Can a requirement to furnish financial guarantees (performance bonds) be considered a selection criterion based on economic and financial standing (C-76/16)?

In his Opinion of 21 March 2017 in INGSTEEL and Metrostav, C-76/16, EU:C:2017:226, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona addressed the compatibility of tender requirements aimed at ensuring the (future) provision of performance guarantees related to the execution of a works contract with the rules of the 2004 EU public procurement directive (Dir 2004/18). He submitted to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) that such requirements are compatible with EU law and, in particular, with the rules on selection criteria based on the economic and financial standing of economic operators seeking to be awarded public contracts under Art 47 Dir 2004/18. In doing so, he rejected the European Commission’s submission that such requirements, inasmuch as they affected the phase of execution of the contract, ought to be assessed in accordance with the rules on the setting of conditions for the performance of contracts under Art 26 Dir 2004/18.

AG Campos also addressed a point on the time-sensitivity of remedies’ availability (ie whether challenges by disappointed tenderers are barred where the performance of the contract by the awardee is almost complete) under the EU Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665 as amended by Dir 2007/66). He considered that, as interpreted in connection with Art 47 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the procedural rights created by the Remedies Directive do not lapse simply due to the fact that the successful tenderer has almost completed performance of the contract at the time the disappointed tenderer launches its challenge, or the review authority or court is to issue its ruling.

While I fully agree with AG Campos concerning the procedural aspects of his Opinion (which I would have thought both clear and uncontroversial), I think that his analysis of the substantive issues improperly characterises the requirement for the (future) provision of a performance guarantee as a valid selection criterion based on the economic operator’s economic and financial standing. On that point, I consider the analytical framework proposed by the European Commission (partially) preferable. This post develops the reasons why I think the ECJ should not follow AG Campos on the substantive points of his INGSTEEL and Metrostav Opinion.

In the case at hand, “the contract notice required a ‘statement by the bank (loan agreement or credit facility agreement) recording the bank’s undertaking to the effect that the tenderer, in the event of acceptance of its tender, will be in a position to provide a guarantee of EUR 3,000,000 to ensure performance of the contract. The evidence must show that the funds will be available to the tenderer after conclusion of the contract. The evidence must be certified by a person authorised by the bank for that purpose.’” (para 15, emphasis added).

It is hard to make sense of the requirement (which may be a translation issue), but this seems to concern the need to provide a stand-by financial guarantee to the benefit of the contracting authority, which the issuing bank commits to firm up upon award of the contract.

Be it as it may, the disappointed tenderer did not provide such a bank statement, but rather proof of the opening of a current-account credit facility for an amount exceeding EUR 5,000,000 and a sworn statement that, if awarded the contract, they would keep a minimum of EUR 3,000,000 for the duration of the contract (para 17). It is not clear from the factual description in the Opinion whether there was any commitment to provide a guarantee using those funds as collateral, but it does not seem to be the case.

The contracting authority did not accept these documents as evidence of the economic and financial standing of the tenderer and thus excluded it from further participation. The rejection was eventually challenged before the Supreme Court of the Slovak Republic, and the preliminary reference to the ECJ derives from a procedure mainly aimed at assessing (i) whether the contracting authority could introduce this requirement in compliance with the rules on economic and financial standing (Art 47(1)(a) and (4) Dir 2004/18); and (ii) whether the contracting authority should have accepted the documentation as alternative to the specified bank certificate (Art 47(5) Dir 2004/18). Only the first point deserves analysis.

It is important to note here that the European Commission has challenged the legal subsumption of the material facts under Art 47 Dir 2004/18 and submitted that “Article 47 of Directive 2004/18 relates to the economic and financial standing of the tenderer at the time of award of the contract. However, the tenderer’s economic and financial standing during performance of the contract is governed by Article 26 of that directive, concerning conditions for performance of the contract. At all events, in the light of the wording of the question, the Commission suggests that the condition imposed on the tenderer should be examined under both Article 26 and Article 47 of Directive 2004/18” (para 28).

Further, the Commission indicated that “Article 26 of Directive 2004/18 provides that the conditions for performance must appear in the contract notice, a requirement fulfilled in this case, and must be compatible with EU law. Citing the case-law of the Court, the Commission argues that, as Directive 2004/18 does not exhaustively govern the special conditions for performance, those conditions may be assessed in accordance with primary EU law” (para 29, emphasis added).

AG Campos disagreed with the Commission and considered that the approach of assessing the requirement as a performance clause was incorrect. He emphasised that Art 26 Dir 2004/18 is concerned with other issues “and applies, in particular, to social and environmental objectives” (para 43). More importantly, he considered that “in requiring certain minimum levels of economic and financial standing, the presumption in Articles 44 and 47 of Directive 2004/18 is that the proof of that standing must refer to the period of performance of the contract. It would not be reasonable to require economic and financial standing only at the time of award of the contract and for the contracting authority not to have the right to request guarantees that the future successful contractor will retain its economic and financial standing during the period of performance of the contract” (para 44 emphasis added).

