Bid Rigging Conspiracy in Railroad Electrification Works: A Very Spanish “Sainete”

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A case of bid rigging in works contracts for high-speed and conventional railroad electrification in Spain evidences a number of shortcomings in the domestic transposition of the 2014 rules on discretionary exclusion of competition law offenders from public procurement tenders, as well as some dysfunctionalities of their interpretation by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in its Judgment of 24 October 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855. The unilateral price adjustment of live contracts sought by the main victim of the cartel, the Spanish rail network administrator ADIF comes to raise very significant issues on the limits to the ‘self-protection’ (or private justice) for contracting authorities that are victims of bid rigging. In this post, I point to the main issues that puzzle me in this very Spanish sainete. I am sure there will be plenty debate in Spanish legal circles after the holidays…


Legal background: EU level, art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU
As is well known, Article 57(4) of Directive 2014/24/EU establishes discretionary grounds for the exclusion of economic operators from public procurement tenders. In relation to economic operators that have breached competition law, there are two relevant grounds.
First, Art 57(4)(c) foresees the possibility of exclusion ‘where the contracting authority can demonstrate by appropriate means that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable‘. This was interpreted by the CJEU as covering entities that had been sanctioned for breaches of competition law in relation to the earlier rules of Directive 2004/18/EC (Art 45(2)(d)) as an instance of their being ‘guilty of grave professional misconduct proven by any means which the contracting authorities can demonstrate’. The CJEU established in unambiguous terms that ‘the commission of an infringement of the competition rules, in particular where that infringement was penalised by a fine, constitutes a cause for exclusion under Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18’ in its Judgment of 18 December 2014 in Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (para 35).
Second, Art 57(4)(d) allows for the exclusion ‘where the contracting authority has sufficiently plausible indications to conclude that the economic operator has entered into agreements with other economic operators aimed at distorting competition‘. The relationship between both exclusion grounds relating to competition law infringements is somewhat debated. I have argued elsewhere that Art 57(4)(c) should still be used as the legal basis for the exclusion of economic operators that have already been sanctioned for previous bid rigging offences, whereas Art 57(4)(d) creates an additional ground for exclusion based on indicia of contemporary collusion. For details, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (2nd ed, Hart, 2015) 296-301.
Of course, discretionary exclusion on grounds of infringements of competition law can be modulated by the rules on self-cleaning in Art 57(6) Directive 2014/24/EU. It is also important to add that these discretionary exclusion grounds can be applied for a period not exceeding three years from the date of the relevant event, as per Art 57(7) Directive 2014/24/EU. The CJEU has interpreted the ‘relevant event’ in this context, and clarified that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42).


Legal Background: Domestic level, the transposition by Law 9/2017
The transposition into Spanish law of these provisions has introduced some important modifications.
First, these exclusion grounds have been made mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement, as discussed by P Valcarcel, ‘Transposition of Directive 2014/24/EU in Spain: between EU demands and national peculiarities‘ in S Treumer & M Comba (eds), Modernising Public Procurement: The Member States Approach, vol. 8 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2018) 236-237. For a broader description of the Spanish system of mandatory exclusion (ie through ‘prohibiciones de contratar,’ or prohibitions on contracting), see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Qualification, Selection and Exclusion of Economic Operators under Spanish Public Procurement Law' in M Burgi, S Treumer & M Trybus (eds), Qualification, Selection and Exclusion in EU Procurement, vol. 7 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2016) 159-188.
Second, the grounds in Art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU have been transposed in a seemingly defective manner. Art 57(4)(d) has been omitted and Art 57(4)(d) is reflected in Art 71(1)(b) of Law 9/2017, according to which there is a prohibition to enter into a contract with an ‘economic operator … guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable, in matters such as market discipline, distortion of competition … in accordance with current regulations’ (own translation from Spanish).
Thirdly, Art 72(2) of Law 9/2017 foresees two ways in which the mandatory exclusion ground based on a prior firm sanction for competition infringements can operate. On the one hand, the prohibition to enter into a contract with competition law infringers ‘will be directly appreciated by the contracting bodies when the judgment or administrative resolution [imposing the sanction] had expressly established its scope and duration, and will be in force during the term indicated therein’ (own translation from Spanish). On the other hand—and logically, as a subsidiary rule—it is also foreseen that ‘In the event that the judgment or administrative resolution does not contain a ruling on the scope or duration of the prohibition to contract … the scope and duration of the prohibition shall be determined by means of a procedure instructed for this purpose, in accordance with the provisions of this article’ (own translation from Spanish). Such procedure is rather convoluted and involves a decision of the Minister of Finance on the advice of the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement.
Fourthly, and in an extreme pro-leniency fashion, Art 72(5)II of Law 9/2017 has established that the prohibition to enter into contracts will not apply to economic operators that have self-cleaned and, in particular, to those that have obtained leniency in the context of competition enforcement procedures. That is, there is an exemption from the otherwise applicable exclusion ground based on infringements of competition law for undertakings that demonstrate the ‘adoption of appropriate technical, organisational and personnel measures to avoid the commission of future administrative infractions, which include participating in the clemency program in the field of competition law‘ (own translation from Spanish).
It is also odd that the provision does not require economic operators to have ‘clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities‘, which was the main issue at stake in the Vossloh Laeis litigation.


