on analyses related to the good faith or otherwise of the contracting authority. Let's hope that the final judgment in the Fastweb case does not open the door to a myriad of complications in order to determine such type of subjective elements.

CJEU protects right to challenge public procurement decisions by non-compliant tenderers (C-100/12)

In its Judgment of 4 July 2013 in case C-100/12 Fastweb, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has strengthened the effectiveness of the public procurement remedies system by protecting the right to challenge (illegal) award decisions by tenderers that do not comply with all the (technical) requirements imposed by the tender documentation themselves.

In the case at hand, a disappointed tenderer challenged the award decision on the basis that none of the two awardees in a framework agreement complied with the technical specifications set by the contracting authority. The awardees of the contract intervened in the procedure and raised a counterclaim stating that the challenger did not comply with the technical specifications (either). Under Italian law, the counterclaim had to be analysed first and, if successful, would bar the challenge on the basis of a lack of locus standi of the disappointed tenderer (who could not have been awarded the contract anyway and, consequently, would be prevented from challenging the outcome of the procedure).

The CJEU found such an interpretation of the rules on active standing contrary to the EU public procurement remedies directives (as amended by dir 2007/66), inasmuch as 'the aim of [those directives] is to ensure that decisions made by contracting authorities in breach of European Union law can be effectively reviewed' (C-100/12 at para 25). Following a functional approach that deserves praise, the CJEU found that:
a counterclaim filed by the successful tenderer cannot bring about the dismissal of an action for review brought by a tenderer where the validity of the bid submitted by each of the operators is challenged in the course of the same proceedings and on identical grounds. In such a situation, each competitor can claim a legitimate interest in the exclusion of the bid submitted by the other, which may lead to a finding that the contracting authority is unable to select a lawful bid (C-100/12 at para 33).
Consequently, the CJEU has determined that the counterclaim concerning the locus standi of a tenderer that should have been excluded (or whose tender should have been rejected) cannot preempt the analysis of the legality of the award decision adopted by the contracting authority. 

By (implicitly) adopting such a broad interpretation of the concept of 'any person having or having had an interest in obtaining a particular contract and who has been or risks being harmed by an alleged infringement' [art 1(3) dir 2007/66], the CJEU has increased the chances of attaining effective and substantive review of the award decisions adopted by contracting authorities, regardless of the specific procedural rules within each of the EU Member States (as mandated by the principle of effectiveness of EU law) and seems to point clearly towards a principle or criterion of 'favor revisionis', so that review bodies and courts tend to assess the material conditions of award decisions, despite the presence of apparent procedural difficulties to carry out such an assessment. 

In my opinion, this is a favourable development of EU public procurement law and one that is conducive to ensuring an absence (or correction at review stage) of distortions of competition. As argued elsewhere [A Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart, 2011) pp. 353-355], my view is coincidental with the approach adopted by the CJEU in that 
the best reading of the standing requirements imposed by Directive 2007/66 is that Member States have to adopt a broad approach to the setting of detailed rules regulating active standing to access bid protests and review procedures, and that they have to do so attending both to the criterion of participation in the tender, and to the criterion of the effects actually or potentially generated by the alleged infringement—so that bid protest and review procedures are open to any party that has taken part in the tender or that can otherwise prove that it has been harmed or risks being harmed as a result of the alleged infringement, regardless of its actual participation (or lack of it) in the specific tender that gave rise to it.

Enforcement of State Aid Rules for SGEIs before Public Procurement Review Bodies and Courts


I will be presenting it at the "Competition and State Aid Litigation – The Effect of Procedures on Substance", CLaSF/University of Luxembourg Conference, 19-20 September 2013.

ABSTRACT: One of the criticisms against the new rules applicable to the granting of State aid to finance the provision of services of general economic interest in the "Almunia package" is that enforcement is likely to be their weakest point. Similarly, in the more general setting of the "private" enforcement of State aid rules, the 2006 Study on the Enforcement of State Aid Law at National Level recommended that the European Commission created a common minimum standard of remedies applicable in all EU jurisdictions, stressing that "one possible means of creating such a standard would be to adopt a remedies directive for State aid cases, which could be modelled on the remedies directive for procurement cases".


