9 free flights offered to Commission Director General during negotiations of Qatar Airways deal
The Director-General of the Commission’s transport department (DG MOVE), Henrik Hololei, flew business class for free on Qatar Airways while the market access agreement with Qatar was negotiated by his department. Nine flights were paid for by the government of Qatar or a group with links to Qatar. A Commission spokesperson explained “all the missions… were authorised and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules,” adding that potential conflicts of interest were “carefully considered and excluded,” according to Politico. The Commission was given a mandate to work on the deal in June 2016 and signed the final agreement in October 2021.
In addition, Hololei did not publish any lobby meetings with the Arab Air Carriers’ Organization (AACO) in Doha despite the organiser and the Commission confirming his participation in a conference. Hololei had previously called out for not registering lobby meetings in 2019 that he had tweeted about.
Daniel Freund, Karima Delli (Chair of the Parliament’s transport committee), and Ciarán Cuffe (Green transport coordinator), wrote a letter to transport Commissioner Vălean with detailed questions on this case (see the letter below).
MEP Daniel Freund (Greens), the European Parliament’s rapporteur for an independent EU Ethics Body, comments:
“It’s unacceptable if Commission officials accept free flights worth tens of thousands of euros from lobby organisations. During ongoing negotiations this might constitute attempted bribery and should be investigated.
If the Commission says they could not find any risks for conflicts of interest this once again confirms that the commission cannot be left to check itself. We need an independent EU ethics body.
On top of accepting the free flights, Henrik Hololei did not report any interaction with the lobby group paying for his trips as lobby meetings. Hololei is a repeat offender against the obligation to publish his lobby meetings.”
Subject: Receipt of gifts or similar benefits by European Commission officials from third countries or business interests.
Dear Commissioner Vălean,
We note with concern the recent confirmation by the European Commission in media reports this week that the DG MOVE Director-General accepted multiple free flights from the Qatari government and/or organisations owned by it while the Directorate he oversees was negotiating the EU-Qatar Open Skies Agreement.
Will the European Commission clarify the rules that are applicable to officials in this position who are in receipt of gifts or similar benefits such as free flights from governments of third countries or private companies?
Will the European Commission provide justification for its determination that it was not a conflict of interest for an official leading the Directorate-General responsible for negotiations on the EU-Qatar Open Skies Agreement to receive gifts or similar benefits from this country’s government? Did the Commission consider possible conflicts of interest beyond who pays for the flight that may have arisen during the 10 days that the Director-General spent in Doha at the invitation of the Arab Air Carriers Organization (AACO)? If this does not constitute a conflict of interest, can the European Commission provide an example of what would constitute a conflict of interest in this instance?
Will the European Commission disclose any other gifts or similar benefits received by DG MOVE officials with oversight of or direct responsibility for the negotiation of air service agreements with third countries, where those gifts or similar benefits were provided by parties with a direct interest in these agreements?
In addition, we note with concern that the same DG MOVE Director-General failed to report several of these trips and meetings as scheduled meetings with interest representatives in his official list of meetings. Examples of these include a meeting with the Arab Air Carriers’ Organization (AACO) in Doha during their 52nd Annual General Meeting in his trip from 2 to 6 November 2019 and during their 54th Annual General Meeting in his trip from 9 to 13 November 2021. There is no record of these meetings either in his list of meetings or in the organisation’s list of meetings in the Transparency Register.
Could the European Commission confirm whether the Director-General had no bilateral encounter organised at the initiative of an organisation or self-employed individual or a Director-General to discuss an issue related to policy-making and related implementation in the Union during the 10 days he stayed in Doha for both conferences? In case he had no such encounter, could the European Commission confirm whether it is usual practice to travel at for such long periods without arranging further bilateral meetings?
Could the European Commission confirm whether the failure by the Director-General to disclose his participation in these conferences in his official list of meetings with interest representatives constitutes a violation of his duties under the Commission Decision of 25 November 2014 on the publication of information on meetings held between Directors-General of the Commission and organisations or self-employed individuals? Will the European Commission inform us what consequences it draws from repeated offenses against these obligations, given the same Director-General already omitted numerous scheduled meetings from his publication in 2019, including in this case if applicable?
Finally on these points, is the European Commission currently reviewing its relevant internal procedures in light of the above?
We look forward to your response.
Confirmation by the Commission of Hololei’s travels including the meeting with AACO: https://www.politico.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/24/2023-02-15_EASE-2023-0098-ANNEX-I83.pdf
Politico report of 2019: https://www.politico.eu/newsletter/politico-eu-influence/politico-eu-influence-presented-by-mcdonalds-dg-move-lobby-mishap-council-transparency-stalled-commission-delayed/amp/
Arab Air Carriers’ Organization in the EU Transparency Register: https://ec.europa.eu/transparencyregister/public/consultation/displaylobbyist.do?id=747450344679-16
The pdf downloadable under “List of meetings with the European Commission” contains only one meeting that does not include Henrik Hololei.
The Commission rules applicable to Hololei’s travels https://rail-research.europa.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Decision-11_2018-Annex_C_2017_5323_F1_ANNEX_EN.pdf.pdf
2.9. Expenses paid by organisers; accommodation and meals provided by others
If all or part of the expenses connected with a mission are to be met by outside organisers, the authorising officer by delegation must check in advance that there are no potential conflicts of interest and confirm the fact when drawing up the mission order.
If no conflict of interest has been identified and the mission order has been signed by the line manager, the question of conflict of interest may only be examined by investigating authorities, in exceptional circumstances.
If meals, accommodation and/or subsistence expenses are provided by an EU Institution or another administration or organisation, staff members must declare the fact in their draft mission order and without fail in their statement of expenses. A corresponding deduction will be made.
In compliance with the relevant ethical rules, any fees or other payments received from other bodies, including any subsistence allowance, must also be declared in the draft mission order and/or statement of expenses and will be deducted from the balance for the mission (see also section 4.2. GIFTS OR PAYMENTS OFFERED TO STAFF).
It’s unacceptable if Commission officials accept free flights worth tens of thousands of euros from lobby organisations. During ongoing negotiations this might constitute attempted bribery and should be investigated.