Furthermore, after creating an analogy with the case law concerned with reliance on third party capacities, he gave significant weight to the functional criterion that “[w]hen financial or economic resources are concerned, it is reasonable that these should not be ephemeral but should last until the contractual obligations have been performed” (para 48). In any case, AG Campos explicitly saved the requirement due to the fact that the value (EUR 3,000,000) “was related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract” and that the duration of the financial guarantee “was the same as the period of performance of the contract” (para 50). However, he did not provide any reasons for the finding that a 12% financial guarantee is proportionate (the estimated value of the contract was just above EUR 25,000,000), or why a duration of 48 moths without a reduction in the value of the guarantee did not need to be assessed in relation to the potential evolution (ie reduction) of risk as the completion of the contract progressed.

In my view, even if the outcome of the analysis may be seen as defensible (of which I am not convinced), the analysis itself is technically flawed. Put simply, the EU public procurement directives (both the 2004, as well as the 2014 generation) do not regulate the possibility for contracting authorities to demand financial guarantees from economic operators participating in tender procedures – neither tender/participation guarantees, nor performance/completion guarantees [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 326-7 & 425-6]. This not regulated as part of the assessment of the economic operator’s economic and financial standing for selection purposes – which is designed as an information-based screening process, not as a phase where the contracting authority can secure financial rights for itself –and this is also not related to the conditions for the performance of the contract. Moreover, a reinterpretation of the selection rules on economic and financial standing (but also on professional or technical standing) that made them forward looking would create significant distortions in the system created by EU public procurement law, as well as potentially make it impossible to assess.

In the absence of rules on financial guarantees in the relevant EU public procurement directives (ie Dir 2004/18), the analysis of requirements for economic operators to furnish them to the contracting authority should be analysed in accordance with primary EU law – as the Commission rightly stressed, although on the basis of the applicability of Art 26 Dir 2004/18, with which I disagree. In that context, the AG (and in the immediate future, the ECJ) should have assessed whether the requirement of providing a 12% financial guarantee for a duration of 48 months is a barrier to free movement – which I think it is – and whether it can be justified – which I am not sure it can be, as both (i) the public interest in reducing the financial exposure of contracting authorities engaging in public contracts is questionable, and (ii) it may well be (strictly) disproportionate due to the impact it can have on SME access to procurement.

Therefore, the analysis of proportionality need not be intra-tender or confined to the terms of the contract (which could already make it fail), but rather of a higher level of generality, concerning the policy of demanding financial guarantees and its justification from a public interest perspective. Given its detrimental effects for competition, I would not think that demanding these guarantees is necessarily exemptable under free movement rules, at least in relation with contracts that do not raise specific or extraordinary risks.

From that perspective, the proportionality assessment carried out by AG Campos in INGSTEEL and Metrostav almost obiter may not necessarily cover all bases, as it is carried out from the perspective of the link of the requirement to the subject matter of the contract, rather than the perspective of seeking to justify a restriction of a fundamental internal market freedom. But, even if the same result was to be achieved, the analytical path would still be important—ie the limited scope of the exercise of assessing economic operators’ economic and financial standing should not be unduly extended.

This can have major relevance, not least because of the change that the consolidation of the principle of competition in Art 18(1) Dir 2014/24 has brought about. In the future (ie, where Dir 2014/24 is applicable to the case), in my opinion, the inclusion of requirements to provide financial guarantees should be subjected to assessment from the perspective of a potential artificial narrowing of competition. If, in a case such as INGSTEEL and Metrostav, the contracting authority excludes a tenderer on the basis of some (seemingly) formal deviation of the way in which it proposes to provide financial assurance to the contracting authority, this is bound to infringe the requirements of the competition principle. Surely, this analysis could be carried out even if the requirement was considered to pertain to the assessment of the economic operator’s economic and financial standing, but the consolidated recognition of the contracting authorities’ discretion to set those requirements in the first place may muddy the analysis. It seems conceptually preferable to consider it an independent issue, and thus subject to general principles.

Therefore, I would urge the ECJ not to follow AG Campos’ Opinion in INGSTEEL and Metrostav and rather determine that the requirement of financial guarantees was not covered by the 2004 EU public procurement rules and must thus be subjected to a standard assessment under primary EU law (and a strict proportionality test). I would also submit that, under those rules, the requirement was contrary to EU law.

Using "cultural fitness" as evaluation criteria breaches EU and UK public procurement law

Heather Stewart of The Guardian has reported that the UK's Department for International Trade is tendering contracts where they expect that tech companies should have the right ‘cultural fit’ if they want to be hired. This is interpreted in the news report as a clear mechanism whereby "Firms bidding for government contracts [are] asked if they back Brexit". It is indeed a worrying requirement due to the clear risk of unfettered discretion and ensuing discrimination that such 'cultural fit' requirement creates. In my opinion, the requirement runs contrary to both EU and UK public procurement rules. I will try to keep this post as jargon free as possible and limit the technical details of my legal assessment as much as possible. However, this is a rather technical area of economic law, so some technicalities will be unavoidable.

Specifically, the tenders in question introduce evaluation criteria under the category of 'cultural fit' (which carries a weight of 15% of the total points), amongst which tenderers are to be assessed based on whether they are "committed to the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom following its departure from the European Union". The other sub-criteria in this group require tenderers to "be focussed enough to stick to the task at hand and not be side-tracked in a vast and quick-moving field; be committed and hard-working, to deliver under time pressures; and be enthused by the prospect of working at the frontline in such an exciting and dynamic area". These are meant to be assessed on the basis of a written proposal and presentation (ie a beauty contest).

