Commission’s alleged secret contacts with the tobacco industry under EU investigation

John Dalli and José Manuel Barroso

The European Ombudsman has launched an investigation into allegations that the European Commission has held undisclosed meetings with the tobacco industry, almost two years after the former health commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign over the same reasons.

José Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, was given until 30 September to send a reply to Emily O’Reilly, the EU Ombudsman, regarding meetings Commission officials allegedly held in secret with tobacco lobbyists.

The question she put to Barroso is whether the EU executive applied the World Health Organisation’s framework convention on tobacco control, which regulates the tobacco industry’s influence over public health policy making.

The WHO Convention’s Article 5.(3) obliges its signatories – which includes the Commission – to publish online lists of all meetings held with tobacco industry representatives, as well as the minutes of such meetings.

>> Click here to read Emily O’Reily’s letter to Barroso

A spokesperson for the European Commission confirmed to EURACTIV that Barroso had received the Ombudsman’s letter and said he will answer it “in due course”.

“But as already set out previously, the Commission considers that its legal framework and administrative practices are in full compatibility with the WHO rules on meetings between the tobacco industry and tobacco regulators,” said the spokesperson, Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, in comments emailed to EURACTIV.

The WHO guidelines, she added, “were fully respected by the Commission in its meetings and consultations with the tobacco industry when preparing the revision of the tobacco directive”.

Undisclosed meetings?

The Ombudsman investigation followed a complaint introduced by the Corporate Europe Observatory.

CEO said it found “mismatches” between the arguments invoked by the Commission to oust the EU’s former health Commissioner John Dalli in the so-called ‘Dalligate‘ scandal over tobacco lobbying, and its own code of conduct.

“When the Commission was asked why Dalli was forced to resign, there was a mention of UN rules on tobacco [the WHO framework convention on tobacco control] and that Dalli had not disclosed meetings he had had with lobbyists,” said Olivier Hoedeman, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO).

Under the UN rules, all meetings with tobacco industry groups have to be made public in order to limit as much as possible the lobby’s influence over health policy-making. The WHO provides clear guidelines to the signatories on how to implement those rules.

The European Commission being a signatory to the treaty, it was expected “to take these rules more seriously,” Hoedeman told EURACTIV.

However, except for the Commission’s health and consumers directorate general (DG Sanco), no information was provided on the meetings held with other Commission directorates and in particular those allegedly held with Barroso himself.

“So, we used the freedom of information rules to get an overview of what kinds between the industry and the Commission had taken place, and found out that there were undisclosed meetings including with Barroso’s cabinet and the secretary general [of the Commission],” Hoedeman said.

“Those were meetings at the highest level and very high ranking officials would have had to resign in the wake of the ‘Dalligate’,” he continued.

Unconvincing replies

Following the discoveries, the CEO demanded clarification from the president of the Commission and the secretary general, Catherine Day. Both sent “unconvincing replies”, Hoedman argued.

“Barroso’s reply to us showed that the Commission doesn’t take the UN rules seriously even though it is a signatory of that treaty. Catherine Day repeated the same line in her correspondence with us and at the hearings in the European Parliament.”

The CEO then decided to take the matter to the EU Ombudsman, hoping for clarification and more thorough explanations.

“Barroso will have to give a more convincing reply than what he sent to us because the ombudsman won’t be satisfied with that. The Commission can no longer get away with that. Either they will have to give a more convincing explanation or start doing things differently in the Commission: come up with an online system on all meetings and an internal set of rules to avoid undue influence.”

The Ombudsman’s investigation could take up to a year. At the end it can either come up with a set of recommendations or agree on a position with the Commission. In the worst case scenario, the Ombudsman submits a special report to the European Parliament, a “procedure which would force the Commission to change its rules.”

‘Timely investigation’

Hoedeman praised the Ombudsman’s office for its “timely investigation” while Barroso is still at the head of the EU executive.

“It’s important that this letter ends up on Barroso’s desk and not on the next president’s because this is his personal responsibility, he’s the one who made the choice to not take these rules seriously.”

This could also “get the Commission off to a better start,” CEO thinks.

Having in mind the “signal” sent by the citizens at the last EU elections, the new institutions will need to show more commitment to transparency and be more ambitious on building citizens’ trust.

“It starts with doing the right things on issues such as this one,” Hoedeman concluded. 

Emily O'Reilly, the European Ombudsman, launched an investigation demanding that the Commission:

  • "undertake a thorough assessment of how to implement the WHO Convention rules across all of its departments;
  • publish online lists of all meetings with tobacco industry representatives and minutes of such meetings;
  • implement a code of conduct on relation with the tobacco industry amending where necessary the relevant provisions of the Code of Conduct for Commissioners and the Staff Regulations;
  • ensure registration and disclosure of the identity and activities of tobacco industry lobbyists via the EU's Transparency Register."

The European Commission replied saying the WHO guidelines "were fully respected" during the meetings held with tobacco industry representatives.

"The Commission made public the minutes of the meetings that took place in 2011 and 2012 between DG SANCO, the main service responsible for preparing this legislation,  and the tobacco industry to ensure full transparency.  It also provided publicly available information to the European Parliament on contacts with the tobacco industry in response to questions following the resignation of John Dallli," said Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen.

The European transparency register came into effect in June 2011, as part of a series of efforts to boost integrity of the institutions under the European Transparency Initiative.

The register is a database of lobby firms, individuals, NGOs and other organisations working to influence EU legislation in Brussels. It currently has around 6,000 registered organisations.

In June 2013, the European Commission and Parliament appointed a joint working group to review the transparency register.

  • 30 Sept.: Deadline for Barroso to reply to the Ombudsman letter

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