Building up on these considerations, the extent to which the existing remedies within the system for the enforcement of EU public procurement rules provide an effective platform to enforce EU State aid rules (and, more specifically, those for the financing of SGEIs) before public procurement review bodies and courts is assessed. The paper describes the main groups of cases where public procurement litigation "phagocytises" State aid considerations. It then proceeds to explore the viability, from an EU law perspective, of configuring public procurement review bodies and courts as "State aid courts" for the purposes of the simultaneous enforcement of both sets of rules in a single setting of "private" litigation. It also submits that using the public procurement system in this way provides effective remedies for the enforcement of the Almunia Package for the financing of SGEIs.




A spoonful of #publicprocurement in the #CJEU's bowl

Public procurement has been gaining relevance in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (both at the General Court and Court of Justice level), both in qualitative and quantitative terms. A look at the statistics on public procurement cases clearly shows their increasing numerical importance, as well as the increasing backlog that is being accumulated in this area of EU economic law. 




















(*) Note: Unfortunately, prior to 2010, the data for the Court of Justice does not include a separate category for public procurement cases (they were likely to be classified under approximation of laws, or under the relevant fundamental freedom). Therefore, the actual numbers may be higher than the available statistics show but, in my view, the general trends seem clear.






















In terms of new cases, it seems clear that, despite the increasing prescriptiveness of the public procurement rules, the growing body of EU case law that interpret them, and the issuance of guidance by the European Commission--public procurement is an area of growing litigation. This is particularly clear before the General Court, which has the role of appeals tribunal for the public procurement decisions of the EU Institutions--which makes it surprising that, actually, the number of tender challenges the GC hears is relatively small if one takes into consideration the number of procurement procedures run by EU Institutions on a yearly basis (the Commission alone tenders over 9,000 contracts a year, mostly for services) [which may raise an issue of effectiveness of remedies for EU institutional procurement, but this is an issue that would deserve careful and separate consideration].





















In view of this growing number of new cases, it is encouraging to see that the number of completed cases is also growing. However, this may be just a natural adjustment to the number of new cases--the more public procurement cases get on the table, the more that get completed in due time. In this regard, it would be interesting to estimate the average duration of public procurement cases to try to correlate increases in new cases (in 2008, for instance) with larger numbers of completed cases some years after (e.g. in 2011 or 2012).




















On a less positive note, a comparison of new and completed cases shows that the pace of increase of completed cases is insufficient to cope with the larger workload of the Court of Justice in this area. It is clear to see that there is an increasing backlog of public procurement cases and that, in its best years, the EU Courts just manage to complete as many cases as they receive--leaving a relatively permanent backlog of some 40 cases before the GC and additional 20 cases before the CJEU.

All in all, then, it seems clear that the EU Courts have a lot of public procurement cases in their plates and that this is an area due to absorb more and more resources of this institution. In view of the larger workload of the GC in this area and the fact that it serves as the first instance for judicial review of the public procurement decisions of the EU Institutions, given the relatively minor relevance of some of these cases--as the (in)famous Evropaiki Dynamiki saga shows--and the fact that some of them are factually intensive, it may be worth reconsidering the attribution of this role to the GC and the potential creation of a specialized chamber to deal with public procurement cases (and there may be room for other specialized chambers, such as one on trademark law, but this is a matter for another day).

In any case, the development of EU public procurement law through the jurisprudence of the EU Courts seems prone to remain a constant feature of this area of EU economic law, at least for some years to come, until the existing 'stock' of pending cases is processed by the system. Something to keep an eye on.

An interesting assessment of the enforcement of EU procurement rules: Pelkmans & Correia De Brito (2012) Enforcement in the EU Single Market

In their forthcoming book Enforcement in the EU Single Market (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2160236) Jacques Pelkmans and Anabela Correia De Brito provide an interesting overview of the laws and regulations of the single market of the European Union, the current EU enforcement landscape and its functioning, with a particular focus on compliance with public procurement rules. This is a very topical and relevant field of inquiry and their book sheds some interesting insights into the actual level of compliance with EU public procurement rules and the potential gains to be obtained if the current modernization process is correctly driven towards simplifying and promoting compliance.

