In an unprecedented move, EU Health Commissioner John Dalli has resigned after an investigation connected him to an attempt to influence EU tobacco legislation. Anti-fraud campaigners have welcomed the move.
Transparency International has welcomed the "swift action" taken by the European Commission in regard to the allegations concerning European Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli.
Jana Mittermaier, Director of Transparency International’s Brussels Office, said it was a "worrying sign that despite the efforts made in recent years to clean up, selling influence and personal connections may still be a feature of EU lobbying. If that is the case, EU institutions need to take anti-corruption measures much more seriously."
The European Commission announced late on Tuesday that the commissioner would step down with "immediate effect" after informing Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso of his decision.
This follows an investigation by the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, into a complaint by tobacco producer, Swedish Match. They had raised concerns in May this year that a Maltese businessman had tried to use his contacts with Commissioner Dalli, who is also Maltese, for financial gain - by offering to influence future EU legislation on tobacco products.
Head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, said the sums involved were "substantial," though no money was actually exchanged. Dalli "didn't do anything to prevent, stop or report" the behavior of the Maltese businessman, Kessler said at a press conference on Wednesday. The businessman was apparently "well-known" to Dalli.
Dalli denies allegations
In a statement, Dalli categorically denied that he was "in any way aware of any of these events."
"I am taking all action open to me to ensure that these unfounded conclusions will be proved completely false," he added.
The OLAF report "did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation of Mr Dalli, but did consider that he was aware of these events." The report is now being sent to the Maltese judiciary, which will decide whether or not to take further action.
Such high-level resignations are unusual in the EU. It was as far back as 1999 that the last European Commissioner was forced to resign.
Welcomed by campaigners
The resignation of John Dalli was welcomed by the president of the European Liberals, Sir Graham Watson, who is also a member of the European parliament.
"If former Commissioners had behaved in the same way, the Commission and the European Union would have been spared much embarrassment," he said in an email.
But members of the anti-tobacco lobby in Brussels expressed concern that the development could "further delay the review of the Tobacco Products Directive" (TPD).
Florence Berteletti Kemp, Director of the Smoke-Free Partnership, which advocates stricter controls on tobacco, said in a statement: "This is an unfortunate event, given the importance of the portfolio."
"Today we are witnessing a major potential setback in the TPD review and we call on the Commission, European Parliament and on member states not to let themselves be distracted from the goal of reviewing legislation to improve public health in Europe."
Dalli, a conservative politician. was first elected to the Maltese parliament in 1987 and later served as a cabinet minister for nearly 15 years, before being appointed as the EU's Health Commissioner in 2010.
One of the EU Comission's vice-presidents, Maros Sefcovic, will take over the Dalli portfolio on an interim basis until a new commissioner is put forward by the Maltese government.