The dispute between former Health Commissioner John Dalli and Commission President José Manuel Barroso turned personal yesterday (24 October) as the pair traded legal threats.

Dalli quit during a meeting with Barroso on 16 October after the EU’s anti-fraud office, OLAF, linked him to Maltese entrepreneur Silvio Zammit.

Zammit is alleged to have asked snuff giant Swedish Match for €60 million in return for persuading Dalli to change the EU's draft tobacco directive.

Dalli told a televised press conference in Brussels yesterday that he would challenge the decision by Barroso to ask him to resign and also the findings of OLAF.

No choice but to resign

Dalli said he had no option but to resign, since Barroso could otherwise have sacked him. “The door was open, and I was either going to walk through it or be thrown out of it,” he said. Under the Lisbon Treaty the Commission president can demand the removal of a commissioner.

Dalli said he has still not received an explanation of the facts underlying the OLAF report. “The least one could expect from their civil rights is to be told – when an action is taken against them – what is the basis of that action,” he said.

The former commissioner said that the precise nature of his challenge was yet to be determined, since he had not seen the OLAF report.

"I want to clear my name. The decision taken by Barroso is very serious. It will damage my whole future and that of my family. It is not a question whether I get my job back or not. All that I ask is that Barroso rectifies the situation," said Dalli, of Malta.

“I am informed that up until Monday night the supervisory authority which is supposed to vet all OLAF reports before they go out have not yet approved the OLAF report [in this case]. In fact there was some disapproval by some at the content of the report,” Dalli added.

OLAF resignation reported

The chair of OLAF's advisory board stepped down two days ago, apparently in connection with the Dalli caise, the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

"Christiaan Timmermans resigned because he failed to properly inform the board about the details of Dalli's alleged misconduct before handing the information to the Maltese authorities," FAZ reported.

Dalli replied to a specific allegation that he failed to register a meeting with young Maltese lawyer acting as a lobbyist, saying that at the time of the meeting he had no information that she was lobbying and he believed she was simply information gathering with a view to pitching her services later.

“Meeting people is part of being informed, whilst many of those meetings are not substantial, or just involve asking you a question. I have no regrets. I did nothing that in any way influenced my decisions,” Dalli insisted.

Barroso warns Dalli to be discreet

Barroso himself sent a letter to Dalli yesterday insisting that “no further question arises about the effectiveness of your resignation.” The Commission president said that since Dalli made the declaration of resignation before the director general of the legal service, it was “irrevocable”.

Barroso chastised Dalli for “insinuations” on the progress of the revised directive on tobacco. He reminded the former Commissioner that indiscretion in relation to his former portfolio could result in legal action under the rules governing the Commission. Such an action could see Dalli’s pension rights withdrawn.

Dalli said that the letter “changes nothing”.

“I will naturally be discussing it with my lawyer. It gives no satisfaction and gives no reason why I should resign and I would expect that … I was forced to resign. I have said he can go to a procedure [forcing my resignation], he has the right to do that, and then I will give him resignation in writing,” Dalli said.

Uncertainty over tobacco legislation

He continued to raise doubts about the power of the tobacco lobby in Brussels and the potential for the tobacco directive to be brought out this year.

“I only know they [tobacco lobbyists] have been meeting all of the Commission in the past months, because many of the services have been informing me of an onslaught in the Commission by the tobacco lobby on other commissioners and services,” Dalli said.

He said that he saw no reason to delay the inter-service consultation on the tobacco directive update, which was scheduled to go ahead this week.

The Commission has indicated it wants a new Commissioner in place before sending the directive to consultation.

“The fear is that that could push the issue out of the parliamentary agenda before the election, which would push it into the next legislature which means that it would start from scratch,” Dalli said.

Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly insisted that there would be no delay and that the revamped tobacco directive would be enacted by the end of the year as planned.