European Ombudsman calls on commission to disclose Dalli documents

Emily O'Reilly criticises the commission's own follow-up on the so-called 'Dalligate' scandal and calls for the publication of internal letters and notes concerning the former health commissioner's resignation.

By Emily O'Reilly

15 Apr 2014

John Dalli 'resigned' as commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy in October 2012. This was just before the commission launched the revision of the tobacco products directive, which was in preparation for several years.

Earlier in the year, tobacco producer Swedish Match had complained to the commission that a Maltese businessman had asked it for money in return for seeking to influence the EU's prohibition of snus (an oral tobacco product only sold legally in Sweden). He claimed to be acting on behalf of John Dalli, who is from Malta. The commission informed the European anti-fraud office OLAF, which launched an investigation

On 16 October 2012, commission president José Manuel Barroso met Dalli. Soon after the meeting, the commission issued a press release announcing Dalli's departure from office. This sudden departure of the health commissioner caused much disquiet and controversy. Ten days after his 'resignation', the NGO Corporate Europe observatory asked the commission for all documents related to these events.

In January 2013, the NGO complained to my office that the commission had refused to release two letters from the former commissioner Dalli to commission president José Manuel Barroso, and two internal notes concerning meetings between the two men.

The commission explained that disclosing the letters and notes to the NGO would not only undermine an investigation that the Maltese authorities had undertaken in connection with Dalli, but that it would also undermine the commission’s own actions to follow up the matter. The commission additionally argued that some of the documents related to an on-going case at the court of justice of the EU.  

We inspected the relevant documents and concluded that the commission's arguments for refusing to disclose them were not convincing. In fact, the commission had not sent the documents to the Maltese authorities as evidence for their investigation. Nor did the documents contain any information that was not already in the public domain. One of the various channels through which the information entered the public domain was a commission press release.

With regard to its own follow-up, the commission did not refer to any further concrete investigation, inspection or audit in connection with Dalli's actions. As for the court case, the commission did not explain why information that is general in nature is rendered confidential merely because it has been submitted to a court. To sum it up, the commission failed to explain how disclosure of the documents would have undermined the investigation by the Maltese authorities, its own follow-up actions and the court case.

The European commission has to serve as a role model when it comes to openness, accountability, and good administration in the Union. This is a key precondition for winning the trust of Europe's citizens. At a time when public trust in the EU institutions is low, disclosing the documents about John Dalli's resignation would reassure citizens that the commission dealt very seriously with this case and set an example of transparency for future cases of great public interest.

The commission must respond to my recommendation by 31 July 2014.

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