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9th Feb 2023

MEPs unhappy with commission secrecy on Dalli affair

  • Olaf library - parliament lawyers are looking into who can and cannot read the Dalli file (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

MEPs are refusing to take No for an answer from the European Commission on access to a report on John Dalli.

German Liberal MEP Michael Theurer, the head of the budget control committee, told EUobserver on Wednesday (7 November) that political groups have asked parliament President Martin Schulz to "insist" on "full access" to a report by the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, on why the former health commissioner lost his job.

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Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, in a letter to Schulz on 30 October, said he is legally bound to withhold the file.

"It's not a question of the commission refusing access to the report, it's a question of the commission fulfilling its legal obligations," his spokeswoman, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, told this website.

An EU source familiar with the Barroso letter said it gave some extra details on the affair.

Barroso explained that Olaf interviewed Dalli twice on allegations that a middleman tried to solicit a bribe from tobacco firm Swedish Match and that Dalli's lawyer came to one of the Olaf meetings.

Barroso added that he first spoke with Dalli on the subject on 25 July and again on 16 October.

Dalli denied any knowledge of the middleman's activities at both meetings. But the Olaf report showed evidence he had contact with tobacco lobbyists and the middleman outside his official channels. Barroso repeated that Dalli resigned of his own accord and that he had time to tell his family before a press release went out - claims which Dalli denies.

Barroso also cited article 9(2) of Olaf regulation 1073/1999 and EU court case T-48/05 Franchet and Byk to say that only the Maltese attorney general can give access to the Olaf report because it now forms part of a Maltese criminal investigation.

The prospect of MEPs getting anything from Valetta is slim, however.

The Maltese attorney general told EUobserver in a written statement that Malta's criminal code only allows access to documents "once the investigation ... has been concluded" and that there is no fixed time frame for police to complete their work.

Parliament lawyers are currently studying the issue.

But there seems to be room for doubt on Barroso's line.

Asked by this website whether the commission can legally comply with Schulz' request, Olaf spokesman Johan Wullt indicated that it can, so long as it complies with regulation 45/2001 on protection of personal data and so long as it is "necessary or legally required on important public interest grounds."

He noted that the report is classified as "Olaf special handling" - a unique designation which falls outside EU Council rules on confidential papers, such as making sure that MEPs are security-vetted by their home countries' intelligence services before gaining access.

The dispute over the Olaf report comes amid a swirl of conspiracy theories.

Dalli himself has suggested the tobacco industry engineered the scandal to delay the adoption of his draft bill on tobacco control.

A former tobacco lobbyist in the EU capital told EUobserver that the case is bigger than Swedish Match.

The contact said that US firms Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, which, like the Swedish company, make snus, a form of mouth tobacco, also want the EU to lift its ban on snus sales. But Swedish Match is spearheading the campaign because the US firms have such a toxic reputation that EU officials refuse to meet them directly.

For her part, German Liberal MEP Ingeborg Grassle at a budgetary committee hearing on Tuesday raised the prospect of convening a special committee of enquiry into the affair.

"There is a feeling that there might be something politically delicate for the commission in this whole business," another MEP, who asked to remain anonymous, noted.

Tuesday's hearing also saw members of Olaf's supervisory board shed light on procedural irregularities in the case.

The board is the only oversight body on Olaf's work. But its new head, Belgian special police chief Johan Denolf, complained to MEPs that it got the Dalli report only after it had been forwarded to commission secretary general Catherine Day. He added that Day got to see the full text, while the board got a redacted version with some content blacked out.

"If the EU's data protection supervisor says these details should be suppressed, then how come Day gets to see it but the Olaf board does not?" committee chair Theurer noted.

Meanwhile, the former head of the Olaf oversight team, ex-EU-judge Christiaan Timmermans, who resigned from his Olaf board top post shortly after Dalli lost his job, told MEPs he did it for "personal reasons."

"He insists that the personal reasons should stay personal," Theurer added.

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