All of these sub-criteria raise serious concerns from the perspective of public procurement best practice, mainly due to (i) the difficulties they create for the contracting authority to carry out an objective assessment at evaluation stage (which makes the evaluation turn to a determination of who can write the best 'essay'), and (ii) their forward-looking nature and difficulty to monitor ex post during the implementation of the contract (which would make them more suited for contract compliance or termination clauses, rather than evaluation criteria, and which also raise the risk of awarding the contract to the tenderer shown to be the best liar).

Additionally, these criteria have, at best, a very tenuous link to the subject matter of the contract and rather refer to general characteristics of the tenderer that, if so, should be assessed at selection rather than evaluation stage. This is important because the criteria are not formulated in relation to the specific members of the team that will provide the services, but rather left wide open as a reference to the tenderer as a whole. More importantly, the specific question about the tenders' commitment to the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom following its departure from the European Union (as well as the question on enthusiasm) relates to attitudes that are simply unobservable for the contracting authority. 

These issues disqualify the 'cultural fit' questions as valid evaluation criteria under current law. Here, it is important to stress that the legal analysis depends on the value of the tendered contracts. Different rules apply to contracts above or below specified value thresholds--which, for services contracts are currently set at £106,047 (or €135,000, see here). The contract tendered by the Department for International Trade indicates that "We are aiming at no more than £50,000 for the totality of the Discovery, but are open to proposals from suppliers who may feel that extra resources are justifiable given the scope of the task." This creates uncertainty as to the relevant legal rules, particularly if the award results in a contract of a value above the threshold. This would suggest that the UK Government should be in compliance with the most stringent rules for contracts above thresholds to be on the safe side. Just in case, though, let's consider both sets of rules.

Contracts below thresholds

The award of contracts below the relevant value thresholds must comply with the requirements of reg. 111 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (see comment here) and the general requirements derived from general principles of EU law, such as non-discrimination, equal treatment, transparency and competition. Reg. 111(5) PCR2015 indicates that "contracting authorities may ask candidates to answer suitability assessment questions only if each such question is—(a) relevant to the subject-matter of the procurement; and (b) proportionate." And reg. 111(7) PCR determines that, in doing so, the contracting authority "shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Minister for the Cabinet Office".

On that point, it is important to bear in mind the guidance issued by the Crown Commercial Service on selection questionnaires. In para [57], concerned with project-specific questions such as the ones we are discussing, the Guidance indicates that the contracting authority "can ask further project-specific questions relating to the potential supplier’s technical and professional ability. Any project-specific questions asked must be relevant and proportionate to the contract. You should refer to the list of possible topics covering technical and professional ability." Importantly, these requirements concerning technical and professional ability are fundamentally limited to assessing suppliers' past performance, on which there is additional guidance.

Overall, these requirements indicate that contracting authorities can only assess the reliability of tenderers in relation to their previous experience and only in so far as this is linked to the subject matter of the contract and proportionate to its value. In my opinion, asking tenderers to answer questions concerning their commitment to the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom following its departure from the European Union and their enthusiasm to work with the Department for International Trade in carrying out Brexit-related analysis is neither linked to the subject-matter of the contract, nor verifiable according to the standards applicable to the assessment of technical and professional aspects of the tenderers' ability.

This impossibility to verify commitment and enthusiasm as part of the evaluation of the tenderers is bound to also breach general principles of EU (public procurement) law, in particular the principle of non-discrimination. If the contract below thresholds is, nonetheless, of cross-border interest, this is an additional legal basis for the illegality of the use of 'cultural fit' criteria.

Contracts above thresholds

Where the contract is above the relevant thresholds (ie for services exceeding £106,047 or €135,000), the illegality of the use of 'cultural fit' criteria becomes even clearer. This analysis is important in this specific case only if the contract significantly exceeds the initial value of £50,000, but this discussion is important in case the Department for International Trade (or the UK Government more generally) is piloting the use of 'cultural fit' as a broader procurement policy. There are two ways in which 'cultural fit' could be used in this setting; either as a selection criterion (where the contracting authority is screening the tenderers as a whole) or as an award criterion (where the contracting authority is screening the specific offer and/or the specific team proposed by the service provider).

If considered as a selection criterion, the relevant rules are those of reg. 58 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (see comment here) and Art 58 of Directive 2014/24/EU. Both of these provisions must be assessed in light of the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ). The relevant requirements derived from these rules are that contracting authorities can only impose requirements aimed at assessing technical and professional ability with the purpose of "ensuring that economic operators possess the necessary human and technical resources and experience to perform the contract to an appropriate quality standard" [reg. 58(15) PCR2015], and provided they are "related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract" [reg. 58(4) PCR2015]. 

'Cultural fit' selection criteria are not in line with these requirements. The ECJ was clear in its famous Dutch coffee case (C-368/10, EU:C:2012:284, paras 105-108) in establishing that selection criteria that relate to general policies or attitudes of the tenderer (in that case, whether they "fulfil[led] the criteria of sustainable purchasing and socially responsible business [and] contribute[d] to improving the sustainability of the coffee market and to environmentally, socially and economically responsible coffee production") are not allowed. I have no doubt that the 'cultural fit' criteria used by the Department for International trade in this case, and any criteria that more generally aim to screen tenderers on the basis of their commitment to specific outcomes or their enthusiasm in their generation will equally fall foul of UK and EU public procurement law.

