EU launches inquiry into transport chief’s free flights to Qatar – POLITICO
The European Commission is conducting an internal investigation into whether its top transport official breached EU rules when he signed off on his own free flights to Qatar.
A spokesperson for the Commission announced at a daily briefing for journalists on Monday that it is looking into whether Henrik Hololei, the director general of the transport department, violated the EU’s rules on avoiding a conflict of interest.
This follows revelations from POLITICO that Hololei accepted free flights from the Qatari government while his team was negotiating a major aviation deal vital to the Gulf state’s own airline.
The Estonian official flew business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, according to details obtained by POLITICO through freedom of information requests. Six of the free flights occurred while the market access agreement was being put together, and four of these were paid for by the government of Qatar or a group with links to Qatar, prompting accusations of a conflict of interest.
On Monday the spokesperson said: “We have referred the matter to our competent authorities in the European Commission, and they are looking into the missions that were performed with contribution from third parties.” She added that the internal probe will assess whether Hololei’s behavior amounts to a conflict of interest.
The Commission did not speculate on what actions it might take if Hololei is found guilty. The spokesperson said that sanctions will depend on the probe’s findings, and will be consistent with the EU’s staff regulations.
Under those procedures, if there is evidence of a breach of regulations, the Commission can issue a warning to the official; initiate its own disciplinary procedure; or refer the matter to a disciplinary board. Penalties range from a written warning to the removal of the official from the post and a pension reduction.
Last week the Commission admitted that Hololei was ultimately responsible for deciding whether his travel plans raised a conflict of interest, as this was the standard practice among EU officials.
But following POLITICO’s revelations the EU’s executive branch tightened its rules on trips paid by foreign countries.
From now on, directors general may only authorize trips that are paid for by authorities in EU countries, or by international organizations like the United Nations or G7; or public and private universities when the trip is for academic purposes.
In a further move to strengthen rules, directors general — the most senior official in each department — will have to consult their relevant commissioner, or their heads of cabinet, when seeking to approve expenses for their own missions outside the EU.
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