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Top EU Official Flew Free with Qatar while Brussels Drafted Doha Air Deal

BRUSSELS — The European Commission is facing demands for an inquiry after POLITICO revealed its top transport official took free flights from the Qatari government while his team was negotiating a major aviation deal vital to the Gulf state’s own airline.

Henrik Hololei, the director general of the Commission’s transport department, flew business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, according to details obtained by POLITICO through freedom of information requests. Six of the free flights occurred while the market access agreement was being put together, and four of these were paid for by the government of Qatar or a group with links to Qatar.

Transparency campaigners called for an investigation into the EU executive’s links to Qatar and criticized Brussels’ ethics rules as too weak.

Hololei declined to comment. A Commission spokesperson defended Hololei’s decision to accept the free Qatar Airways flights. “All the missions detailed … were authorized and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules,” the spokesperson said, adding that potential conflicts of interest were “carefully considered and excluded.”

POLITICO’s investigation follows revelations that Qatar and Morocco allegedly paid large sums of cash to bribe EU lawmakers to do their bidding in the European Parliament, claims that have severely damaged the bloc’s reputation and the credibility of EU institutions. A law enforcement inquiry has targeted senior Brussels figures including current and former MEPs and their staff, while police raids yielded €1.5 million in cash.

One MEP linked to the inquiry though not charged with any offenses — Maria Arena — resigned as a committee chair hours after POLITICO revealed she had accepted free flights and accommodation paid for by Qatar and then failed to declare them transparently.

The FOI disclosures from the Commission detailed all Qatar Airways flights senior EU officials in the transport department took between January 1, 2015 and January 1, 2022, a timeframe which includes the negotiations on the open skies deal. The Commission was given a mandate to work on the deal in June 2016 and signed the final agreement in October 2021.

In January 2017, just months after Hololei’s team at the Commission began work on the air services deal with Qatar, Hololei accepted free business class flights on the state-owned airline, Qatar Airways, from Brussels to Doha — and back again. The travel was paid for by the government of Qatar, the documents showed.

Henrik Hololei, the director general of the Commission’s transport department, flew for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, according to details obtained by POLITICO | Rodrigo Antunes/EPA-EFE

The final aviation deal granted Qatar-based airlines, including Qatar Airways, landing rights at most EU destinations, offering the carrier lucrative access to a market of 450 million consumers. In return, EU airlines got reciprocal rights for a market of fewer than 3 million people, but through a Doha airport hub that’s strategically located between the megacities of Europe and Asia.

The Commission spokesperson said Hololei’s visit to Qatar was not part of the EU-Qatar air transport negotiations, adding that he “has never been part” of the group negotiating the deal. However, Hololei ran the department working on the negotiations and has consistently promoted collaboration with Qatar in public.

In February 2019, he praised the “honest engagement and open dialogue” between the State of Qatar and the EU, and in June 2019 he met Qatar’s Transport Minister Jassim Saif Ahmed Al-Sulaiti, when the pair discussed “means of enhancing Qatar-European Commission relations in the fields of civil aviation and transportation.”

The Commission spokesperson said that “by default,” the institution covers expenses incurred by its staff on foreign trips. “In certain cases, third parties may offer to cover the entirety or part of the respective mission expenses,” the spokesperson said. If this is the case, “all forms of potential conflict of interests have to be excluded, as a condition for the mission to be authorized.”

While the aviation agreement was being drawn up, Hololei also traveled for free with Qatar Airways to a meeting organized by the Arab Air Carriers Organization (AACO) — which lists Qatar Airways’ CEO on its executive committee. These return flights in 2019 were in business class seats, paid for by the AACO. In November 2021, a month after the agreement was signed, the AACO paid for Hololei to travel with Qatar Airways to Doha, where he was speaking at the organization’s annual general meeting.

Another set of return Qatar Airways tickets in February 2020 took Hololei  a regular speaker at industry events — to the Centre for Aviation’s (CAPA) political and regulatory summit in Doha. These flights were paid for by the organizer, which has no clear links to the state of Qatar other than that the flight was booked with the country’s flag carrier Qatar Airways. The EU-Qatar aviation agreement was still being worked on at the time.

“Qatar Airways can confirm that as the host airline for both AACO and CAPA conferences taking place in Doha, guests/speakers were flown by the airline to the conferences as guests of the two organizations, as is customary when requested by the organizers of such events,” a spokesperson for the airline wrote in an emailed statement to POLITICO.

The government of Qatar did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for AACO said it was common practice to provide free business class travel for speakers at its events.

A CAPA spokesperson said the organization arranges transport for speakers “as is standard practice.” The spokesperson confirmed that Hololei was a speaker at the Doha event and that was why flights were provided. Qatar Airways was “one of our many sponsors,” the CAPA spokesperson added.

Free Qatar flights

The revelations of Hololei’s free travel put the Commission under renewed scrutiny over how the EU’s policy directors handled lobbying by the Qatari government, amid the ongoing scandal over alleged corruption in the European Parliament.

Vicky Cann, a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, said Hololei’s travel program “exposes how Qatargate is not confined to the European Parliament, how EU ethics rules are not robust enough, and how enforcement of current rules is far too weak.”

Meanwhile, Transparency International’s Nicholas Aiossa said that the disclosure of Hololei’s free flights “should warrant an independent inquiry into the European Commission’s handling of its relations with Qatar.”

A Commission spokesperson declined to respond to these criticisms.

The EU-Qatar aviation deal came under the spotlight after the Qatargate cash-for-favors scandal erupted in December, with MEPs voting to suspend all work on the file. In practice, that decision was merely symbolic since the accord is effectively already in force.

The European Parliament will only get a confirmatory vote on the agreement once all EU countries have formally ratified it, a process that is likely to take years.

The aviation deal faced heavy criticism while it was being negotiated — especially from European long-haul airlines and unions that argued it undermined competition. But the Commission has received support from some unlikely quarters since the Qatargate allegations emerged. 

The European Cockpit Association pilots’ union, a long-time opponent of the accord, said earlier this month that it was unlikely anything untoward happened during negotiations, arguing in a blog that the deal was a natural result of the Commission’s “ultra-liberal” approach to aviation.

Source : Politico