'Cultural fit' questions can also be seen to aim to structure an assessment around "quality-based" award criteria, which are regulated by reg. 67 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (see comment here) and Art 67 of Directive 2014/24/EU. Both of these provisions must be assessed in light of the ECJ case law as well. There are several aspects to consider--such as, again, the link of the award criteria to the subject matter of the contract--but the relevant part of the current domestic rules specifies that "Award criteria shall—(a) ensure the possibility of effective competition; and (b) be accompanied by specifications that allow the information provided by the tenderers to be effectively verified in order to assess how well the tenders meet the award criteria."

Once more, the impossibility of verifying commitment or enthusiasm exclude the possibility of using 'cultural fit' as an award criterion. This is in line with the general requirements set by ECJ case law, which exclude the use of criteria that provide the contracting authority with unlimited discretion [for extended discussion, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, hart, 2015) 378 and ff].

Final remarks

For the reasons above (and some other technical ones I am happy to explore further if it is of interest), I think that the Government's policy (or the Department for International Trade tenders, if this is an isolated incident) constitutes a clear infringement of both UK and EU public procurement rules.

Further, in my view, the problem that underlies the specific call for tenders for advisory services issued by the Department for International Trade is the impossibility of obtaining a perfect substitution between in-house capabilities and contracted-out consultancy. While the Government may be in a better position to push for its political agenda in steering the work of the civil service (which is probably a matter for a separate discussion), it is clearly in a very weak position to do so when it is contracting-out (or in?) advisory capabilities.

All procurement rules allow the public sector to do is to specify the services it aims to acquire. And this implies that the service itself needs to be susceptible of specification. Where non-contractible elements drive the decision to contract, public procurement is simply not a useful tool. The Government may have difficulties building up its in-house capabilities, or even 'reigning in' the civil service, but they will definitely not have it easier through procurement.



The CJEU's maximalism and minimalism in the treatment of experience as a procurement award criterion (C-601/13)

In Ambisig, C-601/13, EU:C:2015:204, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has been confronted again with the issue of the use of the experience and qualifications (ie academic and professional background) of the staff assigned to performance of the contract as an award criterion under EU public procurement rules (ie the Lianakis distinction of selection and award criteria). The Ambisig Judgment still applies the rules of Directive 2004/18, but the reasoning and principles will remain relevant for the interpretation of Directive 2014/24.

At first reading, and depending on one's view of the strictness of Lianakis, it may seem that Ambisig is fundamentally a repetition of the discussion on the assessment of staff's experience as an award criterion that was recently rehearsed in Spain v Commission (financial support for cuenca hidrográfica del Júcar), C-641/13, EU:C:2014:2264 (not available in English, see my comments here).

However, some close reading may lead to a different (or at least more nuanced) conclusion, given the tone that the CJEU has used in two such close cases. It may be worth reminding that the rhetoric used in Spain v Commission presented Lianakis as follows:

... as is apparent from paragraphs 30-32 of the judgment Lianakis and others (EU:C:2008:40) ... the Court has clearly distinguished award criteria from the selection criteria that are essentially linked to the assessment of the bidders' ability to perform the contract in question, and considered that the criteria relating to the experience, qualifications and means of ensuring proper performance of the contract in question belong to the latter category and, therefore, do not have the character of award criteria (C-641/13, para 36, own translation, emphasis added).

We could call this the maximalist reading/reporting of Lianakis. However, as we shall see below, this is not the position adopted in Ambisig, where the referring Portuguese court was concerned with two aspects that in its view seemed to make it difficult to apply such a maximalist reading of Lianakis: (1) that the contract was for intellectual services (ie training and consulting); and (2) that the 2011 proposal for a new Directive (now Dir 2014/24) "constitute[d] a new factor in relation to the case-law of the Court in this area".

In that regard, it is interesting to see how the CJEU has now adopted a minimalist approach to Lianakis that basically comes to read into the rules of Dir 2004/18 the content of the new rules under art 67(2)(b) Dir 2014/24. In the words of the CJEU in Ambisig
25 ... the case-law highlighted in the judgment in Lianakis and Others (C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40) concerns the interpretation of Council Directive 92/50/EEC of 18 June 1992 relating to the coordination of procedures for the award of public service contracts (OJ 1992 L 209, p. 1), which was repealed by Directive 2004/18, and that that judgment does not rule out the possibility that the contracting authority may, in certain circumstances, fix and apply a criterion [enabling evaluation of the teams specifically put forward by the tenderers for the performance of the contract and which takes into consideration the composition of the team and the experience and academic and professional background of the team members] at the stage of awarding the contract.

26 That judgment concerns the staff and experience of the tenderers in general and not, as in present case, the staff and experience of the persons making up a particular team which must actually perform the contract.

27 It should be noted, in relation to the interpretation of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 which is the subject of the referring court’s question, that that directive introduced new elements into the Union legislation on public procurement in relation to Directive 92/50.

28 First of all, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 provides that ‘the tender most economically advantageous’ is to be identified ‘from the point of view of the contracting authority’, thereby giving the contracting authority greater discretion in its decision-making.

