On January 14, 2021, the Court of Justice held that a bid-rigging infringement ends when the essential characteristics of the tender contract, in particular the amount to be paid for the works that are the subject of the tender contract, have been definitively agreed. This is the moment when the successful bidder and the contracting authority conclude the tender contract, regardless of whether the payment instalments are made, or the works are completed, after this date.
In April 2007, the Finnish state-owned electricity transmission grid operator, Fingrid Oyj, published a tender for the construction of an electricity transmission line. In June 2007, Eltel submitted a winning bid and signed the contract for the construction work. The works were completed in November 2009 and the last instalment was paid in January 2010.
In January 2013, the Finnish competition authority opened an investigation. It found that, between October 2004 and March 2011, Eltel and Empower coordinated their bids in public tenders for the construction of electric power transmission lines in Finland. In October 2014, the authority applied to fine Eltel for bid-rigging. The application was dismissed by the national court, finding that the infringement was time-barred because the application was not submitted within five years after the infringement ended.
The case reached the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court, which referred a question to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling. It asked whether a bid-rigging infringement continues while performance and payment in accordance with the tender contract are still ongoing; or whether it ends earlier—with the submission of the tender or the signing of the tender contract.
The limitation period to impose a penalty on undertakings violating EU antitrust rules begins to run on the day the infringement ceases to exist. The Court of Justice recalled the principle that the infringement lasts as long as the conduct causes restrictive effects on competition, thus it may continue after unlawful contacts cease, so long as such effects persist.
The Court of Justice, however, distinguished bid-rigging cartels from other types of cartels. Bid-rigging infringements are distinct because “the restrictive effects of the cartel on competition disappear […] when the essential characteristics of the contract, and in particular the overall price to be paid […] have been definitively determined […] between the successful tenderer and the contracting authority.” At that moment, the contracting authority is “definitively deprived of the opportunity to obtain the [works subject to the contract] under normal market conditions.”
In other words, the bid-rigging collusion has no impact on the price once it has been agreed with the contracting authority; the infringement therefore ceases to exist regardless of events after the tender contract is concluded (such as payment instalments or adverse economic effects on other market players). The Court of Justice concluded, therefore, that Eltel’s participation in the cartel ceased when the essential characteristics (in that case, the total price) of the construction contract were definitively determined with the contracting authority (i.e., at the signing of the tender contract).
This judgment clarifies at what moment a standalone bid-rigging infringement ends: as soon as the price has been agreed in the tender contract. This early end date could be of significant practical importance because it triggers the limitation period for public enforcement. The judgment is, therefore, a rare limitation of the powers of competition authorities to pursue hardcore cartels. But its implications appear limited to bid-rigging cartels and would likely not extend to other types of Article 101 TFEU infringements.
 Bid-rigging refers to the manipulation of a tender procedure for the award of a public contract typically by means of coordination on the bid to be submitted for that tender.
 Kilpailu- ja kuluttajavirasto v. Eltel Group Oy ja Eltel Networks Oy (Case C-450/19) EU:C:2021:10 (“Kilpailu”).
 Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2003 on the implementation of the rules on competition laid down in Articles 81 and 82 of the Treaty, OJ 2003 L 1/18, Article 25(2).
 See, Kilpailu, paras. 30 and 34. For example, the duration may span the entire period in which unlawful prices are applied, despite the unlawful agreement having already formally ceased to be in force.
 Kilpailu, paras. 35–38. While the restrictive effects of bid-rigging infringements on competition disappear once the contract is signed, wider adverse economic effects on other market participants could last longer (e.g., higher tariffs paid by customers). Therefore, these participants may seek damages before national courts even though the limitation period for public enforcement expired.
 Kilpailu, para. 35.
 See, Kilpailu, para. 36.