28th Mar 2023

EU Commission in damage control over Qatar-paid flights

  • EU Commission changed the rules after the apparent conflict-of-interest came to light (Photo: Spencer Wilmot)
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The European Commission is in damage control following revelations Qatar paid for flights used by a senior transport official.

The official, Henrik Hololei, is the director general of transport. But as a top administrator, Hololei was also in the dual role of being able to clear any possible conflicts of interest when it comes to overseas travel paid for by external parties.

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Hololei cleared himself, took the Qatari-paid business flights and at a time when his own department was negotiating an aviation deal with Doha, as revealed by Politico Europe.

The affair comes in the wake of the Qatargate scandal that has seen landed several high profile European Parliament politicians, including a now former vice-president, in pre-trial detention.

The European Commission still refuses to admit to any wrongdoing in the Hololei affair.

"Technically speaking, the rules at the time from a technical perspective were observed," its deputy chief spokesperson, Dana Spinant, told reporters on Tuesday (7 March).

Spinant then announced that the European Commission has since imposed new rules to avoid any potential conflicts of interests in the future.

From now on, senior officials at the European Commission can no longer accept free flights for events held outside Europe paid for by countries like Qatar, she said.

It means senior officials such as Hololei will only be able to take free trips paid for by EU state authorities, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway, the United Nations, G7 and G20 countries, as well as universities.

"All the other missions will be covered entirely by the European Commission," she said.

Director generals like Hololei will also no longer be able to clear themselves of any conflicts of interest while at the same time approving their free missions.

They must now refer to the head of cabinets of their respective commissioners. "This is an obligation," said Spinant.

The commission says no other department heads, aside from transport, had taken such free trips.

"We have identified for now, I think five missions," said Balazs Ujvari, a commission spokesperson.

He said 1.5 percent of all missions carried out by commission staff since 2019 were paid by someone else. At least 0.2 percent authorised their own missions after carrying out a conflict of interest analysis, he said.

The rule change came after the EU's administrative watchdog, the European Ombudsman, also started asking questions.

The commission has until June to respond.

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