The curious case of ex-commissioner Dalli
by Alessandro Fusco
With the noise around the resignation of John Dalli from the European Commission having died down somewhat, a consultant with expertise in the health sector takes a considered look back at the events surrounding his demise
It was a seemingly quiet Tuesday afternoon in Brussels on October 16 when the news broke that the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, John Dalli, had announced his immediate resignation. The demise of the Maltese politician came as a shock to the usually austere EU institutions – it is quite unusual for members of the Brussels executive to resign, let alone to resign before the full facts are known. What was known from the beginning was that Dalli had been accused by the EU anti-fraud office, OLAF, of at the very least not having acted properly in a case of attempted fraud involving a smokeless tobacco company.
The OLAF investigation had been triggered by the allegations of a Swedish producer of snus, a moist powder tobacco popular in the northern European country but prohibited in the rest of Europe. Swedish Match, which is mainly owned by American and Swedish investment funds, had alleged that a Maltese entrepreneur who acted as an intermediary to Dalli had requested the payment of around €60m in return for persuading Dalli to change the draft legislation on tobacco, which the European Commission hoped to publish before the end of 2012. If this was not enough to monopolise the attention of Brussels' political circles, the subsequent bitter strife between Dalli and the commission and a suspicious burglary created further controversy.
Talking to the media hours after his resignation, Dalli accused José Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission, of having threatened to dismiss him if he did not resign, effectively forcing him to leave his post. This was forcefully denied by the commission, who warned Dalli that indiscretion in relation to his former portfolio could result in legal action. While Dalli insisted that he had not received any information from OLAF regarding the allegations, it was reported that the chair of OLAF's advisory board had stepped down because he had failed to properly inform the board about the details of Dalli's alleged misconduct before handing the information to the Maltese authorities. Meanwhile, three health non-governmental organisations involved in advocacy campaigns to update the Tobacco Directive reported that their offices were burgled two days after the resignation of the health commissioner, with laptops and strategy documents being stolen.
The Maltese government has already nominated deputy prime minister Tonio Borg as new health commissioner, but the nomination will have to be confirmed by the European Parliament, with MEPs expected to quiz Borg in November. This could be more than a formality, given Borg's past troubles over alleged homophobic remarks: in 2004, the parliament refused to confirm the nomination of Italian Rocco Buttiglione as a commissioner due to his controversial remarks on homosexuality and the role of women in society.
The only thing to appear certain at this stage is that the publication of the draft Tobacco Directive will be delayed until the new health commissioner is appointed, and this may leave too little time to get the legislation approved before the parliamentary elections in 2014. The delay would certainly please the tobacco industry, which opposes the implementation of stricter rules on plain packaging, new restrictions on smokeless tobacco products and the ban of tobacco flavourings proposed in the Tobacco Directive.
Alessandro Fusco is a consultant at the Whitehouse Consultancy based in London