The speed of John Dalli's departure is its most striking feature. His resignation from the post of the European commissioner for health and consumer policy came out of the blue, which is not the European Union's way of doing things.
Dalli is not the first European commissioner to be accused of wrong-doing, but he is the first to have resigned because of such accusations. Over the years we have grown accustomed to European commissioners shrugging off their accusers, toughing things out, facing down hearings in the European Parliament and generally digging in their heels.
Back in 1999, it was Edith Cresson's refusal to resign, in the face of accusations of nepotism and improper influence, that obliged the whole of the rest of the college of European commissioners to resign en masse. The rules at that time did not envisage one commissioner resigning – it was simply unthinkable.
Those rules were subsequently changed, and when Romano Prodi took over as Commission president he exacted from each commissioner a promise to resign if required. But still there were no actual resignations – though the Eurostat scandal was probably the moment when commissioners were most vulnerable. Pedro Solbes hung on, saying he could not be held responsible for what he did not know. Gunter Verheugen was an embarrassment to the rest of the college because he denied a relationship with Petra Erler, the woman he had promoted in his private office, but he saw out the rest of his second five-year term.
Dalli, on the other hand, has gone without a fight. Note that that final report from the EU's anti-fraud office, OLAF, was submitted to the Commission only on Monday 15 October.
To those made cynical by the Commission's usual way of doing business, the swiftness of his journey to the exit-door will confirm the Maltese commissioner's guilt.
The less cynical might note that Dalli himself, in a resignation statement that he could not put out through the European Commission, protests that: “OLAF [the anti-fraud office] concluded that I was aware of these events basing themselves ONLY on circumstantial evidence.
“I deny categorically that I was in any way aware of any of these events. I am taking all action open to me to ensure that these unfounded conclusions will be proved completely false.”
So he is fighting – though not from within the college of Commissioners. It could be that he was not given a choice and that the Commission President José Manuel Barroso invoked his power to require a resignation. The message that Barroso sent to staff on Tuesday evening was ambiguous on this point. The president wrote: “In consultation with me, [my emphasis] Mr Dalli has decided to resign to protect the reputation of the Commission and to be able to take action to protect his own reputation.”
Clearly the president's preoccupation is with the Commission's reputation rather than Dalli's: hence the lines in his message to staff that “the Commission's decision-making process and the position of the services concerned have not been affected at all by the matters under investigation”.
Here, Barroso is talking about the services that are involved in the legislation on tobacco products. But there is another service that is very much affected: OLAF. The anti-fraud office's reputation is on the line – at the very moment that its governing statute is being negotiated. OLAF has brought down a commissioner: if the charges are not subsequently vindicated, it is hard to see OLAF escaping reprisals.
But that is for the weeks and months to come. In the next few hours, before the next edition of the newspaper goes to print, my principal concern will to be to explore how Dalli's resignation might disrupt legislative proposals and other initiatives across his various policy responsibilities. Another challenge will be to get some clues as to who might be nominated by the Maltese government to replace him. Lawrence Gonzi's centre-right government hangs by the thinnest of threads, so it may be that he will avoid nominating someone from his own parliamentary ranks.
Tim has been editor of European Voice since 2009, having joined the staff as deputy editor in 2004. He has been reporting on EU issues since he came to Brussels in 1998. His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of some of his colleagues is that, growing up in north London, he used to have violin lessons with the artist now known as George Michael.
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