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EU transport chief given new role after taking free Qatar flights

Henrik Hololei, director general of the European Commission’s transport department, was moved to a new non-managerial role after details emerged that he accepted free flights and accomodation from the Gulf state.
Qatar Airways plane

The European Union’s transport chief, who accepted free flights and accommodation in Qatar while his team negotiated an aviation deal with the Gulf state, has been moved to another post at his own request, the European Commission said on Wednesday.

Henrik Hololei, director general of the European Commission’s transport department, was moved to a new non-managerial role at the commission, which stopped short of accusing him of wrongdoing. He took nine free Qatar Airways flights between 2015 and 2021, POLITICO reported at the beginning of March. Although that did not break commission rules, Hololei is subject to an internal investigation, and critics have accused him of a conflict of interest. 

The commission confirmed Wednesday that the Estonian official would move from his role on April 1. A POLITICO report earlier that day suggested he would leave the transport department, known as DG MOVE, to become a political adviser with no management responsibility in the DG INTPA, which oversees international partnerships. 

A European Commission spokesperson told Al-Monitor, “We also mentioned previously that there is an ongoing internal assessment process involving DG Hololei. In this regard, please note that the College decision was taken without prejudging in any way at all his presumption of innocence.” The spokesperson declined to say when the investigation might conclude.

In an email to staff, Hololei wrote that in order to end the distraction, "I have asked to be moved to another position, which I will take up at DG INTPA.”

The controversy follows the revelations popularly known as “Qatargate” that emerged about European Parliament at the end of last year, while the Gulf country was hosting the FIFA Football World Cup. The scandal, which alleges European officials took bribes from Qatar in exchange for favorable policies, erupted last December when Belgian police raided Brussels addresses, detaining a lawmaker, confiscating computers and mobile phones, and uncovering over 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in cash. Four individuals — including Eva Kaili, one of the European Parliament’s 14 vice-presidents — have been charged. The legal case is ongoing. Qatar has denied involvement in the scandal.

The European Parliament has vowed to make several reforms to prevent foreign interference, including tightening lobbying rules for ex-MEPs.

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