As the authors rightly indicate,
Among all types of EU single market legislation, the problems with public procurement are undoubtedly the harder ones. The potential market is huge: there is still an enormous potential of cross-border competition for contracts and the economic welfare gains can be very substantial. The European Commission’s proposals of December 2011 should be of some help. There should be more harmonization, including in the national review and remedies systems.
In their book, Pelkmans and Correia De Brito offer a short but useful typology of enforcement barriers that stress some of the main areas of difficulty, such as administrative barriers [which include include "the incorrect application of EU directives, conformity assessment barriers and enforcement issues in (intra-EU) public procurement, especially non-publication (when above the value thresholds in EU law)] or the maybe more implicit restrictions derived from gold plating and an improper application of the rules controlling technical requirements in public procurement procedures.

Further than that qualitative analysis of the enforcement landscape, some of the data provided by Pelkmans and Correia De Brito is also worth highlighting. They provide a statistic of the cases handled by the Commission concerning the enforcement of public procurement rules (p. 89, please note that the most recent year is to the left, which makes the reading of the table slightly counter intuitive): 


As the authors derive from those numbers:
[...] the number of public procurement infringement files handled by the European Commission each year has progressively decreased in the period 2007-10 (155 in 2010, 258 in 2009, 333 in 2008 and 344 in 2007). Most of the files opened by the Commission were closed during the pre-administrative/administrative phase of the infringement procedure (76, 127, 163 and 142, respectively). However, in comparative terms, the number of cases referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union increased slightly in 2010 (7.5% of the cases in 2010 had been reported to the CJEU, compared with 2.3% of the cases in 2009, 2.4% in 2008 and 3.5% in 2007).
Even if the number of infringement procedures opened by the Commission in the reported period had decreased in relation to previous years, the case load of public procurement infringement complaints still remains high and indicates that compliance levels should be improved in a number of member states.
In my opinion, the analysis of the data also offers other  interesting hints, since it shows that there seems to be a significant amount of backlog piling up in the Commission's docket (ie the number of cases closed is less than 50% of those open for any year in the 2007-10 period) and that only a small fraction of those cases are referred to the CJEU (which means that political negotiation remains the paramount enforcement tool in the public procurement field).

I also find it interesting to compare the relatively low number of public procurement cases based on Article 258 TFEU and the increasing number of Judgments of the CJEU and the GC in the field of public procurement. A quick search for the words "public procurement" with the case-law search engine of the curia webpage retrieves over 730 documents, most of which were produced after the adoption of the current 2004 Directives. Such a contrast in numbers indicates that public procurement enforcement is running trough two very different roads when one compares its enforcement based on the "law in the books" (Commission enforcement) and the "law in action" (references for preliminary rulings and challenges to procurement decisions of the European Institutions). This seems, then, a worthy area were to focus future research efforts.

In their conclusions, Pelkmans and Correia De Brito find that the source of the massive litigation in public procurement is basically the heterogeneity of the rules. They submit that:
There are still numerous ‘barriers’, real and perceived, in the internal public procurement market. Member states have (too) much regulatory discretion because the procurement directives are ‘coordination’ directives, with insufficient harmonization. The ‘regulatory heterogeneity’ in the area is far too costly for the businesses interested in cross-border or even EU-wide operation. More harmonization and/or disciplines of national ‘special or extra’ rules and requirements should urgently be pursued. Also, the national review and remedies systems are vastly different in terms of rules, procedures, ease-of-access and effectiveness. Such complications go squarely against the justified desire of business to have prior confidence in cross-border tenders. Quick access to national reviews of public procurement is an asset, but its utility is dramatically diminished by the overly fragmented arrangements that confuse business and undermine a level playing field. Harmonization here is tough given the incorporation in national legal systems, but EU-wide performance criteria might be introduced to enhance confidence for cross-border entrepreneurs (pp. 130-131).
This may be a call for a shift from having public procurement Directives to the adoption of proper public procurement Regulations (although many scholars, such as Arrowsmith or Treumer, have already indicated that the EU public procurement directives just fall shy from being disguised regulations due to their high degree of prescriptiveness). 

Be it as it may, the findings of the authors may be worth taking into consideration in the last steps of the modernization process of EU public procurement rules, which still seems to be scheduled for completion before Summer of 2013. Having enforcement considerations in the back of the policymakers' heads when finalizing the drafting of the new rules seems definitely desirable.