European ombudsman to probe Henrik Hololei free plane ticket claims


European Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly is launching a probe into European Commission officials' flights paid for by companies and foreign governments after Politico ran a story last week alleging that EU transport chief Henrik Hololei had accepted free plane tickets from the Qatari government while his team was negotiating the details of an aviation deal impacting Qatar's national airline.

Hololei, the European Commission's director-general for mobility and transport, flew business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015-2021, six flights of which occurred while negotiations were being held over the state-owned airline's EU market access and four in turn of which were paid for by either the Qatari government or individuals linked to it, Politico reported last week.

On Monday, the online portal reported O'Reilly was launching inquiry into Commission officials' flights, noting that while the European Commission claims that Hololei's flights were "authorized and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules" and has stressed that there was no conflict of interest involved as he himself was not the one negotiating the aviation deal, Hololei is nonetheless head of the Commission's transport department, which was involved in the negotiations and has access to sensitive data.

The European ombudsman was slated to publish a letter Monday morning announcing "the opening of an inquiry into how the Commission deals with requests for business trips by its senior staff members that are paid for by third parties."

Commission spokesperson Eric Marmer said that the Commission "will of course respond" to the ombudsman's questions, and added that it will start cracking down on free trips to non-EU countries, limiting them to international events organized by the U.N., the G7 and G20 and official events organized by EU member states.

The ombudsman will ask the Commission how it plans to update its business trip-related rules as well as to detail travel costs that have been paid by third parties since 2021, an official familiar with the matter told Politico.

Hololei has served as the Commission's director-general for mobility and transport since 2015.

Last December, Belgian police revealed that European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili had been arrested on corruption charges in a scandal, dubbed "Qatargate," involving several other European Parliament officials.

Later that month, Estonian MEPs Andrus Ansip and Urmas Paet (Reform/Renew) refuted suspicions published in a French newspaper according to which Qatar may have influenced how they voted on a resolution concerning the country.

Read the article at ERR.