A controversial decision by the Spanish national commission on markets and competition (CNMC)
On 14 March 2019, the CNMC adopted a decision against 15 construction companies finding them responsible for a long-lasting bid rigging scheme to manipulate the tenders for public contracts works relating to different aspects of high-speed and conventional railroad electrification. One of the novel aspects of the decision is that the CNMC explicitly activated the prohibition to enter into contracts against the competition infringers. However, the CNMC did so in very peculiar manner.
The oddity of the decision mainly lies on the fact that CNMC decided not to establish the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract, but simply to refer the case to the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement (see pages 317-320). This was the object of criticism in a dissenting vote by Councillor María Pilar Canedo, who stressed that the CNMC should have set the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract in its decision (pages 366-370). The position of the CNMC is certainly difficult to understand.
On the one hand, the CNMC stressed that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319). On the other hand, however, the CNMC decided to (potentially) kick the effectiveness of such prohibition into the long grass by not establishing its scope and duration in its decision—and explicitly saying so (unnecessarily…). No wonder, contracting authorities will have some difficulty applying the automaticity of a prohibition which time and scope are yet to be determined.
Moreover, the CNMC was aware of the CJEU decision in Vossloh Laeis (above), to which it referred to in its own decision (in a strange manner, though). In that regard, the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister of Finance via the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of a seemingly prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any finally imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.


The (for now) final twist: ADIF takes justice in its own hands
As if this was not enough, according to the Spanish press (see the main story in El Pais), the main victim of the cartel—the Spanish rail network administrator, ADIF—has now decided to take justice in its own hands.
According to the report, ADIF has written to the relevant companies announcing claims for damages—which is the ordinary reaction that could be expected. However, it has also taken the decision of demanding an anticipation of the compensation from those companies with which it has ‘live’ contracts, to which it has demanded a 10% price reduction. What is more, ADIF has decided to withhold 10% of the contractual price and to deposit in an escrow account before a notary, as a sort of sui generis self-created interim measure to ensure some compensation for the damages suffered from the cartel. The legal issues that this unilateral act generates are too many to list here. And these will surely be the object of future litigation.
What I find particularly difficult to understand is that, in contrast with this decisively aggressive approach to withholding payment, ADIF has awarded contracts to some of the competition infringers after the publication of the CNMC decision. And not a small number of contracts or for little amounts. In fact, ADIF has awarded over 280 contracts for a total value close to €300 million.
Thus, ADIF has largely carried out its business as usual in the award of public works contracts, both ignoring the rather straightforward argument of automaticity of the prohibition to contract hinted at by the CNMC— though based on a convoluted and rather strained interpretation of domestic law (Art 72(2) Law 9/2017)—and, more importantly, the discretionary ground for exclusion in Art 57(4)(d) of Directive 2014/24/EU.
There will certainly be some more scenes in this sainete

Some thoughts on maximum and minimum EU harmonization a propos the interaction between procurement remedies and the principle of State liability

After I published some comments on the EFTA Court’s Judgment in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS (E-16/16, see here) some three weeks ago, I have had some interesting exchanges and discussions with some academic colleagues and with policy-makers and practitioners. I am grateful to all of them for forcing me to think harder about some of the issues that derive from the Fosen-Linjen case and, in particular, for their repeated invitations to consider it by comparison to the Judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority v EnergySolutions EU Ltd (now ATK Energy Ltd) [2017] UKSC 34 (the ‘NDA’ judgment; for my views on an interim decision at the start of the litigation, see here).

Indeed, comparing those cases is interesting, for the Fosen-Linjen and NDA judgments offer diametrically opposed views of the interaction between the use of damages as a procurement remedy and the principle of State liability for breach of EU law, in particular concerning the threshold for liability under the so-called second Francovich condition—ie whether liability arises from a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law, or from any (unqualified) infringement of the rules.

