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Into the dark

As John Dalli prepares to sue the European Commission over the shady events surrounding his resignation, Laura Greenhalgh investigates whether Brussels has finally woken up to the unseen influence of lobbyists.

The events surrounding the resignation of John Dalli from the European Commission have remained shrouded in secrecy since the Maltese commissioner for health left his post on 16 October 2012.

The Commission announced at the time that Dalli had “decided to resign” after being implicated by the EU’s anti-fraud office, Olaf, in an investigation into tobacco lobbying in DG health. According to the Commission, the Olaf report said Dalli was aware of an attempt by an associate to extract money from a tobacco company in return for influence on legislation. The Commission maintains that Dalli resigned to “defend his reputation and that of the Commission”.

Dalli has certainly taken steps to defend his own reputation and ensure that his political career remains tenable. He has vehemently disputed the events surrounding his departure and denied any knowledge of the alleged dealings of his associate. However, Dalli has also raised objections against the conduct of the European Commission, and last month it emerged he has filed a case in the EU General Court to overturn his resignation.

In the legal challenge, submitted on 24 December, Dalli says the termination of his office, decided by Commission president José Manuel Barroso during a meeting with Dalli, should be annulled with immediate effect. Dalli claims Barroso did not have the jurisdiction to make the decision and so it cannot be considered a valid resignation under EU treaties. Dalli also claims that the decision was based on invalid evidence, because the Olaf report did not follow proper procedures and he was not given sufficient opportunity to defend himself.

The fact that details of the legal case only emerged in February, four months after the resignation, shows how reluctant the Commission is to provide information on the Dalli affair. “We still have a growing number of inconsistencies and a growing number of questions,” says Ingeborg Gräßle, a German MEP from the European People’s Party.

The Parliament’s committee on budgetary control, of which Gräßle is a member, is examining whether the Commission and Olaf followed proper procedures. Both have so far failed to provide answers to questions put to them by the Parliament’s committee. This, Gräßle says, has prevented Parliament from getting to the heart of the affair. “Did the commissioner know [of the attempted bribe]? We know nothing. Therefore we cannot say yet whether the resignation was justified,” she says.

What the Parliament’s investigation has uncovered, though, are numerous other undisclosed contacts between Commission staff and members of the tobacco lobby. This has prompted four pro-transparency groups— Corporate Europe Observatory, Greenpeace, Lobbycontrol and Spinwatch— to push the EU to examine conflicts of interest more closely.

Their efforts were rewarded on 14 February, when European ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros announced he would examine the “revolving door” behaviour of EU employees—the movement of public sector staff into closely linked jobs with lobby groups or industry, and vice versa. Diamandouros has asked the Commission to list possible cases of conflicts of interest from the last three years, and says he may open an inquiry if he finds “indications of a systemic problem”.

NGOs and MEPs have also called on the EU to use an ongoing review of its transparency register for lobbyists as an opportunity to make it mandatory. The register has gained 5,549 entries since its launch in 2011.

However, an investigation by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (Alter-EU) in June 2012 identified 190 lobbying firms not on the list, and also found spending reports unreliable, with more than 50 entries claiming to spend less than one euro a year. “At present, the worth of the transparency register is not a big one,” says Gräßle. “We need a mandatory register, and we also need sanctions for violations.”

But she admits that this must be balanced with the fact that MEPs rely heavily on such groups, as the Parliament does not have in-house advisory staff. Alter-EU estimates that between 25,000 and 30,000 professional lobbyists roam the corridors of EU institutions. “We need the advice and knowledge of the lobbyists…but we also need the freedom to decide,” says Gräßle. “And from what I see in the Dalli case, the lobbyists did not want to give the political level the freedom to decide.”

At a Parliament workshop on 21  February, MEPs said it was important to recognise that these issues are not unique to Brussels. “Of course you have these scandals and you hear a lot more about it in the EU, but in reality we should be looking across the board to reduce the risk,” said Spanish MEP Inés Ayala Sender, from the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.

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