Politico’s investigation into the spending of EU commissioners, whom it calls “opportunists” – in short, “hopping” – is generating pressure to overhaul the ethics system.
“Everything was done legally”: this is the universal response of the group of European commissioners, who accepted free accommodation in hotels from the governments of third countries, such as Qatar, Morocco, Israel and Jordan.
A Politico investigation looked at EU commissioners’ spending reports over the past three years and found that seven top Brussels officials accepted free accommodation from foreign governments.
At a time when the European institutions are already facing intense scrutiny from foreign influence following the Qatargate corruption scandal, the revelations will raise new questions about ethics at the highest levels of the EU.
Among those who took advantage of free hotel stays on business trips were the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, and Executive Vice-President, Frans Timmermans.
“Everything was done ethically”
In statements explaining their actions, the commissioners’ offices said they all took advantage of the offer of free housing, in accordance with the official code of conduct.
But transparency advocates say the Commission, which is the executive arm of the EU, needs to rewrite the rules.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable,” said Nick Aiossa, EU head of policy and advocacy at Transparency International. “I don’t think commissioners or officials should receive travel or benefits.”
The revelations follow a Politico investigation into the commission’s former transportation chief, Henrik Hololei, which eventually led to his resignation and prompted officials to tighten the rules.
Hololei accepted free travel with Qatar Airways at a time when his team was negotiating an “open skies” deal with the Gulf state.
Politico’s new analysis found that the practice of accepting free accommodation was most widespread during commissioners’ business trips to the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia.
When asked about free hotel stays, the offices of the seven Commission members confirmed that they accepted paid accommodation from foreign governments, but argued that sometimes allowing a third country to cover the cost was standard diplomatic practice. and consistent with the Guidelines.
The code of ethics was last updated in 2018. Its goal is to provide guidelines for commissioners on how to handle issues ranging from conflict of interest to transparency and integrity. Violations may result in a reprimand by the Commission.
Politico’s analysis of travel spending since 2020 revealed a mixed picture, with some European commissioners occasionally accepting free hotel stays, especially when traveling to the Middle East, while others opting for the Commission to pay for accommodation costs.
When it comes to traveling within the EU, commissioners often receive free hotel accommodation from host governments.
However, the practice of free accommodation provided by non-EU governments is proving controversial in the shadow of the Qatargate scandal, in which top politicians allegedly received cash from foreign governments in exchange for influence.
foreign policy chief
Overall, Politico’s analysis found that commissioners accepted free accommodation from nine foreign governments in the past three years.
Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign policy, plays an important role in shaping Brussels’ policies towards countries outside the bloc. He received free accommodation on working visits to Qatar and Uzbekistan, as well as twice to Jordan, according to public records.
Responding to questions about Borrell’s travels, a Commission spokesman said the high representative “has to carry out a lot of missions in third countries” to fulfill his duties and represent the EU.
“The cost of their missions is covered for the most part by the Commission,” the spokesman said. In the specific cases of Qatar, Jordan and Uzbekistan, “the accommodation was covered by the respective national authorities, in accordance with diplomatic hospitality.”
more free rides
Other commissioners have also occasionally received free hotel accommodation.
As part of a briefing tour on the bloc’s Recovery Fund lending strategy, Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn spent the night in Qatar and one night in Kuwait in early 2022.
“All expenses were covered by the Commission, with the exception of accommodation, which was covered by the respective national authorities in accordance with diplomatic hospitality,” the Commissioner’s office confirmed, also noting that this was “acceptable in accordance with the code of conduct”. and that Khan stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel.
And the Vietnamese government hosted the Commission’s executive vice-president, Frans Timmermans, on a trip last year.
“It is customary for the Vietnamese government to do this with high-level visitors, and accepting this type of hospitality is in line with the commissioners’ code of conduct,” said a statement from Timmermans’ office.
Margaritis Schinas in the United Arab Emirates
Meanwhile, Vice President Margaritis Schinas accepted a free stay from the United Arab Emirates in 2021 when he attended the Dubai Expo and visited Abu Dhabi to meet with officials, the investigative network Follow the Money first reported, which also reviewed the trips of the commissioners to Qatar.
“The State of the Emirates provided accommodation, in accordance with the established practice/diplomatic protocol, to all the VIPs who participated in the Expo, since they had already put in place all the necessary logistical means that facilitated the participation in the event”, his office said. Strings, when asked about the trip.
Eric Mamer, the commission’s chief spokesman, said the approach to accepting free travel and hospitality was “clearly laid out” in the code of conduct. But, he added, “whether or not we accept an invitation from a third party depends on the circumstances.”
The vast majority of commissioners did not specifically disclose that a third party paid their expenses; instead, they simply recorded in public travel records that “zero” was spent on accommodation on a particular trip…
A rare exception is Kadri Simson, the commissioner who oversees energy policy. In his public report, he noted in the comments section that during a trip to Egypt in June 2022, the local government “offered accommodation.”
Although all groups of commissioners argued that foreign government free hotel stays met the rules laid out in the EU’s code of conduct, this is not enough to satisfy transparency advocates.
“If the rules don’t explicitly forbid it,” said Aiossa of Transparency International, “then they should be reviewed.”