The Director-General of the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) has been stripped of his diplomatic immunity and could face questioning by Belgian investigators in a case linked to the 2012 resignation of a European Commissioner in a lobbying scandal, officials said Thursday (10 March).
Giovanni Kessler, a former Italian MP and anti-mafia prosecutor, is suspected by Belgian authorities of illegally listening in to a phone conversation during his effort to unearth evidence in a corruption case involving the EU, known as Dalligate.
EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli of Malta was forced to resign four years ago after a probe led by Kessler linked him to a tobacco lobbyist at a time when the EU was introducing tougher anti-smoking legislation.
Dalli has categorically denied any wrong-doing and filed a complaint in a Belgian court that led to the demand that Kessler’s immunity be lifted.
“His immunity was lifted by the European Commission,” Eric Van der Sypt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office told AFP.
Many EU civil servants in Belgium are granted diplomatic immunity, in addition to paying no taxes in the country.
The European Anti-Fraud Office, known as OLAF, said with his immunity lifted, Kessler now had the option to bring legal action against the commission before the European Court of Justice “in order to protect OLAF’s independence”.
“This would be an unprecedented step, but one that is crucial in ensuring the independence and proper functioning of OLAF and, through OLAF’s investigative work, the protection of the EU budget,” the office said in an email.
Belgian authorities first demanded the Commission lift Kessler’s immunity in December 2014, triggering accusations that the commission was trying to delay the case.
John Dalli resigned as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy in October 2012.
A report of the EU's anti-fraud office OLAF which was leaked to the press in April 2013 claimed that a Maltese lobbyist had approached the tobacco producer Swedish Match and proposed making use of his contacts with Dalli to fix the EU export ban on powder tobacco (snus).
The report claimed that, while Dalli was not involved, he knew what was going on. The report also said that Dalli had put the European Commission's image and reputation at risk, and that inconsistencies in his statements, together with findings of the investigation, could be seen as a breach of his duty to uphold the dignity of his office.
But the OLAF report was branded as “amateurish" by centre-right European politicians who demanded the resignation of OLAF director general Giovanni Kessler.
Dalli himself said he would proceed with action at the Belgian Criminal Court in a case for defamation Swedish Match "for maliciously spreading fabricated information", and another in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg for the annulment of President José Barroso's decision to terminate his term as European Commissioner.