Europe’s Snuff Justice

ROME – Late last month, Brussels was rocked by the surprise resignation of European Union Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli over his alleged involvement in a tobacco bribery scandal. Dalli, the first individual EU commissioner to be forced to resign, has professed his innocence and even vowed to sue the European Commission, intensifying a dispute between the Maltese politician and his former boss, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.

The accusations are linked to the EU’s new Tobacco Products Directive, which was supposed to have been launched on October 22, under Dalli’s leadership. The directive would have imposed stricter controls on the sale of tobacco products in Europe, while preserving the existing ban on the sale of snus, a kind of chewing tobacco.

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While the directive would safeguard EU citizens’ health, it would also deprive the tobacco industry of billions of dollars in profits. And, after a four-month investigation, OLAF, the EU’s anti-corruption watchdog, concluded on the basis of “unambiguous circumstantial evidence” that Dalli was aware that a Maltese businessman with links to him had demanded a €60 million ($78 million) bribe from the tobacco company Swedish Match to lift the ban on snus.

Dalli denies any involvement in the affair, suggesting instead that Barroso sacked him to appease vested interests, and claims that his Maltese associate’s alleged corruption was simply well-organized entrapment.

In an interview with the Brussels-based newspaper EU Observer, Dalli insisted that the Commission was “lying” about the events surrounding his departure, and that he was forced to resign in an illegal manner. “I went to the meeting without knowing the agenda, and [Barroso] sprang this on me,” Dalli said. Barroso, he maintained, had read aloud the results of the investigation before demanding that Dalli either resign or face dismissal. When Dalli requested 24 hours to consult with his lawyers and to tell his family, he claims that he was given 30 minutes.

Whatever happened, the immediate effect has been to stall implementation of the Tobacco Products Directive, giving tobacco producers more time to try to influence it. Anti-smoking lobbies consider the affair – which helps powerful tobacco lobbies – a slap in the face of European consumers.

But “Dalligate” also raises questions about the functioning of justice in certain EU institutions. Swedish Match reported the alleged attempt to secure a bribe to the European Commission in May, at which point OLAF immediately began to investigate. On October 16, the OLAF investigators briefed a packed room of journalists about the results. The chief investigator, Giovanni Kessler, claimed that Dalli was aware that someone close to him was “using his influence,” yet he “did not attempt to dissociate himself,” and did nothing “to prevent, stop, or report it.”

Kessler added that the investigators were “truly certain” that illicit requests for a bribe had been made in exchange for changing a decision, and that Dalli’s name was used. “There is clear, unambiguous evidence suggesting that [Dalli] knew what was going on.”

But, as OLAF’s established policy dictates, the evidence has not been published. Indeed, not even people who are found guilty of fraud by OLAF and, in turn, dismissed from their functions can have access to – much less refute – the evidence against them. Denying a suspect access to the evidence used against them undermines internationally accepted standards of due process and the basic right of a person accused of a crime to know the accusation’s basis.

Regardless of the outcome in the Dalli case, European institutions like OLAF must change their procedures to ensure that all evidence is made public and available to the accused. The much-vaunted European principle of justice and transparency demands it.