29 Secondly, the third paragraph of recital 46 in the preamble to Directive 2004/18 states that, where the contracting authorities choose to award a contract to the most economically advantageous tender, they are to assess the tenders in order to determine which one ‘offers the best value for money’, which tends to reinforce the importance of quality in the award criteria for public contracts.

30 Furthermore, Article 53(1) of Directive 2004/18 does not set out an exhaustive list of the criteria which may be used by the contracting authorities in determining the economically most advantageous tender, and therefore leaves it open to the authorities awarding contracts to select the criteria on which they propose to base their award of the contract. Their choice is nevertheless limited to criteria aimed at identifying the tender which is economically the most advantageous (see, to that effect, Lianakis and Others, C‑532/06, EU:C:2008:40, paragraphs 28 and 29 and the case-law cited). To that end, Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18 specifically requires that the award criteria be linked to the subject-matter of the contract (see judgment in Commission v Netherlands, C‑368/10, EU:C:2012:284, paragraph 86).

31 The quality of performance of a public contract may depend decisively on the ‘professional merit’ of the people entrusted with its performance, which is made up of their professional experience and background.

32 This is particularly true where the performance of the contract is intellectual in nature and, as in the main proceedings in the present case, concerns training and consultancy services.

33 Where a contract of this nature is to be performed by a team, it is the abilities and experience of its members which are decisive for the evaluation of the professional quality of the team. That quality may be an intrinsic characteristic of the tender and linked to the subject-matter of the contract for the purposes of Article 53(1)(a) of Directive 2004/18.

34 Consequently, that quality may be included as an award criterion in the contract notice or in the relevant tendering specifications
(C-601/13, paras 25 to 34, emphasis added).
This is an interesting exercise of judicial rhetoric, which shows the CJEU's willingness to ensure certain cross-temporal validity of its case law in the area of public procurement, where change is a constant. This is not a bad thing in itself. However, it may be puzzling for observers (it definitely is for me) because I am not sure that many would have expected the CJEU to engage in such an explicit change of hats in the space of about 5 months in the way it reports its own previous case law, particularly in such a controversial and debated area [for very insightful discussion on this type of implications of Lianakis, see S Treumer, "The Distinction between Selection and Award Criteria in EC Public Procurement Law—A Rule without Exception" (2009) 18(3) Public Procurement Law Review 103-111]

In the end, it is worth reminding that one of the justifications for the revision/repeal of Dir 2004/18 by Dir 2014/24 was to address the "Lianakis issue" [see S Arrowsmith, "Modernising the European Union's public procurement regime: a blueprint for real simplicity and flexibility" (2012) 21(3) Public Procurement Law Review 71, 80; and rec (94) dir 2014/24]. To some extent, then, the Ambisig Judgment renders a significant (if relatively hidden) justification for the 2014 generation of EU public procurement rules useless.

This may have implications for the future, where the lack of clarity of the CJEU's case law in certain new/revamped areas of public procurement (let's just mention life-cycle costing or asymmetrical negotiations, for now) may trigger calles for further legislative reform--which should, in my view, be avoided to the extent that they rest on maximalistic interpretations of the CJEU's usually sparse and confusing passages, as we now know that it only (?) takes some adequate prompting for the CJEU to provide minimalistic twists that exclude the need for reforms.

CJEU keeps Lianakis interpretation relevant under Directive 2014/24 (C-641/13)

In its Judgment in Spain v Commission (financial support for cuenca hidrográfica del Júcar), C-641/13, EU:C:2014:2264 (not available in English), the Court of Justice of the EU has reiterated in very clear terms the currency of its Lianakis case law [C-532/06, EU:C:2008:40]. Indeed, in Spain v Commission (paras 33-41), the CJEU has clearly stressed that Lianakis (paras 30-32) and Commission v Greece [C-199/07, EU:C:2009:693, paras 55-56] prevent the past experience of the tenderer being used as an award criterion. Given the brevity and clarity of the reasoning of the CJEU, few doubts can remain as to the rather absolute character of the prohibition.
This should come as no suprise, as this was the majoritarian interpretation of the Lianakis Judgment [for a possibilistic interpretation seeking flexibility, though, see S Treumer, ‘The Distinction between Selection and Award Criteria in EC Public Procurement Law—A Rule without Exception’ (2009) 18 Public Procurement Law Review 103, and A Sanchez Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 310-12]. Moreover, this was precisely one of the points in which the 2011 proposals for new EU public procurement Directives aimed to deviate (or fine-tune) the case law of the CJEU [for discussion, see M Orthmann, 'The experience of the Bidder as Award Criterion in EU Public Procurement Law' (2014) 1 Humboldt Forum Recht 1 ff].
With this in mind, it is worth stressing that Directive 2014/24 now (well, as soon as the Member States transpose it, which they must do by 18 April 2016) deviates from the standard reading of the Lianakis case law. Directive 2014/24 decouples the treatment of the general experience of the tenderer as a qualitative selection criterion [art 58(4), where Lianakis applies full-force] from the assessment of more limited and specific aspects of experience evaluation clearly linked to the subject-matter of the contract, which allow for the specific experience of staff assigned to performing the contract to be taken into consideration at award stage, 'where the quality of the staff assigned can have a significant impact on the level of performance of the contract' [art 67(2)(b), which restricts, specifies of modifies Lianakis].
The justification given by Directive 2014/24 for this change is that
Wherever the quality of the staff employed is relevant to the level of performance of the contract, contracting authorities should also be allowed to use as an award criterion the organisation, qualification and experience of the staff assigned to performing the contract in question, as this can affect the quality of contract performance and, as a result, the economic value of the tender. This might be the case, for example, in contracts for intellectual services such as consultancy or architectural services. Contracting authorities which make use of this possibility should ensure, by appropriate contractual means, that the staff assigned to contract performance effectively fulfil the specified quality standards and that such staff can only be replaced with the consent of the contracting authority which verifies that the replacement staff affords an equivalent level of quality [rec (94), emphasis added].
In my view, all of this indicates that the use of staff (specific) experience at award stage will need to be assessed under strict proportionality terms (particularly as the 'significance' of its impact on the level of performance of the contract is concerned), given that exceptions[art 67(2)(b)] to the general rules [art 58(4)] of Directive 2014/24 and the applicable interpretative case law need to be constructed strictly. Moreover, recourse to this sort of award criterion will still need to comply with general requirements and, in my view, avoid distortions of competition such as first comer advantages for incumbent contractors.

