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EU commission tightens rules after Qatar free travel uproar

The European Commission announced Tuesday that it is tightening rules that allow foreign governments or organizations to pay travel expenses for its staff, a day after the institution conceded that Qatar had provided free flights and accommodation to a top official without independent oversight.

“From now on, stricter rules will apply to travel paid for by the organizers or third parties,” Dana Spinant, a spokeswoman for the European Union’s executive branch, told reporters in Brussels. The announcement came amid a major corruption scandal at the European Parliament linked to Qatar.

The online news outlet Politico reported that the head of the commission’s transport department, Henrik Hololei, traveled for free with Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021. Two flights were paid by Qatar; the others by lobby groups and conference organizers, Politico said.

The trips were made when the department, known as DG MOVE, was involved in negotiating an EU-Qatar air transport agreement, which was signed on 18 October 2021. Hololei did not take part in the negotiations, but he did lead the department conducting them.

The commission confirmed on Monday that Hololei had also benefited from some paid accommodation. It said there had been no conflict of interest. But under the rules in place at the time Hololei himself was the only person responsible for assessing whether his travel arrangements posed any ethical issues.

Spinant said that under the new rules, introduced Tuesday with “immediate effect,” department chiefs should consult with the institution’s policy commissioners or their senior staff about any paid travel offers, among other measures.

“We want to avoid any conflict of interest and any perception of conflict of interest at the same time,” she said. Spinant had said on Monday that a revamp of the rules was launched late last year but she gave no indication that the commission might be ready to announce changes anytime soon.

The European Ombudsman, the bloc’s official administrative watchdog, has also sent a series of questions to commission President Ursula von der Leyen, trying to establish whether there was any conflict of interest involved.

The ombudsman’s inquiries come four months after four people were charged with corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organization for allegedly accepting bribes from Qatari and Moroccan officials to influence proceedings at the European Parliament.

Both countries deny being involved but the EU parliament has suspended work on all Qatar-related files, including on an agreement to ease visa restrictions for some Qatari nationals, until an investigation is completed.