EU reforms travel rules after transport chief’s free flights to Qatar
Commissioners or heads of cabinet will now have to sign off on trips for directors general.
BRUSSELS — The European Commission has revamped its rules regarding the travel practices of senior officials following revelations that the EU’s top transport bureaucrat signed off on his own free flights to Qatar.
A spokesperson for the European Commission announced at a regular briefing for journalists on Tuesday that EU officials had been informed in the morning that authorized travel paid by third parties will now be “limited.”
Furthermore, directors general — the most senior official in each directorate general — will have to consult the relevant commissioner attached to their DG, or their heads of cabinet, when seeking to approve expenses for their own missions.
“From now on, stricter rules will apply to travel paid for by the organizers or third parties,” a European Commission spokesperson said. Director generals may only authorize trips that are paid for by authorities in member states; international organizations like the United Nations or G7; or public and private universities when the mission is carried out for academic purposes.
The shift in policy follows revelations by POLITICO that Henrik Hololei, the director general of the Commission’s transport department, took free flights from the Qatari government while his team was negotiating a major aviation deal vital to the Gulf state’s own airline.
The Estonian official, who previously served as head of cabinet to former Commissioner Siim Kallas (father of current Prime Minister Kaja Kallas), 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.
The Commission has since said that the trips had been in line with the rules, and that all potential conflicts of interest were "carefully considered and excluded” at the time.
But on Monday, the Commission confirmed that the person who was responsible for deciding the travel plans did not raise a conflict of interest was Hololei himself.
The announcement by the Commission on Tuesday that directors general will now have to secure approval from heads of cabinets or commissioners comes a day after EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly opened a probe into how the Commission handles travel costs that are paid by third parties.
The latest disclosures raised further questions about the EU’s ethical standards at a highly sensitive time. Brussels is already fighting to contain the damage from the so-called Qatargate corruption scandal that has engulfed the European Parliament in allegations of bribery and money laundering.