"Serious doubts" remain about events leading to John Dalli's resignation as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer policy after a report linked him to an alleged tobacco bribery scandal, a leading MEP has said.
Dalli has threatened legal action over the way the affair had been handled, and Hannes Swoboda MEP, leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, said today that there were "serious questions about a plot" against the former commissioner. He called for "full transparency" on the circumstances that led to him being forced to quit his post.
Maltese politician Dalli was asked to resign by commission president José Manuel Barroso last week following an investigation by the European Union's anti-fraud office OLAF. The report concluded that Dalli was aware of but did not report an attempt by a Maltese businessman to bribe the tobacco company Swedish Match by demanding €60m in exchange for influencing draft legislation.
The Financial Times
reported that, according to people familiar with the investigation, the businessman promised that Dalli would overturn an EU ban on snus, a smokeless tobacco product, in return for the money. However, OLAF found "no conclusive evidence" of Dalli's direct participation.
Swoboda suggested in a statement today that the affair "may have been mishandled" by Barroso and OLAF. "There are serious doubts about the entire process that led to Dalli's resignation," he said.
At a press conference yesterday Dalli said he was innocent. "I categorically deny I have done anything wrong or that any meetings I have had in any way influenced the decision I have taken on this directive. I deny that I was aware of any negotiations that could have taken place between the businessman and the snus producers."
He claimed Barroso denied him his right to seek legal advice and gave him no option but to quit. "I had no choice. This door was open. It was simply walk out – or be thrown." Adding the he had still not seen the report that led to his resignation, he said he was talking to advisers about taking legal action against the commission and OLAF.
While admitting discussing snus with a Maltese lawyer in January, he said he did not believe she was working as a lobbyist, adding that "When I'm in Malta I meet everybody. I talk to anyone who wants to talk to me." He said he "did nothing that in any way influenced my decisions".
Dalli said: "The decision taken by Barroso is very serious. It will damage my whole future and that of my family. It is not a question of whether I get my job back or not. All that I ask is that Barroso rectifies the situation."
In a public letter to Dalli yesterday, Barroso said the former commissioner's "complaints and accusations of illegal or incorrect conduct" were "incomprehensible". The president said Dalli had been afforded "several opportunities to react to the issues raised with regard to the OLAF investigation".
The commission has insisted that work on the forthcoming tobacco directive has not been affected but the prospect of delays has prompted claims from some of a plot by the tobacco industry to kick it into the long grass.
In his letter, Barroso warned Dalli against making "insinuations" about the progress of the directive, reminding him of his legal obligation as a former commissioner to "behave with integrity". Swoboda said the revised directive should be published quickly "in the interests of preventing further doubts about the commission's work".
Earlier this week Green MEP Michèle Rivasi said the review of EU tobacco rules was "long overdue" and strengthening legislation on labelling, health warnings and additives "should clearly be a priority". She said: "We implore commission president Barroso not to play into the hands of the tobacco lobby and to ensure the legislative review is presented as soon as possible."
In an article
, the secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, Monika Kosiñska, said: "We need to go the extra mile to ensure that policy-making reflects the needs and expectations of people living in Europe and not just those of powerful corporate interests".
Meanwhile, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
reported that the chairman of OLAF's advisory board, Christiaan Timmermans, had resigned after failing to properly inform the board about the details of the allegations against Dalli before giving the information to the authorities in Malta.