Politico: Estonian EU official flew free with Qatar Airways while the EU drafted a deal with the airline

Estonian EU official Henrik Hololei, the director-general of the European Commission’s transport department, flew business class for free on Qatar Airways while his team was negotiating a major aviation deal with the airline, the global political magazine, Politico, reported.

Hololei “flew business class for free on Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021, according to details obtained by Politico through freedom of information requests. Six of the free flights occurred while the market access agreement was being put together, and four of these were paid for by the government of Qatar or a group with links to Qatar,” the magazine said.

Transparency campaigners called for an investigation into the EU executive’s links to Qatar and criticised Brussels’ ethics rules as too weak, according to the magazine.

Hololei declined to comment. A Commission spokesperson defended his decision to accept the free Qatar Airways flights. “All the missions detailed … were authorised and conducted in accordance with the applicable rules,” the spokesperson said, adding that potential conflicts of interest were “carefully considered and excluded”.

Qatar Airways’ business class. Photo by Qatar Airways.

Qatar and Morocco allegedly bribed MEPs

According to the magazine, Qatar and Morocco “allegedly paid large sums of cash to bribe EU lawmakers to do their bidding in the European Parliament, claims that have severely damaged the bloc’s reputation and the credibility of EU institutions. A law enforcement inquiry has targeted senior Brussels figures including current and former MEPs and their staff, while police raids yielded €1.5 million in cash.”

Politico says that in January 2017, just months after Hololei’s team at the Commission began work on the air services deal with Qatar, Hololei accepted free business class flights on the state-owned airline, Qatar Airways, from Brussels to Doha, and back again. The travel was paid for by the government of Qatar, the documents showed.

“The final aviation deal granted Qatar-based airlines, including Qatar Airways, landing rights at most EU destinations, offering the carrier lucrative access to a market of 450 million consumers. In return, EU airlines got reciprocal rights for a market of fewer than three million people, but through a Doha airport hub that’s strategically located between the megacities of Europe and Asia.”

Hololei became the director-general of the European Commission’s transport department on 1 October 2015. According to the Estonian Public Broadcasting – who also tried to get a comment from him and didn’t succeed – he’s the highest EU official of Estonian nationality.

Henrik Hololei, the director-general of the European Commission’s transport department, in Tallinn in 2017. Photo by Arno Mikkor, shared under the Creative Commons 2.0 licence.

Zero tolerance for political corruption

He has also been the head of cabinet for Siim Kallas, a former Estonian prime minister who’s held various positions in the European Union bureaucracy, including the position of a commissioner. Hololei has also been an Estonian economy minister.

Currently, he’s a member of the centre-right Right-Wingers party in Estonia. The leader of the Right-Wingers, Lavly Perling, told the Estonian news portal, Delfi, that she can’t give an assessment based on the article and can’t comment on the matter.

“I think we need to ask the person first,” she said, adding that she hadn’t been in contact with Hololei. “I think when he finds time, I’ll talk to him.”

However, she told Delfi that “everything that’s related to political corruption, we have zero tolerance for, and this is how it will be. But this story cannot be linked to it because there is not enough information.”

Hololei is not running for parliament in the upcoming general election, due to take place on 5 March.

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