21st Sep 2023

Fresh stink around former EU chief in tobacco affair

  • Former EU health commissioner John Dalli (l) with ex-European Commission president José Manuel Barroso (Photo:
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Knives are back out for José Manuel Barroso, the former European Commission chief, after a Belgian court found his top sleuth guilty of gross misconduct in the biggest EU corruption scandal before Qatargate.

"So many irregularities and lies to [the European] Parliament and all those who asked the right questions. I'm still appalled by the whole case," said Ingeborg Gräßle, a centre-right German MP and Barroso-era MEP.

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"The case is not closed. It should just be the beginning," she said.

There should be "a deep and thorough legal investigation" of what really happened in the so-called Dalligate affair 12 years ago, said Belgian Green politician and former MEP Bart Staes.

"The truth will prevail," said John Dalli himself — the disgraced ex-EU commissioner at the centre of the fiasco.

They spoke after a Belgian court handed down a suspended jail term last Friday (15 September) for a former head of the EU Commission's anti-fraud office, Olaf.

Dalligate saw Barroso suddenly fire Dalli, then Malta's EU health commissioner, over Olaf allegations of tobacco-industry influence peddling.

But the Belgian court found the ex-Olaf head, Giovanni Kessler, guilty of illegally wiretapping Dalli's phone, opening up old cans of worms.

The alleged €60m bribery scheme was the biggest EU corruption case before last year's revelations that Qatar was handing out suitcases of cash to friendly MEPs.

And Barroso is now a freshly (18 August) retired lobbyist for US investment bank Goldman Sachs and an academic.

But the same politicians who felt Dalligate left too many loose ends are now calling for full transparency.

"Now the European Commission and its secretariat general need to draw conclusions and finally bring the truth about the Dalli case to daylight," Gräßle, who used to chair the EU Parliament's budgetary-control committee, said.

For Staes, there were still far too many "dubious things in this dossier", such as an unsolved break-in at an anti-tobacco NGO in Brussels at the time, as well as EU Commission "delaying tactics" on MEPs' enquiries.

"Looking at everything with several years of hindsight, it points to Dalli being lured into a trap, with the consequence (and goal?) of delaying and weakening the important TPD legislation," Staes said, referring to the Tobacco Products Directive, an EU law regulating the multi-billion euro sector.

"If that is the case, the big question is who set that trap — indications are ESTOC, Swedish Match, and Philip Morris — and with what political backing?", he added, mentioning the European Smokeless Tobacco Council (a lobbying organisation) and two tobacco firms.

"Did José Manuel Barroso cover up Kessler's actions? Why did he dismiss his health commissioner John Dalli so quickly?", said José Bové, a left-wing French politician, who was also a Barroso-time MEP.

"These questions are once again topical. We may finally be entering the second and final stage of Barrosogate, in which light will be shed on this political scandal," he added, renaming the events.

Dalli's bunker

Barroso himself is yet to comment on the Belgian ruling and its implications.

Meanwhile, the 74-year Dalli had erected a country house with a basement bunker in Malta when last visited by EUobserver in 2018.

He has also been linked to a Ponzi-like scheme, which swindled American Christian seniors out of their life savings, but he strenuously protests his innocence, while continuing to relive his Barroso defenestration.

"As I walked into his office, Barroso ambushed me saying that he had a report from Olaf which strongly implicated me," Dalli said in his statement on the Belgian court verdict.

"He [Barroso] kept reading from a letter he received from Kessler purportedly based on this report, containing information which I was not familiar with," Dalli went on.

"My termination was planned by president Barroso and his team for some time," Dalli said.

And Olaf had plotted "to exclude me from the [EU] Commission and disrupt the tobacco directive which I was driving with my team," he also said.

The potential return of Dalligate comes after the current EU Parliament president promised a major clean up over Qatar.

It also comes as the current EU Commission chief, Ursula von der Leyen, seeks to polish her image in view of a potential bid for a second term.

And Dalli's honour aside, finding out what the tobacco industry, Barroso, and Kessler really did in 2012 beyond the illegal wiretapping incident is more relevant than ever in today's political arena, Staes said.

"The tobacco industry lobby is still extremely powerful and pervasive," he said.

"A review of the TPD is coming. This is ultimately about corporate interests versus public health," the Belgian politician said.

EU court dismisses Dalli case

A former EU health commissioner, accused of soliciting bribes from a tobacco firm, lost his case against the European Commission for unlawful dismissal.

Dalli lawyers say Barroso trampled his rights

Dalli's lawyers claimed Barroso bullied him out of his job instead of following proper procedure in the second and final day of an EU Court hearing in his case.


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