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The EU’s Qatargate scandal just keeps getting worse

Brussels has no right to lecture any nation about corruption.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

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The EU is still being rocked by the huge corruption scandal over the shady dealings between EU technocrats and petrostate Qatar. So much so that Cristiano Sebastiani, the head of EU civil servants’ union R&D, has admitted that the EU bureaucracy is ‘now in a very critical situation regarding [its] credibility’.

Sebastiani is right to be worried about the impact of the ongoing Qatargate scandal. Barely a week goes by without another EU politico being sucked into it. The latest Eurocrat in the spotlight is Henrik Hololei, the Estonian director-general of the European Commission’s department for mobility and transport. It emerged last month that Hololei took business-class flights to Qatar, paid for by the Qatari government, on nine occasions between 2015 and 2021. These were no random freebies, either. The flights occurred while the EU was negotiating an aviation agreement with Qatar, which was signed in 2021.

What is perhaps most scandalous here is less the actions of a single Eurocrat than the EU’s response to them. Since the scandal came to light, the European Commission has defended Hololei’s decision to accept the free Qatar Airways flights, saying that they were ‘authorised and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules’. Potential conflicts of interest had apparently been ‘carefully considered and excluded’ at the time. According to the Commission, Hololei’s visit to Qatar was not part of the EU-Qatar air transport negotiations, and he ‘has never been part’ of the group negotiating the deal.

This claim beggars belief. Hololei has been the director-general of the Commission’s transport department since 2015, when the EU began negotiations with Qatar. His team was conducting the negotiations.

Indeed, Hololei’s record suggests someone far from uninterested in the negotiations with Qatar. On numerous occasions he praised and promoted collaboration with Qatar. Back in February 2019, he publicly celebrated the ongoing ‘honest engagement and open dialogue’ between Qatar and the EU. In June that year, he met Qatar’s transport minister, Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti, in Paris to discuss, as the Qatari state put it, ways of ‘enhancing Qatar-European Commission relations in the fields of civil aviation and transportation’.

Those meetings between Hololei and Al-Sulaiti were hardly inconsequential. And they likely played a key role in agreeing an aviation deal that granted Qatar-based airlines landing rights to most EU destinations. In exchange for providing Qatar Airways access to a market of 450million people, EU airlines gained access to a market of fewer than three million people. The Qataris were no doubt delighted with this deal.

And yet the EU expects us to believe that Hololei played no role in negotiating this deal. A major part of the EU’s defence rests on the claim that his flights to Qatar were ‘authorised’ under its rules. Yet, as Politico reports, the man who ‘authorised’ Hololei’s free flights to Qatar was none other than Hololei himself. As a spokesperson for the European Commission has delicately explained, ‘the invitation and the context in which the director-general travelled provided the elements for him to make the assessment’ of whether there was a conflict of interest. Surprise, surprise, the assessment of the director-general, namely Hololei, was that the flights ‘did not amount to a conflict of interest’. He does appear to have been marking his own homework.

When Qatargate hit the EU last year, the Commission took a holier-than-thou attitude. It insisted that the EU has strict rules on staff members meeting lobbyists and on potential conflicts of interest. But these latest revelations suggest otherwise. If senior officials are overseeing and signing off their own conflict-of-interest cases, it is clear that EU institutions lack the capacity to police themselves effectively.

The great irony is that Eurocrats are always boasting of their commitment to the ‘rule of law’. They use the rule of law as a weapon to discipline opponents whose views do not align with theirs. Yet, when it comes to the EU’s own affairs, the Commission soon gives up on the rule of law in favour of making up the rules as it goes along.

This is the paradox behind the seemingly never-ending corruption scandals plaguing the EU. The EU bureaucracy is famous for its obsession with rule-making. It continually seeks to regulate every dimension of social life. Its philosophy could be summed up with the slogan, ‘If it moves, regulate it’. However, it is entirely unwilling to subject its own practices and behaviour to such regulation. The persistence of this double standard is the real scandal in the EU.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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