A new scandal is brewing in the European Union after POLITICO reported that a top transport official received free flights from the Qatari government while his team negotiated a major aviation deal vital to the Gulf state’s own airline.

According to Politico, the Estonian Henrik HololeiDirector-General of the Commission’s Transport Department, flew free with Qatar Airways nine times from 2015 to 2021, according to data obtained by POLITICO. Six of the free flights took place during the conclusion of the market access agreement, and four of them were paid for by the Qatari government or a group with links to Qatar.

Hololei declined to comment. A Commission spokesman defended Hololei’s decision to accept Qatar Airways’ free flights. “All missions detailed … were authorized and conducted in accordance with applicable rules,” the spokesman said, adding that potential conflicts of interest were “carefully examined and ruled out.”

POLITICO’s investigation follows revelations that Qatar and Morocco allegedly paid large sums of cash to bribe EU lawmakers to do their bidding in the European Parliament, allegations that have severely damaged the bloc’s reputation and institutions’ credibility. of the EU. A law enforcement investigation targeted senior Brussels officials, including current and former MEPs and their staff, while police raids yielded €1.5 million in cash.

One MEP connected to the investigation, though not charged with wrongdoing – Marie Arena – resigned hours after POLITICO revealed she had accepted free flights and accommodation paid for by Qatar and then failed to declare them.

The disclosures by the Commission list all Qatar Airways flights taken by senior EU transport officials between January 1, 2015 and January 1, 2022, a timeframe that includes the Open Skies agreement negotiations. The Commission was mandated to work on the agreement in June 2016 and signed the final agreement in October 2021.

In January 2017, a few months after Hololei’s team at the Commission began working on the air services agreement with Qatar, Hololei accepted free business class flights on the state airline Qatar Airways, from Brussels to Doha. The trip was paid for by the Qatari government, according to documents.

The final air deal gave Qatar-based airlines, including Qatar Airways, landing rights to most EU destinations, giving the carrier lucrative access to a market of 450 million consumers. In return, EU airlines received reciprocal rights to a market of fewer than 3 million people, but through a Doha airport hub strategically located between the megacities of Europe and Asia.

Free flights from Qatar

The revelations of Hololei’s free trip have put the Commission under renewed scrutiny over how EU policy chiefs handled lobbying from the Qatari government amid the ongoing scandal over alleged corruption in the European Parliament.

Meanwhile, Transparency International’s Nicholas Aiossa said the revelation of Hololei’s free flights “should warrant an independent investigation into the European Commission’s handling of its relations with Qatar”.

A Commission spokesman declined to respond to these criticisms.

The Commission spokesman said Hololei’s visit to Qatar was not part of the EU-Qatar air transport negotiations, adding that he was “never part” of the team negotiating the deal. However, Hololei headed the department working on the negotiations and consistently promoted cooperation with Qatar publicly.

The Commission spokesman said that “by default”, the foundation covers the expenses incurred by its staff on trips abroad. “In some cases, third parties may offer to cover all or part of the corresponding shipping costs,” the spokesperson said. If this is the case, “all forms of potential conflict of interest must be excluded as a condition for the authorization of the mission.”