In this post, (1) I compare the approach to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction in both judgments, to then offer some brief reflections on (2) the implications of minimum harmonization of this subject-matter through the Remedies Directive (ie, Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC; see its consolidated version), (3) the possibility to reform the Remedies Directive so as to achieve maximum harmonization, and (4) the potential implications of a damages-based procurement enforcement strategy in the context of the emergence of EU tort law. This post is meant, more than anything, as an invitation for further discussion.


(1) Opposing approaches to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction

One of the contended issues in academic, and now also judicial, debate around public procurement remedies is the relationship between, on the one hand, the liability in damages derived from the Remedies Directive (art 2(1)(c), requiring a power for review bodies or courts to ‘award damages to persons harmed by an infringement’ of relevant EU public procurement rules) and, on the other, the liability derived from the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law (following Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, and Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79).

This is an issue that the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) explicitly addressed in Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751 ('Spijker'), when it stated that Art 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive

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 …

… as regards state liability for damage caused to individuals by infringements of EU law for which the state may be held responsible, the individuals harmed have a right to redress where the rule of EU law which has been infringed is intended to confer rights on them, the breach of that rule is sufficiently serious, and there is a direct causal link between the breach and the loss or damage sustained by the individuals. 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 87 and 92, emphases added).

However, maybe surprisingly, Spijker is not (yet) universally seen as having settled the issue of the interaction between the actions for damages under the Remedies Directive and the Francovich doctrine.

As mentioned above, the main point of contention rests on what could be seen as a lex specialis understanding of the interaction between the two regulatory frameworks (which could formally match a literal reading of para 87 of Spijker, but is more difficult to square with its para 92)—ie a view that the general condition for there to be a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU law under Francovich is relaxed by the Remedies Directive by solely mentioning the need for an (unqualified) infringement as sufficient ground for a damages claim. This is specifically a point where the UK Supreme Court and the EFTA Court have taken opposing views in their recent judgments.

The UK Supreme Court's approach

Indeed, in its NDA Judgment (as per Lord Mance, with Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Sumption and Lord Carnwath agreeing), the UK Supreme Court followed what I think is the correct reading of Spijker and established that

para 87 [of Spijker] proceeds by making clear that the liability of an awarding authority is to be assessed by reference to the Francovich conditions. Subject to these conditions being met, paras 88 to 90 go on to make clear that the criteria for damages are to be determined and estimated by national law, with the further caveat that the general principles of equivalence and effectiveness must also be met (para 91). Finally, para 92 summarises what has gone before, repeating the need to satisfy the Francovich conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [23]).

More importantly, the UK Supreme Court considered that

… there is … very clear authority of the Court of Justice confirming that the liability of a contracting authority under the Remedies Directive for the breach of the [public procurement rules] is assimilated to that of the state or of a public body for which the state is responsible. It is in particular only required to exist where the minimum Francovich conditions are met, although it is open to States in their domestic law to introduce wider liability free of those conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [25], emphasis added).

Therefore, the UK Supreme Court takes the clear view that the existence of grounds for an EU damages action based on the Remedies Directive requires the existence of a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law. At the same time, it takes no issue with the possibility for more generous domestic grounds for actions for damages (although it eventually decided that this was not the case in relation to the Public Contract Regulations 2006; see NDA, per Lord Mance at [37], with which I also agree).

The EFTA Court's approach

Conversely, in its Fosen-Linjen Judgment, and despite the fact that similar arguments on the interpretation of Spijker were made before it (in particular by the Norwegian Government), the EFTA Court considered that

Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive … precludes national legislation which makes the right to damages for an infringement of public procurement law by a contracting authority conditional on that infringement being culpable … 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

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 of EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State. In such circumstances, economic operators would encounter substantial difficulties in assessing the potential liability of contracting authorities in different EEA States’ (Fosen-Linjen, paras 77 and 78, emphases added).

This led it to reach the view 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 the Remedies Directive, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met including, in particular, the existence of a causal link (Fosen-Linjen, para 82, emphasis added).

I already discussed (here) the reasons why I think the EFTA Court’s Judgment does not accord with the ECJ’s case law (notably in Spijker) and why I hope the ECJ will explicitly correct this situation. In the remainder of this post, I briefly discuss the themes of minimum and maximum harmonisation of procurement remedies that emerge from a comparison of the approaches adopted by the UK Supreme Court and by the EFTA Court.