A jigsaw of qualifications or a procurement puzzle?: CJEU launches a depth charge against certification systems (C-94/12)

In its Judgment of 10 October 2013 in case C-94/12 Swm Costruzioni 2 and Mannocchi Luigino, the Court of Justice of the EU has followed the Opinion of AG Jääskinen (which I praised and supported here) and expanded its antiformalistic case law on the interpretation of the rules controlling participation and selection requirements in public procurement covered by the EU Directives. In my view, this Judgment is a (well-aimed?) depth charge against certification systems based on Article 52 of Directive 2004/18.
More specifically, the CJEU was presented with a request for a preliminary reference concerning the compatibility with EU law of an Italian provision applicable to all works contracts with a value in excess of 150,000 Euro, whereby undertakings that needed to 'team up' and rely on the abilities of other undertakings in order to tender for public works contracts could only do so on a one-to-one basis (ie main contractors were not allowed to build up a 'jigsaw' of qualifications provided by several subcontractors, but had to rely exclusively on the abilities of one subcontractor that was able to deliver the whole of the performance for that given category of works concerned).
Under the controversial Italian rule, "For works contracts, the tenderer may rely on the capacities of only one auxiliary undertaking for each qualification category. The invitation to tender may permit reliance on the capacity of more than one auxiliary undertaking having regard to the value of the contract or the special nature of the services to be provided" (emphasis added).
The CJEU rephrased the question referred by the Italian court and understood that, in essence, it had to rule wheter Articles 47(2) and 48(3) of Directive 2004/18 must be interpreted as precluding a national provision which prohibits, as a general rule, economic operators participating in a tendering procedure for a public works contract from relying on the capacities of more than one undertaking for the same qualification/certification category.
Interestingly, the CJEU spells out that its analysis is based on the final goal of maximising competition (in particular, by means of facilitating SME participation) and finds that:
33 […] it must be held that Directive 2004/18 permits the combining of the capacities of more than one economic operator for the purpose of satisfying the minimum capacity requirements set by the contracting authority, provided that the candidate or tenderer relying on the capacities of one or more other entities proves to that authority that it will actually have at its disposal the resources of those entities necessary for the execution of the contract.
34 Such an interpretation is consistent with the objective pursued by the directives in this area of attaining the widest possible opening-up of public contracts to competition to the benefit not only of economic operators but also contracting authorities (see, to that effect, Case C‑305/08 CoNISMa [2009] ECR I‑12129, paragraph 37 and the case-law cited). In addition, as the Advocate General noted at points 33 and 37 of his Opinion, that interpretation also facilitates the involvement of small- and medium-sized undertakings in the contracts procurement market, an aim also pursued by Directive 2004/18, as stated in recital 32 thereof.
35 It is true that there may be works with special requirements necessitating a certain capacity which cannot be obtained by combining the capacities of more than one operator, which, individually, would be inadequate. In such circumstances, the contracting authority would be justified in requiring that the minimum capacity level concerned be achieved by a single economic operator or, where appropriate, by relying on a limited number of economic operators, in accordance with the second subparagraph of Article 44(2) of Directive 2004/18, as long as that requirement is related and proportionate to the subject-matter of the contract at issue.
36 However, since those circumstances constitute an exception, Directive 2004/18 precludes that requirement being made a general rule under national law, which is the effect of a provision such as
[the controversial Italian provision] (C-94/12, paras 33-36, emphasis added).
In my view, the Swm Costruzioni Judgment should be welcome as it concerns the anti-formalistic and possibilistic interpretation of the rules on selection of contractors in Directive 2004/18--which are about to be modernised in the new procurement directive, also as 'teaming up' provisions are concerned (see my recent paper: "Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing in the New Public Sector Procurement Directive").
Moreover, it is worth noting that the Judgment does (inadvertently? and) implicitly throw a depth charge against national certification systems. Taking the logic behind the Swm Costruzioni Judgment to its logical extremes, those certification systems should only be in place to cover those contracts where objective circumstances justify the need for the contracting authority to make sure that a single undertaking carry out a specific contract.
Certification systems, then, should only cover "works with special requirements necessitating a certain capacity which cannot be obtained by combining the capacities of more than one operator" as, otherwise, the whole certification system is completely superficial if the contracting authority must (as indeed it shall) accept any 'jigsaw' of (partial) certifications presented by a group of undertakings (or by an uncapable main contractor that enters into subcontract agreements) in order to prove that they have sufficient (aggregate) economic, technical and financial standing [something I advocated for in Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011) 266-268].
Therefore, in my view, the Swm Costruzioni Judgment is actually raising a red flag and stressing that such requirements to be certified or included in the list of pre-approved contractors will ultimately only be compliant with EU law if the specific characteristics of the works to be tendered do justify the need for a single (or very limited number) of undertakings to carry out the project.

