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24th Jan 2021

Barroso faces Dalli at EU court in tobacco lobby case

  • Dalli (l) and Barroso (r) in happier times (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Five judges at the EU Court of Justice on Monday (7 July) cross-examined the president of the European Commission in the tobacco lobby scandal which saw health commissioner John Dalli leave in disgrace two years ago.

The tense exchange of statements took nearly five hours inside the blue-carpeted chamber at the Luxembourg-based tribunal.

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It was the first time a commission president had ever faced judges’ questions.

It was also the first time Barroso’s entourage, which included Dalli’s former spokesman Frederick Vincent, and Dalli had laid eyes on each other since the events, prompting many furtive glances.

The dispute concerns what happened during a 90-minute Barroso-Dalli meeting on 16 October 2012.

It also concerns wider allegations by the EU anti-fraud office, Olaf, that Dalli solicited bribes from a mouth tobacco firm, Swedish Match, as part of a plan by the tobacco industry to weaken an EU tobacco control law.

Dalli gave the opening statement.

He said Barroso coerced him into resigning, refused him time to seek legal advice, and denied him the right to review the facts of the allegations against him.

“I asked him to give me the possibility to consult a lawyer, to get some sort of legal advice … I asked for 24 hours. He looked at his watch and he said ‘I’ll give you 30 minutes’,” Dalli recalled.

“It was not a meeting, it was an ambush”.

He said Barroso declined to give him details of the Olaf allegations. “They said [only] that I met some lobbyists,” he told the judges.

He also said the way the case was handled ruined his reputation and caused distress for his family.

Barroso would have none of it, however.

“Very serious accusations had been made against Mr Dalli, accusations of improper contacts with the tobacco lobby and knowledge of attempted bribery,” the commission chief noted.

The Olaf report has itself come under fire by Olaf’s supervisory board for being based on circumstantial evidence and for failing to follow investigative rules.

But Barroso said the political stakes were too great to keep the Maltese commissioner employed.

He noted the timing was sensitive because Dalli was about to launch the tobacco law. He said he feared a repeat of events in 1999, when the entire commission was forced to resign in a corruption scandal under the then president Jacques Santer.

He also said that Dalli in the 90-minute meeting did not refute the Olaf claims or give a convincing explanation as to why he had met the lobbyists in the first place.

“At that point it became definitely clear to me that politically it would be impossible for him to continue as a commissioner,” Barroso said.

He noted the decision was made quickly to avoid possible leaks, which would generate even greater reputational damage for the EU.

The commission chief added that Dalli resigned of his own free will in “an unambiguous manner”.

He noted that Dalli first agreed to sign a letter of resignation, but later refused.

Just after 5pm on 16 October 2012, Barroso’s office published a press release.

The first line of the press release says Dalli had announced his resignation as a member of the commission, with immediate effect.

It notes Dalli decided to resign in order to defend his reputation and that of the commission.

Barroso said he had read out the press release in full to Dalli, in the presence of two high-ranking civil servants at a second meeting, just prior to publication.

Two senior civil servants present at Monday’s hearing backed his version of events.

But Dalli said he had no recollection of the read-out of the press release.

He added that after the first 90-minute meeting, he went back to his office and called his family.

He said he also spoke briefly to Malta’s prime minister, who later informed the national parliament of what had happened.

Dalli said he then told his own cabinet of his imminent departure, where he was asked if he had indeed met with tobacco lobbyists.

His then head of cabinet, Joanna Darmanin, told the Luxembourg tribunal that when asked about the lobbyist meetings, Dalli remarked: “You know how I am. I meet with anyone who asks me”.

The hearing continues on Tuesday with the lawyers of the two sides only.

Dalli wants the Court to annul Barroso’s request for his resignation and to pay a symbolic €1 in damages for the “non financial” harm he has suffered, as well as compensation for his loss of earnings as a commissioner.

The verdict is expected in six to nine months' time.

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