(2) Minimum harmonization through the Remedies Directive

The UK Supreme Court’s approach is implicitly based on a conceptualisation of the Remedies Directive as a minimum harmonization instrument, which sets the basic elements of the (effective and equivalent) remedies that Member States must regulate for, in accordance with the peculiarities of their own domestic systems. I think that this characterisation of the Remedies Directive is uncontroversial (see eg the recent report by the European Commission on its implementation at Member State level, at 4). Following the logic of minimum harmonization, the UK Supreme Court clearly has no problem with the existence of two potential tiers of remedies: a lower or more basic EU tier (subject eg to a requirement of ‘sufficiently serious breach’), and a higher or more protective domestic tier (subject eg to ‘any infringement’), which may or may not exist depending on the policy orientation of each EU/EEA State.

This approach has both the advantage of being in accordance with the current state of the law as interpreted by the ECJ (as above), and of not imposing—as a matter of legal compliance, rather than policy preference—an absolute harmonisation of public procurement remedies (at least as the threshold of liability for damages is concerned).

However, this approach is not without some practical difficulties, as there is a thick mist of uncertainty concerning what is a sufficiently serious breach of procurement rules (but also of what rules in the EU directives are ‘intended to confer rights’ on the tenderers—ie the first Francovich condition, which has been so far largely untested), and the existing ECJ case law on the interpretation of substantive EU procurement rules would require significant reconceptualisation in order to provide clarity in this respect. The existence of the preliminary reference mechanism of Art 267 TFEU can alleviate this legal uncertainty (in the long term, and maybe starting soon with the pending decision in Rudigier, C-518/17), but not without creating a significant risk of collapse of the ECJ (or, at least, an even more significant growth in procurement-related preliminary references). From that perspective, the possibility to engage in maximum harmonization (as rather implicitly advocated by the EFTA Court) deserves some consideration.


(3) Maximum harmonization through a revised remedies directive?

In my view wrongly, the EFTA Court holds the implicit normative position that the Remedies Directive is an instrument of maximum harmonisation when it emphasises its ‘objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement’ (see Fosen-Linjen, para 78 above, emphasis added). The EFTA Court derives this objective in an earlier passage, where it stresses that a 'fundamental objective of the Remedies Directive is to create the framework conditions under which tenderers can seek remedies in the context of public procurement procedures, in a way that is as uniform as possible for all undertakings active on the internal market. Thereby, as is also apparent from the third and fourth recitals to the Remedies Directive, equal conditions shall be secured (sic)' (Fosen-Linjen, para 66, emphasis added).

I think this is a clear judicial excess and I do not think the Remedies Directive can be considered an instrument of maximum harmonization (ie a tool that sets a ceiling, or even a common core of protections that must be uniformly provided in all EEA States) in the way the EFTA Court does. In my view, this is particularly clear from recital (6) of the Remedies Directive, according to which: ‘it is necessary to ensure that adequate procedures exist in all the Member States to permit the setting aside of decisions taken unlawfully and compensation of persons harmed by an infringement’ (emphasis added; note that adequate procedures are not necessarily homogeneous or identical procedures)--which the EFTA Court includes in its Judgment (para 3), but then largely ignores.

However, the EFTA Court does have a point when it stresses that the divergence of rules on (damages) remedies can distort the procurement field and, in particular, discourage cross-border participation—which could be alleviated by a reform of the Remedies Directive to create such maximum harmonization. Such revision and an explicit view on the elements of a uniform system of maximum harmonisation could bring a much needed clarification of the function and position of different types of remedies under its architecture—notably, it would clarify whether damages are a perfect substitute for other remedies (as the EFTA Court seems to believe) or an ancillary remedy [as I posit, maybe not in the clearest terms, in 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)]. Maximum harmonisation could also provide an opportunity to consider the creation of safe harbours (at least of damages liability) for purely procedural errors, or in the context of certain general guidelines.

Nonetheless, despite potential advantages derived from a revision of the system to consider maximum harmonization, given the vast differences in the rules on damages claims across EU jurisdictions, it would be certainly difficult, if not outright impossible, to reach an agreement on the adequate level of protection and the relevant procedural mechanisms [for comparative discussion, see for example, the contributions to S Treumer & F Lichère (eds), Enforcement of the EU Public Procurement Rules (DJØF, 2011), and to D Fairgrieve & F Lichère (eds), Public Procurement Law. Damages as an Effective Remedy (Hart, 2011); see also H Schebesta, Damages in EU Public Procurement Law (Springer, 2016)].

