Main Work Requirement

December 2nd, 2016 by James Goudie KC

Case C-298/15, UAB “Borta”, in which Advocate General Sharpston gave her Opinion to the CJEU on 1 December 2016, concerns a tender specification for the award of a public works contract for constructing a quay at the port of Klaipėda (Lithuania). The specification in question contains provisions governing tenders submitted by joint-activity partners. These require each partner to perform a proportion of the contract equivalent to its contribution to establishing the partnership’s professional experience, at the level of the award of the public contract.

The Lithuanian Court asked whether EU law precluded a provision, such as Article 24(5) of the Lithuanian law on public procurement, referred to in the specification, which required that, in the case of public works contracts, the tenderer should itself carry out the “main work”, as identified by the contracting authority.

Advocate General Sharpston said:-

“43.    According to settled case-law, Articles 49 and 56 TFEU preclude any national measure which, even though it is applicable without discrimination on grounds of nationality, is liable to prohibit, impede or render less attractive the exercise by nationals of the European Union of the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services guaranteed by those provisions.

  1. As regards public contracts and the freedom of establishment and the freedom to provide services, the European Union is concerned to ensure the widest possible participation by tenderers in a call for tenders, even where directives on public procurement are not applicable.

That is in the interest of the contracting authority itself, which will thus have greater choice as to the most advantageous tender which is most suitable for its needs.

One of the principal functions of the principle of the equal treatment of tenderers and the corollary obligation of transparency is thus to ensure the free movement of services and the opening-up of undistorted competition in all the Member States.

  1. Subcontracting contributes to those objectives as it is likely to encourage small and medium-sized undertakings to get involved in the public contracts procurement market and therefore to increase the number of potential candidates for the award of public contracts.
  2. In the present case, a provision such as Article 24(5) of the Law on public procurement clearly limits the possibility for undertakings established in other Member States to exercise their rights under Articles 49 and 56 TFEU, in so far as it precludes them, if they tender for the contract, from either subcontracting all or part of ‘the main work’ as defined by the contracting authority or proposing their own services as subcontractors for that part of the contract. As the Commission correctly submits, Article 24(5) of the Law on public procurement therefore restricts the freedom to provide services and the freedom of establishment.
  3. However, such a restriction may be justified in so far as it pursues a legitimate objective in the public interest, and to the extent that it complies with the principle of proportionality in that it is suitable for securing the attainment of that objective and does not go beyond what is necessary in order to attain it.”

“49.   A contracting authority may legitimately seek to ensure that a public work contract will be effectively and properly carried out.

That applies in particular where the works in question are deemed necessary for safeguarding national security, which, according to Article 4(2) TEU, is among the essential State functions that the European Union must respect.

Thus, a tenderer may be required to produce evidence that it actually has available to it the resources of the entities or undertakings on which it relies, which it does not itself own, and which are necessary for the performance of the contract.

Accordingly, the contracting authority is entitled to prohibit the use of subcontractors whose capacities could not be verified during the examination of tenders and selection of the contractor for the performance of essential parts of the contract.

  1. However, the restriction on the freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment that Article 24(5) of the Law on public procurement involves does not appear proportionate to that objective.
  2. First, that restriction applies even where the contracting authority is in fact in a position to verify the technical and economic capacity of subcontractors during the contract award procedure. An alternative to that restriction would (for example) have been to require the main contractor to identify subcontractors when submitting his tender and to demonstrate both that he will actually have available to him the resources of those subcontractors necessary for the performance of the contract and that those subcontractors are suitable for carrying out the tasks he intends to entrust to them.
  3. Second, Article 24(5) is also both too rigid and too vague to satisfy the proportionality test. Although contracting authorities appear to enjoy flexibility when defining, for each contract, what ‘the main work’ is, the restriction on subcontracting resulting from that provision is defined in particularly broad terms. It applies regardless of the subject matter of the public works contract and is binding upon contracting authorities when they conclude any type of public works contract, even when they may consider that there is no obvious reason for imposing such a restriction at all.
  4. As the Commission submits, the restriction on subcontracting in Article 24(5) of the Law on public procurement differs in that regard from Article 79(3) of Directive 2014/25. That provision merely enables a contracting authority, in particular, to require that certain critical tasks be performed directly by the tenderer itself. Contracting authorities may thus assess whether such a limitation is opportune, depending on the circumstances. It follows that, even if, as the Lithuanian Government submits, Article 24(5) of the Law on public procurement were to be regarded as transposing Article 79(3) of Directive 2014/25 into Lithuanian law, that transposition would be incorrect.”

“57.   The principles that I have set out above regarding subcontracting are equally relevant to joint-activity partners pooling their capacities.

  1. As I see it, a requirement such as that laid down in paragraph 4.3 of the tender specifications is liable to limit the flexibility of joint-activity partners. It not only affects how they agree to share responsibilities at the time of submitting their common tender but also precludes them from modifying each partner’s contribution to the works contract at a later stage if the contract is attributed to them.
  2. Thus, the requirement in paragraph 4.3 of the tender specifications is capable of having a dissuasive effect on economic operators established in other Member States. It will affect operators wishing to establish themselves in the Member State concerned through the establishment of a permanent consortium, possibly composed of national and foreign companies. It will also affect operators wishing to offer their services by joining consortia of that kind already in existence, in order to be able to participate more easily in public tendering procedures launched by the contracting authorities of that Member State.

