EU transport chief should step aside over free Qatar flights, insiders say
Commission officials told POLITICO Henrik Hololei should stop work on transport policy while he’s under investigation.
The EU’s embattled top transport official, Henrik Hololei, is facing calls from his own colleagues to step aside pending an inquiry into his decision to accept free flights to Qatar while his team struck a major deal with the Gulf state.
The European Commission is investigating whether Hololei broke the rules by accepting the tickets and clearing himself of any conflict of interest. The EU executive has so far stopped short of sanctioning Hololei over the free Qatar Airways flights, which were first revealed by POLITICO.
But three Commission officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive staff matter, said Hololei should now step back from handling transport files pending the outcome of the investigation. Some even think he should have quit already.
"He should be moved out of his role into another DG [directorate general], for example the translation DG, which is vacant, or into a role as a political adviser," said one of the officials. "There is a reputational risk. We need to make sure the highest officials in the Commission are kept to the same standards as the lowest staff members."
Another Commission official said: "The guy should at the very least be suspended from his role." A third said: "There was widespread shock when the story broke first; a sense that he had to go. At the very least he should be moved."
POLITICO revealed that Hololei, the director general of the Commission’s transport department, flew business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, including six journeys during a crucial period when the EU-Qatar open skies agreement was being put together. Four of these flights were paid for by the government of Qatar or a group linked to the country.
A Commission spokesperson declined to comment on whether Hololei should be moved, citing the ongoing investigation. Hololei declined to comment.
The private concern among Commission officials reflects growing dismay in Brussels at Hololei’s actions and the executive’s slow response. When POLITICO first approached the Commission to explain his trips, a spokesperson argued the flights were all in line with the rules.
Only later, as criticism grew, did the Commission decide to tighten those rules to stop officials accepting travel and accommodation from third countries like Qatar, except when traveling to top international gatherings such as G20 summits, for example.
Again, only after coming under further questioning from POLITICO and other media did the Commission confirm that the person who signed off on his trips was Hololei himself, prompting another change to the rules to stamp out this behavior, and triggering an internal investigation.
A spokesperson for the EU executive said the IDOC, the Commission’s Investigation and Disciplinary Office, was the "competent service" to investigate whether Hololei was right to clear himself of a conflict of interest, in order to make a "preliminary assessment of the available information and take further steps, where necessary." The IDOC can impose sanctions including termination of contract and referral to the EU’s anti-fraud office if it finds a staffer breaking internal rules.
The controversy over Hololei’s trips and his ongoing work at the head of the Commission’s transport department comes at a highly sensitive time for the EU. The bloc’s most powerful institutions in Brussels are already battling to contain the damage from the so-called Qatargate corruption scandal, which engulfed the European Parliament in December and led to multiple arrests and the seizure of around €1.5 million in cash.
Last week, lawmakers called on the Commission to speed up work on creating an independent ethics body to prevent future failings. Now insiders are focusing on a separate question — whether Hololei should still be occupying his post after more than seven years.
The Estonian official has been working as director general for mobility and transport since 2015.
But according to Commission Internal Control Standard No. 5, which was spelled out in 2005 by Hololei’s former boss, ex-Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, "a person holding a function classified as sensitive should no longer carry out this function after a maximum period of five years."
The rule states that while "the majority of mobility in the Commission is voluntary ... for certain categories of staff such as managers, those on sensitive posts or those serving in Commission representations or delegations, mobility is compulsory."
Two of the insiders said that the DG Transport position, negotiating visa deals with non-EU countries, did count as a sensitive position that would be subject to compulsory mobility.
Asked about Internal Control Standard No. 5, a Commission spokesperson said it was not a rule included in the institution’s official rulebook. "The Commission indeed encourages mobility for staff of all levels after a maximum of 5 years in general and aims to facilitate it through different actions. In certain cases, however, managers may stay in their position somewhat longer as there is no obligation to move them," the spokesperson added.