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Call for ferry services concession suspended again following claims of ‘serious illegalities’

Objections submitted by Virtu Ferries state the Request for Proposals is in breach of EU law.

Transport Malta has again been constrained to put on hold the call for an exclusive 15-year concession for sea passenger ferry services following objections submitted by Virtu Ferries, claiming “serious illegalities” and disregard of EU law.

Virtu Ferries, a pioneer in fast ferry services between Malta and Sicily, formally submitted a detailed pre-closing remedy to the Public Contracts Review Board (PCRB), asking for the cancellation of the Request for Proposals (RfP).

The call has been suspended until a decision is taken by the Appeals Board.

In the submissions seen by The Shift, Virtu Ferries is claiming that “the Request for Proposals document – issued by the government – is so ill-conceived and so fraught with such a great number of manifest and serious illegalities that any reasonable Board should order the outright cancellation of this RfP.”

The government’s RfP breaches three separate legal instruments, including the EU’s Maritime Cabotage rules, Article 107 of the EU Treaties and the Concession Contracts regulations, according to a detailed submission by the company’s lawyers.

Virtu Ferries is insisting that, if this RfP is approved, it may lead to serious consequences for Malta related to infringements of EU law.

It also warned that Virtu Ferries, “reserves the right to seek further recourse as may be available with the European Commission”.

Virtu Ferries presented the background of the evolution of this tender, which is the third consecutive attempt. The first tender, issued in 2017, and the second, one year later, were cancelled after being struck down by the courts due to illegalities and abuse.

Virtu Ferries said in its submission: “The previously much needed fast-ferry link between Malta and Gozo has been summarily abandoned in favour of a service which is of little use to commuters travelling between Gozo and Malta during peak hours”.

The government has reversed its electoral pledge to introduce a fast ferry service between Malta and Gozo and instead proposed a slow commuter scheduled service between still unidentified points on the two islands.

This is the second suspension of this tender.

Last month, the PCRB ordered a modification of the RfP, following objections that the way it was written was restrictive and deemed to be limiting competition.

Supreme Travel, one of the companies raising objections, claimed that the tender was another government attempt to issue a 15-year exclusive concession to Captain Morgan, which had just introduced a new private ferry service with four newly-built boats.

Captain Morgan has strongly denied this. Fortina Group CEO Edward Zammit Tabona, the owners of Captain Morgan, told The Shift that the vessels currently being used for the ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ service do not qualify for the tender issued by the government.

He stressed that the new bid, if submitted, would be in partnership with another company, Marsamxetto Steamferry Services Ltd, which has vast international experience in providing sea passenger ferry services.

In 2019, a multi-million euro contract between Gozo Channel and Captain Morgan, as part of the original fast ferry bid, had been cancelled by the court because it was deemed illegal.

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