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EU watchdog to review Commission foreign trips amid call for increased transparency

A Qatar Airways aircraft takes off with foreigners from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 9, 2021.
A Qatar Airways aircraft takes off with foreigners from the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on September 9, 2021. Copyright AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Copyright AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
By Alice Tidey
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The European Ombudsman has requested the Commission provide a list of all business trips partly funded by third parties made since 2021.

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The European Union's watchdog has asked the Commission to provide details on business trips senior staff members have made since 2021 that were partly paid for by third parties as Brussels continues to reel from the fallout of a corruption scandal that has engulfed Parliament. 

In a letter to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sent on Friday but published on Monday, the European Ombudsman office demanded the executive clarifies the rules it applies to determine there is no conflict of interest when business trips are paid by others.

This is after it emerged that the Director-General of the Commission's transport department (DG MOVE), Henrik Hololei, travelled a number of times at the expense of the Qatari government or organisations close to it between 2015 and 2021 despite his department being involved in negotiating an EU-Qatar air transport agreement.

The agreement, signed in October 2021, provided that all Qatari airlines would be able to operate direct flights to and from any airport in the EU and Qatar and vice versa for EU airlines. The agreement has not yet been ratified but has been provisionally applied. 

"The Qatari government and organisations close to it paying for travel expenses for DG MOVE’s most senior official gives rise to legitimate questions around possible undue influence of the EU’s decision-making in this area," Ombusman Emilly O'Reilly wrote in her letter.

A Commission spokesman told reporters that the vast majority of business trips staff undertake are paid in full by the executive but that in some cases, third parties can participate. This includes, for instance, the organisers of an event related to the trip.

According to the spokesperson, only about 1.5% of missions carried out abroad by Commission staff involve contributions from third parties. The figure then drops to roughly 0.1-0.2% for Director-Generals. 

If third-party money is involved, the Commission carries out an analysis to assess any potential conflicts of interest.

'No conflict of interest'

O'Reilly demanded the Commission provide her with their current guidelines for authorising trips partly paid for by third parties as well as details of the changes it is thinking of making. She also requested a list of all such trips made since 2021. 

The Commission said that the analysis carried out for Hololei's trips "had excluded any conflicts of interest," primarily because he was not part of the team negotiating the air transport agreement — an explanationO'Reilly said she "noted with concern", arguing that "the public may not draw this distinction, given that the Director-General ultimately takes the responsibility for these negotiations."

It then emerged on Monday that Hololei himself, as Director-General and therefore head of his department, carried out the conflict of interest analyses on his foreign travels that were partly covered by third parties, as he does for any such trip made by a member of his staff. 

In case of doubt when carrying out such an analysis, Director-Generals can seek advice through the executive's political hierarchy, the spokesperson said, which Holelei doesn't appear to have done.

The Commission has announced that it is reviewing its guidelines for foreign missions with the aim of tightening rules. One option, a spokesperson said, would be to restrict the number of entities that can participate in the funding of Commission senior staff's foreign trips to just three: the UN, G7, and G20.

The attention on the Commission's guidelines for foreign trips comes in the midst ofan alleged cash-for-favour scheme involving several current and former staff of the European Parliament and to which Qatar and Morocco have been linked. Both countries vehemently deny the accusations.

The scandal, O'Reilly said, has increased scrutiny on "the role of third parties and how they seek to influence EU public officials".

"To maintain a high level of public trust, I have emphasised the need for strong ethics rules and robust transparency in the interactions between EU officials and interest representatives," she added.

Foreign missions, she continued, may be necessary to further the EU interests, but "it is of the utmost importance that these arrangements are scrutinised in order to manage the risks of conflicts of interest, whether real, potential or perceived."

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