Such specification therefore constitutes a restriction within the meaning of Articles 49 and 56 TFEU.”

“61.   I have already indicated that the objective of ensuring proper performance of a public contract can justify a (non-discriminatory) restriction to the freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment.

Partners acting under a joint-activity agreement may be able to satisfy collectively the condition(s) relating to professional capacity (including professional experience) stipulated by the contracting authority when they submit a tender. That however offers no guarantee that each partner will then actually be entrusted with those specific tasks for which its professional capacity has been verified prior to the award of that contract. Articles 49 and 56 TFEU do not therefore in principle preclude a contracting authority from requiring tenders submitted under joint-activity agreements to specify how the various tasks will be distributed among the partners, from verifying the capacity of each partner to carry out the tasks for which it will be responsible and from monitoring that, following the award of the contract, each partner duly performs those tasks for which its professional capacity has been demonstrated.

  1. However, paragraph 4.3 of the tender specifications at issue here is not suitable for ensuring attainment of that objective.
  2. That paragraph requires there to be an arithmetic correspondence between the contribution of each partner to the professional experience requirement in paragraph 3.2.1 and the ‘volume’ (or money value) of tasks effectively carried out by that partner when performing the contract.
  3. As the Commission correctly submits, that specification is unrelated to the specific works or services required to perform the public contract at issue properly. For example, each partner under a joint-activity agreement might be able to demonstrate that it has acquired experience in seaport quay construction or reconstruction over the last 5 years. Collectively, the partners thus fulfil the professional experience requirement in paragraph 3.2.1 of the tender specifications. However, each of them might specialise in a different aspect of seaport quay construction, such as dredging harbour basins, laying foundation works, building grooved steel walls, or supplying and installing seaport quay equipment. The requirement set out in paragraph 4.3 does not preclude an individual partner from carrying out specific tasks for which it actually has no such experience (although, in arithmetical terms, those tasks might correspond to its contribution in fulfilling the requirement in paragraph 3.2.1 of the tender specifications and thus comply with paragraph 4.3 thereof).
  4. I therefore consider that the objective of ensuring proper performance of the public contract cannot, in a situation such as that in the main proceedings, justify the restriction on freedom to provide services and freedom of establishment which results from paragraph 4.3 of the tender specifications. That is all the more the case since even tasks which represent a small proportion of the total value of the contract may be critical to its proper performance.”

“69.    Did the principles of equal treatment and of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality flowing from Articles 49 and 56 TFEU, and the consequent obligation of transparency, preclude the Seaport Authority from modifying clause 4.3 of the tender specifications as it did?

  1. The Court’s case-law interpreting Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 offers useful guidance to answer that question. According to that provision, ‘contracting authorities shall treat economic operators equally and non-discriminatorily, and shall act in a transparent way’. That provision is therefore based on the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency which arise from the TFEU.
  2. Thus, the Court has held that both the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency which flows from it require the subject matter of each contract and the criteria governing its award to be clearly defined from the beginning of the award procedure.

Equal treatment requires tenderers to be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their bids. That implies that the bids of all tenderers must be subject to the same conditions.

Furthermore, the obligation of transparency is intended to preclude any risk of favouritism or arbitrariness on the part of the contracting authority. It means that all the conditions and detailed rules of the award procedure must be drawn up in a clear, precise and unequivocal manner in the contract notice or specifications so that, first, all reasonably informed tenderers exercising ordinary care can understand their exact significance and interpret them in the same way and, second, the contracting authority is able to ascertain whether the bids submitted satisfy the criteria applying to the contract in question.

  1. Therefore, a contracting authority cannot, even by means of corrections, change the meaning of the essential contractual conditions as they were formulated in the specifications, upon which the economic operators concerned legitimately relied in taking the decision to prepare to submit a tender or, on the other hand, not to participate in the procurement procedure concerned.
  2. The same principles apply where a contract not governed by Directive 2004/18 has a clear cross-border interest. …”

“78.    In the circumstances of the present case, I … conclude that the prohibition on discrimination on the grounds of nationality and the obligation of transparency which flow from Articles 49 and 56 TFEU preclude changes of the tender specifications such as those at issue in the main proceedings, which introduce restrictions concerning the demonstration of professional capacity by joint-activity partners that were plainly not included in the original version of the specifications.

  1. That conclusion is not called into question by the fact that the changes took place before any tender was submitted or by the fact that the Seaport Authority both published the changes in the Official Journal of the European Union and extended the deadline for submitting tenders. As I have explained, the successive amendments of paragraph 4.3 of the tender specifications by the Seaport Authority entailed an essential modification of the conditions under which a tender could be submitted by joint‑activity partners, without objective justification.
  2. Finally, I would emphasise that the analysis I offer here flows from the specific situation in the main proceedings. It therefore does not in any way prejudge how the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency arising from the TFEU would apply in different circumstances.”


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