European ombudsman investigates flights paid for by Qatar while aviation deal was being negotiated

Transport official flew for free with Qatar Airways while team was negotiating airline’s access to EU market

European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has asked the European Commission how it plans to tighten its rules after revelations that a senior transport official accepted free flights and accommodation from the Qatari government as a big aviation deal was being negotiated.

The director general of the executive’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport repeatedly flew for free with Qatar Airways in business class when his team was negotiating an open skies deal to grant the airline access to the lucrative EU market.

The European Commission initially defended the flights on the basis that Henrik Hololei was not part of the negotiating team, but said it would tighten its rules around free travel, after the free flights were revealed to Politico Europe in response to freedom of information requests.

Ms O’Reilly, the former Irish ombudsman who is charged with investigating ethics breaches and malpractice in the EU institutions, on Monday requested clarity on how the commission plans to update its rules regarding travel costs that are paid by third parties.


“The Qatari government and organisations close to it paying for travel expenses for the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport’s most senior official gives rise to legitimate questions around possible undue influence of the EU’s decision-making in this area,” Ms O’Reilly wrote in a letter to commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

“I also noted with concern the explanation from the commission that since the director general was not part of the negotiating team, there was no conflict of interest in accepting the payment of his travel expenses by the Qatari government,” she continued.

“The public may not draw this distinction, given that the director general ultimately takes the responsibility for these negotiations.”

Ms O’Reilly’s letter asked for details of how many times travel costs for senior officials and commissioners have been paid by third parties since 2021, how visits were authorised and clarity on how the rules would be tightened.

She noted that attempts by third parties to influence EU officials have come under “renewed scrutiny” in the wake of the Qatargate scandal, which has seen two MEPs charged with corruption and money laundering in an investigation into alleged bribery by Qatar.

“A scandal such as this is a gift to those who would wish to damage or disparage the entire EU,” Ms O’Reilly wrote, saying scrutiny was vital “to manage the risks of conflicts of interest, whether real, potential or perceived”.

On Monday, the European Commission acknowledged that accommodation had been provided to Mr Hololei for free in addition to his flights to Doha.

As head of department, Mr Hololei himself had responsibility for checking whether his own free flight constituted a conflict of interest, a commission spokesman said.

“In light of the elements known at that time to the director general, the conclusion that he drew was that there was no conflict of interest and that’s why the mission took place,” said spokesman Balazs Ujvari.

The European Commission said 1.5 per cent of official trips overseas by its officials or commissioners involve contributions from third parties. In future, it intends to restrict what travel can be covered by third parties to G7 or United Nations events, a spokeswoman said.

In the open skies deal reached in 2021, Qatar-based airlines including Qatar Airways received landing rights in the EU, while the EU’s airlines were granted rights at a Doha airport hub.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times