Now, this will be puzzling in many jurisdictions that strongly rely on certification systems and pre-approved lists of contractors fro all types (and almost all values) of works contracts, but the (implicit) message seems clear. Therefore, procurement authorities may be better off dismantling those existing systems altogether and bracing themselves (ie getting training and staffing themselves properly) for the revolution that the European Single Procurement Document (ESPD, effectively a set of self-declarations) is about to bring upon.

Current Proposals on Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Shortlisting in EU Public Procurement

I have just uploaded on SSRN a short new paper, which provides some initial thoughts on the new rules on exclusion, qualitative selection and short-listing in the 2011 proposal for a new public sector procurement Directive, as amended by the 30 November 2012 Compromise Text published by the Council. The assessment is based on a comparison with the equivalent rules under current Directive 2004/18/EC, as well as on the implementation difficulties that I envisage.

In the paper, I reach the following conclusions:
As this brief overview of the novelties and changes proposed by the Compromise Text on the rules concerning exclusion, qualitative selection and short-listing has shown, the Commission has presented (and the Council is willing to allow for) reform proposals that aim to generate some simplification and flexibilisation of the current rules. The Compromise Text has also tried to clarify and improve the drafting of the current Directives and to consolidate requirements and avoid duplication where possible.
The search for flexibility and simplification is particularly clear concerning the rules that aim to make exclusion of economic operators a dynamic activity (§2.2), that increase the scope and power for contracting authorities to seek clarifications and source additional information from tenderers (§2.4), that allow for an evaluation of the effectiveness of self-cleaning measures adopted by economic operators that should otherwise be excluded (§3.3), or that allow for a ‘certificate-less’ qualitative selection of candidates, subject to an ex post verification of the self-declarations submitted (§4.5). However, such flexibility does not come without risks and contracting authorities must tread lightly if they want to avoid challenges based on potential abuses of their (increased) administrative discretion. Moreover, the extent and weight of the obligations derived from the principle of good administration are expanding and this needs being duly taken into consideration.
There are also clear indications of a clearer integration of public procurement and competition rules (such as the possibility to exclude bid riggers, §3.2) and of the use of public procurement as a lever to ensure compliance with social, labour and environmental rules, in a classic example of pursuit of secondary (or horizontal) considerations in procurement (§2.3). This shows that, despite the search for simplification, the (asymmetrical) integration of public procurement and other economic and non-economic policies by necessity depicts a more complicated scenario that requires further professionalism and capacity building in the Member States, as well as more cooperation between contracting authorities and other competent authorities, such as national competition or environmental agencies.
All in all, in my view, EU public procurement regulation continues becoming more and more sophisticated (and complicated), the Compromise Text does not solve all problems and creates some new and, consequently, public procurement litigation will continue playing a key role in the clarification of the applicable rules.

Why do you need to have sustained profits to perform a public contract? A critical view on C-218/11

In its Judgment of 18 October 2012 in case C-218/11 Édukövízig and Hochtief Solutions (anciennement Hochtief Construction), the CJEU ruled on the compatibility with EU public procurement rules of a requirement that tenderers for a given contract furnished proof that their "profit/loss item in the balance sheet should not have been negative for more than one of the last three completed financial years (‘the economic requirement’)". In other words, an economic requirement that tenderers proved that they had sustained profits for most of the the three financial years prior to the award of the contract. The CJEU did not object to the inclusion of the requirement in the tender documentation, with the only caveat that it should not go beyond what is reasonably necessary to ensure capacity to perform the contract to be awarded.

In the case at hand, Hochtief had challenged such an economic requirement on the basis that, due to the different existing legislation applicable to intra-group distribution of dividends in Germany and in Hungary, it was discriminatory against German (and, more generally, non-Hungarian) companies that due to intra-group profit transfer agreements (or for any other reasons) find themselves reporting negative profit/loss balances despite having a sound financial standing--which they could proof by means other than specific extracts of their balance sheets which, however, were not allowed for in the specific tender. More specifically,
"Hochtief Hungary argued that the economic requirement does not allow a non-discriminatory and objective comparison of the candidates to be made, since the rules on annual accounts of companies as regards the payment of dividends within groups of undertakings may vary from one Member State to another. That, in any event, was the case with regard to Hungary and the Federal Republic of Germany. The economic requirement was indirectly discriminatory because it disadvantaged candidates who were unable to fulfil it, or could do so only with difficulty, because they are subject, in the Member State where they are established, to different legislation from that which is applicable in the Member State of the awarding authority." (C-218/11 para 17).
In view of this challenge, the Hungarian referring court essentially asked the CJEU whether EU procurement rules [in particular, Articles 44(2) and 47(1)(b) of Directive 2004/18] must be interpreted as meaning that a contracting authority may fix a minimum level of economic and financial standing with reference to a given item on the balance sheet, even if there may be differences as regards that item between the legislations of the various Member States and, as a result, in the balance sheets of companies, depending on the legislation to which they are subject as regards the preparation of their annual accounts (C-218/11 para 25).

