Top EU official switches jobs as Qatar questions linger

BRUSSELS (AP) — A top European Union transport official who accepted free flights and accommodation in Qatar has been transferred to another post at his own request, the European Commission said Wednesday, but it remains unclear whether the man is suspected of any wrongdoing.

The head of the commission’s transport department, Henrik Hololei, traveled for free with Qatar Airways nine times between 2015 and 2021. Two flights were paid by Qatar; the others by lobby groups and conference organizers, according to online news outlet Politico.

The trips were made when the department, known as DG MOVE, was involved in negotiating an EU-Qatar air transport agreement, which was signed on October 18, 2021. Hololei did not take part in the negotiations, but he did lead the department conducting them.

The commission launched an investigation into whether his actions constituted a conflict of interest and the inquiry was still ongoing as of Wednesday. Top officials at the commission greenlight their own travel expenses and no other oversight is required.

Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said that the EU’s executive branch had agreed to Hololei’s request and that he will become an “hors classe advisor” on international partnerships. The post is equivalent in grade to the one Hololei already holds. He starts the job on April 1. No further details were provided.

The European Ombudsman, the EU’s official administrative watchdog, has sent a series of questions to commission President Ursula von der Leyen, trying to establish whether there was any conflict of interest involved in the official’s travel arrangements.

The issue came to light four months after four people were charged with corruption, money laundering and membership in a criminal organization for allegedly accepting bribes from Qatari and Moroccan officials to influence proceedings at the European Parliament.

Both countries deny being involved but the EU parliament has suspended work on all Qatar-related files, including on an agreement to ease visa restrictions for some Qatari nationals, until an investigation is completed.

No link has been made between Hololei’s conduct at the commission and the affair in parliament but the incident comes as the EU reels from the cash-for-influence scandal dubbed “Qatargate.”