ALBAWABA — In a letter published on Monday, the European Union ombudsman demanded the European Commission explain a top E.U. official's flights that were paid for by Qatar.
Henrik Hololei, director-general of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, travelled a number of times between 2015 and 2021 to Qatar at the expense of its government or organizations close to it.
Politico reported last week that the free business class trips came as Hololei’s department was involved in negotiating an air transport agreement with Qatar.
The news of the paid flights emerged as E.U. institutions are in the spotlight due to the December 2021 high-profile scandal — dubbed "Qatargate" — at the European Parliament involving alleged bribery by Qatar and Morocco.
Investigators alleged that Qatar and Morocco funneled money to E.U. politicians to influence decisions by the parliament, an allegation denied by both Qatar and Morocco.
The European Parliament voted in December to suspend work on all pending legislation relating to Qatar, including the air transport pact and a visa liberalization deal.
"In the context of the ongoing corruption scandal involving current and former MEPs and non-E.U. countries, the role of third parties and how they seek to influence E.U. public officials, as you are aware, has come under renewed scrutiny," ombudsman Emily O'Reilly wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
"The Qatari government and organizations 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," she added.
O’Reilly, who is charged with investigating ethics breaches and malpractice in E.U. institutions, may decide whether or not to open an investigation after receiving answers to questions she laid out for the E.U.'s executive arm to answer by June 3.
The European Commission initially defended the flights on the basis that Hololei was not part of the negotiating team but said it would tighten its rules around free travel.
"I also noted with concern the explanation from the commission that since the director general was not part of the negotiating team, there was no conflict of interest in accepting the payment of his travel expenses by the Qatari government," wrote O’Reilly. "The public may not draw this distinction, given that the director general ultimately takes the responsibility for these negotiations."
On Monday, the European Commission acknowledged that free accommodation had been provided to Hololei in addition to his flights to Doha, while also stating Hololei himself was responsibility for checking whether any of his free flights constituted a conflict of interest.
"In light of the elements known at that time to the director general, the conclusion that he drew was that there was no conflict of interest and that’s why the mission took place," said European Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari.