Conspiracy theories are running rampant today about the reason for health commissioner John Dalli's sudden departure from the European Commission on Tuesday. An evasive press conference by the European Commission and the EU anti-fraud office OLAF yesterday didn't do much to quell the speculation.
Some people are suggesting that Dalli could have been the victim of a set-up by the invisible hand of big tobacco. Dalli himself has floated this possibility, suggesting tobacco companies wanted him out because he was about to propose new limits on cigarette packaging.
This morning saw new accusations, this time of a not-so-invisible hand. Last night the offices of two anti-tobacco campaign groups – the SmokeFree Partnership and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) – were broken into and ransacked. The burglars did damage to the offices, stealing several laptops, petty cash and bank cards. Three of the four laptops stolen belonged to people working specifically on tobacco control.
The two offices are in the same building, but they are on different floors. None of the other offices in the eight-story building were burglarised. An EPHA statement said it appears to have been “not opportunistic, but a professional and well-equipped team.”
"Both electronic and physical files were targeted including policy and strategy documents, as well as confidential internal documents relating to EPHA's organisation and staff," the statement added. A representative from the European Respiratory Society, which shares an office with the SmokeFree Partnership, said "in light of the evidence we feel we have legitimate reason to suspect the intrusion was well-planned, researched and targeted."
Given that the break-in came just hours after ex-comissioner Dalli suggested that the tobacco lobby could be behind his unceremonious dismissal from the Commission, the suspicions of foul play were almost immediate. EPHA said that while it is too early to say whether the break-in is related to to the imminent new tobacco legislation and Dalli's resignation, “it has clearly affected our ability to be continuing the public debate on this important issue at this critical time – [but] we remain committed to our position.”
Privately, one anti-tobacco campaigner told me “we're not believing in coincidences any more.” It is clear the anti-tobacco campaigners are quite rattled by this.
The tobacco lobby has been lobbying fiercely against ideas floated by Dalli to require all cigarette packs in the EU to have plain packaging with no branding and to be hidden from public view. A proposal for a revision of the EU's Tobacco Products Directive was due by the end of this year.
On Monday OLAF delivered a report to the Commission alleging that a “Maltese entrepreneur” (reported to be a local Maltese politician in Dalli's centre-right nationalist party) tried to extract money from a Swedish tobacco company in return for persuading Dalli to change his tobacco proposals to end the EU ban on snus - a form of smokeless tobacco. OLAF says Dalli was aware of this offer, which is apparently why he had to resign from the Commission.
Dalli, however, told New Europe newspaper yesterday in a video interview that he had in fact been forced by Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to resign, contrary to the Commission's version of events. He said Barroso demanded that he resign within an hour, and refused to allow Dalli to see the report with the allegations against him. And Dalli suggested that this all happened because he was heading toward requiring plain packaging in his proposal.
Anti-tobacco campaigners have been suggesting this as well. "If you look at when this complaint [by the Swedish company] was filed, it was around the time that Commissioner Dalli started to talk about a strong Tobacco Products Directive," Monika Kosinska of EPHA told me yesterday.
The tobacco lobby is fighting these allegations today, saying the conjecture that this was a set-up is baseless. Giovanni Risso, chairman of the European Confederation of Tobacco Retailers (CEDT), in a statement issued today, "We reject with disdain any attempt to delegitimize our right to represent the interests of over 700,000 tobacco retailers who represent over 1,500,000 operators.”
There is no evidence at this time that this is anything other than a case of impropriety by a Commissioner. OLAF said yesterday they investigated the possibility that this was a set-up and did not find any evidence to suggest so. Dalli is no stranger to these sorts of allegations, either. During his time in the cabinet of Malta's government, he was the subject of two allegations of nepotism involving alleged kick-backs to his brother.
But yesterday at a press conference, neither the Commission nor OLAF would say specifically how Dalli knew about the transaction, or even whether this knowledge was before or after the offer took place. In fact, they wouldn't say much of anything. They wouldn't even answer whether it is a specific offense in the code of conduct for Commissioners to know about such an offer and not report it. OLAF emphasized that Dalli was not involved in any way in the pay-for-play offer. The report has not been made public.
The whole episode is very strange, and last night's break-in makes it even stranger. The timing may have just been a coincidence, and it may have just been a run-of-the-mill burglary. Right now it is very unclear what is going on.
Dave Keating reports on the interrelated issues of environment, energy, climate change, transport, health, agriculture, fisheries and research for European Voice. In this blog, Dave brings you insights into the sometimes byzantine world of European Union policymaking as well as the equally confusing nature of life in Brussels. Originally from outside New York City, Dave has lived in Europe for six years. He can be reached at DaveKeating@economist.com.
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