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Monday, March 20, 2023

EU watchdog questions EU Commission official’s Qatar-paid trips

The European ombudsman sought clarification on Monday from the European Commission as to why a senior official took several business trips paid for by Qatar, which came to light after the cash-for-influence scandal at the European Parliament.

Henrik Hololei, the director general of the Commission’s transport unit (DG MOVE), flew business class for free on Qatar Airways several time between 2015 and 2021, Politico revealed last week. The EU executive subsequently confirmed the flights.

Emily O’Reilly, who is the European Ombudsman, asked in a letter to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen published on Monday about such business trips, saying there was renewed scrutiny in light of the parliament scandal.

“I have already noted, in correspondence with the European Parliament, that a scandal such as this is a gift to those who would wish to damage or disparage the entire EU,” she said.

O’Reilly said Hololei’s trips came at a time when DG MOVE was closely involved with negotiating an EU-Qatar air transport agreement.

The Commission said the trips were authorised as Hololei was not part of the negotiating team and so no conflict of interest was identified.

“The public may not draw this distinction, given that the Director-General ultimately takes the responsibility for these negotiations,” O’Reilly wrote.

The Commission has said it is reviewing its guidelines.

O’Reilly said she wanted answers to certain questions by June 3, such as on transparency, on the process under which such trips are authorised and on any trips taken by other EU officials paid for by third parties.

Belgian authorities have detained two EU lawmakers, with a third held in Italy, on charges that they and others linked to the European Parliament received cash and gifts from Qatar in return for influence over decision-making. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.


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