The European Commission is rewriting its rules on staff travel expenses after POLITICO revealed that a top official accepted free flights with Qatar Airways while his team negotiated a major aviation deal with the Gulf state.
POLITICO reported on Monday that the director general of the Commission’s transport department, Henrik Hololei, traveled for free nine times with Qatar Airways between 2015 and 2021. He took most of these flights while his team was putting together a sweeping air agreement with the government of Qatar, which owns the airline.
Two of these flights were even paid for directly by the Qatari state, triggering concerns among MEPs over a potential conflict of interest. Others were funded by lobby groups and conference organizers.
A spokesperson for the Commission said it will be tightening its own rules in light of the revelations. While the institution has been reviewing its staff travel guidance — specifically to reduce carbon emissions — “for a while,” POLITICO’s report on Hololei’s flights has “provided an incentive to review also other aspects of the guide where further clarifications could be necessary,” the spokesperson said.
“The European Commission is in the process of tightening the rules concerning hospitality offered by an external event organizer to cover the mission costs of its staff members,” the spokesperson said. “Accepting such hospitality will be restricted to major international commitments e.g. the UN, the G7 and the G20, and to hospitality offered by Member State authorities in the context of official visits within the EU.”
If these rules had been in place at the time, the most controversial of Hololei’s free Qatar Airways flights would not have been permitted. Hololei declined to comment.
When POLITICO initially approached the Commission for comment on Hololei’s free flights, a spokesman insisted his travel was all within the rules, but gave no details of the process through which any potential conflict of interest had been managed.
In recent days, calls have been growing for an investigation.
Daniel Freund, a German MEP, had argued that the case should be handed over to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, or the bloc’s anti-fraud watchdog, OLAF.
“I don’t understand why anyone in the Commission is accepting free flights paid for by lobby organizations. I just don’t see how that is in line with the rules,” he said in a call with POLITICO.
A Commission spokesperson had previously said that all of Hololei’s flights were “authorized and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules,” and that potential conflicts of interest were “carefully considered and excluded,” a response Freund called “ludicrous.”
His colleague in the Green group, Irish MEP Ciarán Cuffe, who also sits on the European Parliament’s transport committee, said the revelations in POLITICO’s article — obtained through a freedom of information request to the Commission — raised “real concerns.”
“I will be seeking full details from the European Commission of free flights or other benefits given to staff working on aviation deals,” Cuffe wrote on social media, adding that it was “crucial that conflicts of interest do not arise.”