Given these practical difficulties, I would not think the European Commission would be willing to engage in the exercise of designing such maximum harmonization, even if it decided to revise the Remedies Directive in the future (which, unfortunately, seems very unlikely at least for now). What then should not be acceptable is for such maximum harmonisation to be achieved or imposed through an excessively broad interpretation of the Remedies Directive as, in my view, the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen judgment does.


(4) Damages-based enforcement of procurement rules & EU tort law

As a last thought, I think it is worth stressing that, in addition to the practical difficulties derived from the current minimum harmonization of procurement remedies, and the not smaller difficulties in attempting a maximum harmonization, there are also structural tensions in the use of damages actions for the enforcement of EU public procurement rules. As recent research has clearly shown (see P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017)), the use of damages actions (either based on Francovich liability, or sector-specific rules) for the enforcement of substantive EU law creates distortions in the domestic legal systems of the Member States. From that perspective, both the minimum and maximum harmonization approaches are problematic.

From the minimum harmonization perspective, because the existence of two tiers of protection can also result in two tiers of regulation and/or case law concerning the interpretation and application of the rules, which is bound to create legal uncertainty (eg if issues around the effectiveness of the remedy in the EU-tier create pressures on the interpretation of the domestic-tier remedies as a result of reverse pressures resulting from the principle of equivalence—ie the domestic remedy can hardly be both broader in scope and less effective in its consequences).

From the maximum harmonization perspective, because the creation of a one-size-fits-all remedy (such as that derived from the lower threshold for damages liability in the EFTA Court’s Judgment) can have rather drastic impacts for some Member States (in particular, those without a ‘higher-tier’ domestic protection), not only in the area of procurement law, but also in other areas of (economic) law which regulation and case law can be distorted as a result of the EU rules.

Thus, it seems adequate (and it may not be too late…) to reconsider a drastic change in the enforcement strategy to reduce the current over-reliance on tenderer-led administrative and/or judicial reviews, and start to move away from damages-fueled private enforcement of EU public procurement law and towards a more robust architecture of public enforcement with a restriction of damages compensation solely in exceptional cases—certainly where that compensation goes beyond direct participation costs.

Discussing the possibilities of doing so and the challenges it would imply far exceeds the possibilities of this post, but given that reaching a ‘happy median’ in the regulation of (private) damages actions in the context of procurement remedies in the EU would not be a minor feat, it may be time to (re)open that discussion.

Interesting report on CJEU case handling by the EU Court of Auditors

The European Court of Auditors has published today a report on the handling of cases by the Court of Justice of the European Union (see report here and press release from the Court of Justice here). The report is interesting in many respects.

In terms of CJEU activity linked to EU economic law, I find it interesting that, in the sample taken for the report, competition and procurement cases requiring a preliminary ruling tended to take between 2 years and 2 years and a half. This likely places them towards the top right corner of the complexity/duration chart created by the Court of Auditors (below).

In not too dissimilar a fashion, it is also interesting to stress that the lengthier cases before the General Court involve competition and State aid issues.

Taken together, these seem to be signs of the need for the creation of a specialised chamber for economic law to absorb part of the workload and try to deliver judgments within a timeline better adjusted to the needs of market dynamics.

In that connection, it is worth stressing that the Court of Auditors reminds us that:

By 26 December 2020, the Court of Justice must report to the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission on the functioning of the General Court, covering its efficiency, the necessity and effectiveness of the increase to 56 Judges, the use and effectiveness of resources and the further establishment of specialised chambers and/or other structural changes (see Article 3(1) of Regulation (EU, Euratom) 2015/2422).

In my view, that will be an adequate moment to propose the delegation of preliminary rulings to the General Court in matters of EU economic law and the creation of a specialised court.

Are the EU Institutions (about to start) breaching art 50 TEU & EU public procurement law in the context of Brexit?

The Financial Times has reported that "Brussels starts to freeze Britain out of EU contracts ~ Commission memo tells staff to prepare to ‘disconnect’ UK". According to the FT, an internal European Commission memorandum urges its senior officials to start introducing Brexit considerations in their decision-making, seemingly to avoid “unnecessary additional complications”. As public procurement is concerned, the FT indicates that

Where legally possible, the [C]ommission and its agencies will be expected in all activities to “take account” of the fact that Britain may be “a third country” within two years, including in appointing staff and in awarding billions of euros of direct contracts for research projects or services.

