An EU court ruled Wednesday that veteran Maltese politician John Dalli was not improperly dismissed as European health commissioner after being confronted over his dealings with tobacco lobbyists.
The decision by the General Court of the European Union is a major setback for Dalli, who claimed that he was forced to quit by then-Commission President José Manuel Barroso in a meeting in Brussels in October 2012. The court cited evidence suggesting that the commissioner had agreed to resign, signing a letter to that effect.
Dalli had appealed to the court in December 2012 seeking the annulment of Barroso’s “oral decision […] to exercise his prerogative to require the applicant to submit his resignation as a member of the Commission.” Dalli also sought €1.9 million euros in damages.
According to the court’s ruling Wednesday, Dalli agreed to resign after Barroso presented him with a report by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) which revealed Dalli had been in contact with representatives of the tobacco industry in unofficial meetings which were conducted in Malta without the Commission’s knowledge.
The OLAF report concluded that Dalli’s meetings had put the image and reputation of the Commission at risk. But the investigation did not find any evidence linking Dalli to attempts by one of the lobbyists he was in touch with to seek €60 million from tobacco company Swedish Match in exchange for access to Dalli.
The Court’s ruling found that Dalli’s resignation was voluntary and not forced by Barroso; it also found that Barroso had decided that the commissioner’s position had become untenable and that the president had the power to force Dalli’s resignation under the Treaty of the European Union.
However, when Dalli signed the letter of resignation prepared for him by Barroso’s officials, the president was no longer required to invoke Article 6 of the Treaty, which states that “a member of the Commission shall resign if the president so requests.”
“[T]he fact that President Barroso asserted, increasingly insistently in the face of Mr. Dalli’s reluctance and hesitation, that it would be more honourable for him to resign voluntarily than to be asked to do so, does not suffice to establish the existence of the alleged contested decision,” the Court ruled.
“As long as a request for resignation under [the Treaty] was not clearly formulated, President Barroso’s words, however insistent they may have been, did not result in a request […] that was capable of affecting Mr. Dalli’s interests by significantly altering his legal situation.”
As health commissioner, Dalli had been responsible for the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, EU legislation covering regulation of cigarettes.
The 2012 Dalli lobbying scandal, referred to as Dalligate, remains a hotly contested chapter in the EU’s history, with information coming to light after Dalli’s resignation revealing that the push to water down the tobacco reforms had come from officials and political staff working for Barroso.
DG SANCO, the Commission’s health department which Dalli had managed, had wanted much tougher legislation that the tobacco industry had opposed, including a controversial plain-packaging system in which all company logos would be removed from cigarette packs.
The OLAF investigation into the affair was also fiercely criticized by OLAF’s own supervisory committee, which pointed to a number of shortcomings and suggested the speed with which the office proceeded with its investigation suggested a lack of political independence on the part of OLAF.
However, the General Court’s narrow legal focus on the way Dalli’s resignation was obtained appears unlikely to shed more light on the lobbying scandal and the way in which the shaping of the draft legislation may have been influenced by the tobacco industry.
Dalli was not available for comment for this story.