The CJEU has ruled that:
32 [...] a contracting authority may require a minimum level of economic and financial standing by reference to one or more particular aspects of the balance sheet, provided that those aspects are such as to provide information on such standing of an economic operator and that the threshold thus fixed is adapted to the size of the contract concerned in that it constitutes objectively a positive indication of the existence of a sufficient economic and financial basis for the performance of that contract, without, however, going beyond what is reasonably necessary for that purpose. The requirement of a minimum level of economic and financial standing cannot, in principle, be disregarded solely because that level relates to an aspect of the balance sheet regarding which there may be differences between the legislations of the different Member States.
34 [...] as is clear from the order for reference, the divergence of legislation at issue in the case in the main proceedings does not concern the scope of the item of the balance sheet covered by the economic requirement, that is to say the profit/loss recorded in the balance sheet. Both the German and Hungarian legislations provide that that item takes account of the profit or loss of the financial year and the distribution of dividends. However, those legislations differ in that the Hungarian law prohibits the distribution of dividends or the transfer of profits from having the consequence of making that item negative, whereas the German law does not prohibit that, in any event not in the situation of a subsidiary like Hochtief Solutions AG, which is linked to its parent company by a profit transfer agreement. [...]
37 [...] in such a situation, the fact that a subsidiary is unable to meet a minimum level of economic and financial standing defined by reference to a particular aspect of the balance sheet is, in the final analysis, the result, not of a difference in legislation, but of a decision by its parent company which obliges that subsidiary to transfer all its profits systematically to it.
38 In that situation,
that subsidiary has only the option [...] to rely on the economic and financial standing of another entity by producing the undertaking of that entity to make the necessary resources available to it. Clearly, that option is particularly suited to such a situation, since the parent company may thus itself remedy the fact that it has placed its subsidiary in a position in which it cannot meet the minimum capacity level.
39 [...] where an economic operator cannot meet a minimum level of economic and financial standing consisting in a requirement that the profit/loss item in the balance sheet of candidates or tenderers should not be negative for more than one of the last three completed financial years, because of an agreement under which that economic operator systematically transfers its profits to its parent company, that operator has no other option, in order to meet that minimum capacity level, than to rely on the capacities of another entity (C-218/11 paras 32 to 39, emphasis added).
The Hochtief Solutions Judgment works well in intra-group situations, where parent companies indeed have the means to supplement the information shown in the balance sheets of their subsidiaries and offer alternative proof of their sound financial standing--and, consequently, can self-protect them from the allegedly discriminatory requirement. Therefore, by restricting the analysis to the very specific circumstances of the case, the CJEU has very conveniently avoided the more general question whether requiring sustained profits as an indicator of financial standing is in accordance with EU procurement rules.

In my view, the CJEU should have gone well beyond the boilerplate answer that "a contracting authority may require a minimum level of economic and financial standing [...] provided that [...] the threshold thus fixed is adapted to the size of the contract concerned in that it constitutes objectively a positive indication of the existence of a sufficient economic and financial basis for the performance of that contract, without, however, going beyond what is reasonably necessary for that purpose" (para 32) and addressed the issue that overall profits are hardly ever (if they can ever be) a requirement that is suficiently linked to the tender and that does not go beyond what is reasonably necessary to ensure capacity to perform the contract to be awarded. In failing to do that, the CJEU has given an appearance of legitimacy to the "profits requirement"--which seems to be completely disproportionate in the majority of the cases because a lack of profits or a "negative profit/loss item" in the balance sheet of an undertaking is ill-prepared to show an actual lack of financial standing--since the negative balance can be due to a large amount and variety of reasons that the contracting authority could be rejecting to take into due consideration on the basis of such a formality.

In my opinion, what is of most concern is that the Hochtief Solutions Judgment opens a very dangerous door to the systematic exclusion of companies reporting negative results in the years immediately preceding the tender, which should clearly be seen as a discriminatory requirement--particularly in the current economic environment, where many firms are struggling to survive and some of them do despite reporting sustained losses, and where their systematic exclusion of tender procedures can result in an undue advantage to larger companies and incumbent public contractors, which will tend to win more and more public contracts (sometimes simply by the fact that they were successful in getting prior contracts awarded and that allowed them to make a positive profit).

Once again, the excesive narrowness of the CJEU's framework for the analysis of public procurement cases seems to have resulted in a good solution to the specific case with potentially very negative effects in the vast majority of public procurement settings. Maybe it would be good for the CJEU to try to estimate these larger impacts and take them into consideration when deciding the case at hand, and to avoid having resort to the very specific circumstances of the case in order to provide more useful general guidance thorugh its replies to the requests for preliminary rulings.