“Apart from the legal requirement for a contracting party to be established in the EU, there may be political or practical reasons that speak in favour of contracting parties established in a specific member state, not only at the conclusion of the contract, but also throughout the duration of the contract,” the note states.

The FT piece lacks the necessary detail for a full legal assessment and the caveat that this strategy should be undertaken "where legally possible" may well deactivate it [in legal terms]. However, at least in its thrust, this is a rather clear breach of Article 50(3) TEU.

Inasmuch as it states that "The Treaties shall cease to apply to [a withdrawing Member] State ... from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification" (given by the UK on 29 March 2017), unless this period is extended unanimously by the European Council; Art 50(3) TEU does not allow for any anticipatory effects of a decision to withdraw. Until withdrawal and its terms are actually agreed and legally effective, both the withdrawing Member State and the EU Institutions remain bound by EU law in its supremacy, direct effect and the mandate to respect the rule of law (Art 2 TEU). This is an appropriate measure aimed at the preservation of the rule of law in the form of compliance with EU law during the withdrawal negotiations, not least because nobody knows if withdrawal is legally irreversible and unavoidable -- and, quite frankly, every day that goes by without the EU Institutions (as well as the UK) seeking clarification from the Court of Justice of the European Union is a missed opportunity and another blow to the foundations of the rule of law in the EU.

Such prohibition of anticipatory effect goes both in the direction of preventing the 'freeing up' of the withdrawing Member State from compliance with EU law (which is obvious from Art 50(3) TEU itself), as well as in the opposite direction of preventing the EU Institutions from discriminating against the withdrawing Member State. It is clear to me that EU law will always bind the EU Institutions vis-a-vis a withdrawing Member State all the way up to the point of legal withdrawal - and from then onward, the legal regime setting up mutual duties will be that of any transitory arrangements created by the withdrawal agreement, and/or the legal regime governing the "the framework for [the withdrawing Member States'] future relationship with the Union". Violating the absolute mandate of subjection to EU law up to the point of withdrawal would be an infringement of Art 50(3) TEU by the EU Institutions -- if not by itself, certainly in combination with the duty of non-discrimination and equal treatment between Member States of Art 4(2) TEU, as well as the duty of sincere cooperation of Art 4(3) TEU.

In the specific area of public procurement, just as it was illegal for the UK's Department for International Trade to tender contracts screening contractors on the basis of their commitment to support the delivery of Brexit as a cultural fitness criterion (see here), it is also illegal for the EU Institutions to tender contracts on the basis of "political or practical reasons that speak in favour of contracting parties established in a specific member state, not only at the conclusion of the contract, but also throughout the duration of the contract". Article 102 of the Financial Regulation governing the award of contracts by EU Institutions clearly establishes that "All public contracts financed in whole or in part by the [EU] budget shall respect the principles of transparency, proportionality, equal treatment and non-discrimination". Imposing requirements around the Member State of incorporation, registration or sit of a public contractor runs against these general principles.

There may be some specific circumstances or projects (the FT piece mentions the Galileo project) where it would not be possible for public contractors to be based outside the EU, but these are clearly exceptional and need to be subjected to a very strict proportionality analysis. In most cases, particularly for services and research contracts, there is no need for any physical presence in the EU (or elsewhere). This is clearly demonstrated by the coverage of a good number of Brexit-sensitive services markets in the EU's market access concessions under the World Trade Organisation's Government Procurement Agreement (albeit on a reciprocal basis, for obvious trade policy reasons).

Moreover, the extent to which it would be impossible for UK-based contractors to complete the execution of public contracts post-Brexit depends on the existence or not of transitory arrangements, as well as the framework for the future EU-UK relationship (which may well imply mutual coverage of services procurement in WTO GPA terms). Therefore, a decision made now that determined such impossibility and thus served as the basis for the exclusion of UK tenderers from procedures carried out by the EU Institutions would be legally defective.

Beyond these technical issues, it is shocking and worrying to see the EU Institutions engage in what can be seen as trade war by erecting non-tariff barriers against a withdrawing Member State, just as it was worrying and unacceptable to see the UK do that. If both parties to the withdrawing negotiations "prepare" for a disorderly Brexit in this manner, this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the only stopper to such noxious developments is to be found in the rule of law and the EU's and the withdrawing Member States' obligations under the Treaties to comply with EU law until the withdrawal is effective in terms of Art 50(3) TEU. If the European Commission is itself not able to abide in this manner, then my pessimism about the irreversible effects of Brexit on EU law can only plummet even further....