EU transport chief accused of conflict of interest
EU transport commissioner Antonio Tajani has been accused of a conflict of interest for spending six hours aboard a Ryanair flight alongside the company's chief executive while on a whistle-stop tour of Ireland campaigning for the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr Tajani, a vice-president of the commission, on Tuesday flew from Dublin to Knock airport in the west and Kerry airport in the south and back to the Irish capital in a Ryanair 737 affixed with a gigantic 'Yes to Europe' slogan, a trip that lobbying transparency campaigners say should never have taken place.
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At each stop, Michael O'Leary, the CEO of the airline perennially in battle with the commission over merger attempts or complaints of government subsidies to competing firms, held a press conference together with the commissioner, encouraging voters to support the Lisbon Treaty.
During the trip, Mr O'Leary, known for his pugilistic style, did not shy away from making mention of his bugbears with the commission, according to reports in the Irish press, notably his attempts to purchase Aer Lingus, Ireland's flag carrier.
In June 2007, the European Commission blocked a bid by Ryanair to purchase the rival airline, citing concerns that the merger would create a near monopoly in the Irish market. In August last year, the commission also launched an investigation of the company for cancelling the tickets purchased from third-party websites.
"Ryanair's offer to Aer Lingus is the only airline merger that's been turned down by Brussels on competition grounds in 30 years," he said at one stopover, reports the Irish Times.
However, Mr O'Leary appeared to be aware that the jaunt and indeed his support for the Yes campaign might be perceived as a gift to the commission made in exchange for it considering the company's expansion plans more favourably in the future, but dismissed the idea as Aer Lingus will end up part of Ryanair at some point in any case, he said.
Last October, the Ryanair CEO had attacked the idea of forcing Ireland to vote on the Lisbon Treaty a second time.
''It seems that only in the European Union, Ireland and Zimbabwe are you forced to vote twice," O'Leary said. ''The vote should be respected. It is the only democratic thing to do," he told the Sunday Business Post at the time.
The commissioner however seemed to quickly have forgotten the EU executive's past battles with Mr O'Leary and his earlier opposition to the referendum, and cheered his decision to join the Yes campaign.
"I am a Roman soldier," he said, according to the Irish Independent, "and Michael is a Celtic warrior."
Although normally passengers aboard the Irish budget airline pay seven euros and change for a shrink-wrapped sandwich and a juice, on this flight, the commissioner and the EU executive's head of representation in Ireland, Martin Territt, were treated to chicken Bellanaise with wild rice and peaches, followed by petits fours and coffee.
But while nibbling on the not-so-budget dishes, at no point did Messrs O'Leary and Tajani discuss the longstanding hostilities between the airline and the commission, according to a commission spokesperson.
"There was absolutely no lobbying involved. The commissioner was invited simply to give information on his portfolio," transport spokesman Fabio Pirotta told this website.
"There was no discussion at all about commission decisions. He was not trying to lobby the commissioner. There were no discussions between them on any issue related to any policy matter," he continued.
"The mention of Aer Lingus was only made at press conferences in full public view," he said, adding that Mr Tajani often meets with the CEOs of airlines and that on Wednesday, he met with the head of Iberian airlines.
But lobbying transparency campaigners are shocked at the trip.
"It's as clear an example of corporate influence as I can think of," said Erik Wesselius, of Corporate Europe Observatory, the Brussels-based lobbying watchdog.
"There appears to be a considerable conflict of interest here - commissioner Tajani letting himself be hosted by an airline that has had and continues to have several disputes with the European Commission."
"Tajani is dealing with some of the decisions Ryanair is most interested in. This is a good lobbying opportunity for O'Leary."
He added that even if there was no direct talk about the airline's concerns, Mr O'Leary will likely still expect a quid pro quo at some point.
"It makes no difference whether there was any substantive discussion about Ryanair issues. O'Leary might come back later to Tajani with some request and then he can remind Tajani of that day in September when O'Leary took him on tour through Ireland to support the Yes campaign."
Left-wing Irish MEP Joe Higgins, an opponent of the Lisbon Treaty, has called on European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to dismiss Mr Tajani for agreeing to the trip.
"This tour seriously compromises Tanjani's position as European commissioner for transport," he said in a statement. "Ryanair is one of the biggest airlines in Europe. It has already and may come into further conflict with the European Commission."
A Ryanair spokesman later explicitly denied suggestions that the flight or the support for the Yes campaign was an attempt to influence the commission.
"Every campaign has a certain amount of money spent on it. We are no different to the No campaign in that respect," he said.
"We have had a fractious relationship with the commission in the past. That will continue because it is the nature of business."