It’s a scenario out of John Le Carré, involving lobbying groups, “big money” and freelance spies, and it could seriously embarrass the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.
According to an investigation by OLAF (the European Anti-Fraud Agency), one Silvio Zammit, a Maltese businessman, reportedly proposed to Swedish Match, a manufacturer of cigars and Swedish chewing tobacco, that a draft European directive on tobacco might be modified – in return for an envelope containing 60 million euros.
The OLAF report was submitted to José Manuel Barroso on 15 October. The next day the European Commission announced in a press release that, following the investigation, Commissioner John Dalli, who was in charge of European tobacco legislation, had “handed in his resignation”. And the day after that the European Commission opened up its newsroom – a rare event – to OLAF’s Director General, Giovanni Kessler, who fed European correspondents some details from the enquiry.
Indefinite suspension of the draft directive
One immediate consequence of the resignationwas that the European Commission’s adoption of the draft directive on tobacco products was suspended indefinitely owing to the absence of a Commissioner who would be able to carry the “political responsibility”. The text was to enter its final drafting stage on Oct. 22, for adoption in the weeks to follow.
European anti-tobacco organisations immediately rang alarm bells. The SmokeFree Partnership, an anti-tobacco lobby, considered the resignation of the Commissioner “a very ill-timed event,” according to its director Florence Berteletti Kemp. The publication of the directive having been put off from one month to the next for over a year, anti-smoking activists saw the chances of it being adopted before the mandate runs out in 2014 melting away. If and when the draft directive is adopted by the College of Commissioners, there still remains a lengthy legislative process at the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament before a final vote on it.
Several computers disappeared
On October 18, employees of SmokeFree Partnership (SFP) showing up for work at 49-51 rue de Treves, in the heart of the European Union district, got an unpleasant surprise: during the night their offices had been burglared. Several computers had been stolen, and files had been rifled through.
Of about twenty organisations in the building, only three offices had been broken into: those of the SFP, the European Public Health Association, and the European Respiratory Society. These NGOs are at open war against the tobacco multinationals that they accuse of “blocking, amending and stalling” the new legislation, to borrow the title of a report of about a hundred pages on the tobacco industry’s lobbying that the SFP has commissioned from several anti-cancer organisations.
“A professional job”
According to the preliminary investigation, the burglars managed to evade the building’s surveillance system. They allegedly entered the eight-storey building through the roof, climbed down the facade and came into the offices off the balconies. They then, with no less than a dozen laptops tucked under their arms, left through the entrance.
In the wake of the burglary the political scandal has been expanding. After initially announcing that he was resigning voluntarily, former Commissioner John Dalli now suggests he was pushed. “The door was open and I would either walk out it myself or be forced out,” he told the euractiv.com site this week. The Commission claims the resignation was “offered” by John Dalli to President Barroso “in front of witnesses.”
A draft directive blocked repeatedly
The draft Directive has been blocked several times in recent months, including at the request of the Legal Service and the Secretariat General of the Commission. The hold-up has provoked anger in several countries, particularly Ireland, which has traditionally been at the forefront of the fight against tobacco.
John Dalli warned in April 2012 that the Directive would be “severe”, much to the delight of anti-smoking organisations. A few press leaks revealed that the proposals include keeping the ban on snus, a chewing tobacco made by the Swedish firm Swedish Match that is currently approved only in Sweden, under special dispensation.
Swedish Match, which joined forces with the Philip Morris group in 2009, is where the complaint against Commissioner Dalli began. The latter also intended to tackle the marketing strategies of the tobacco giants, which are reshaping cigarette ‘boxes’ with original designs to attract female customers in particular. The draft would in the end have imposed “plain packaging”, i.e. neutral and unsexy, along with a ban on displays visible in some tobacconists and newsagents stands.
Swedish Match brought its complaint for attempted soliciting of a bribe in May 2012. At OLAF, where enquiries can easily stretch over several years, the complaint was treated with unusual alacrity, and the final report was formally submitted to the President of the Commission only five months later. The report, which is not yet finalised, does not establish “any evidence of the participation” of the Commissioner, as put in the Commission statement of 16 October.
On Wednesday a spokesman stated that the Commission will present the draft directive “in the coming weeks”. That, though, will have to wait on the appointment of a successor to John Dalli. For the anti-tobacco activists, the chances that the text will land on the desks of the legislative review board before the mandates of the commission and parliament end are slimmer than ever. If the file is shelved until the next term, the tobacco industry will have won at least another year before the restrictive measures being considered are made into law. Yet another year, that is. Originally, the draft was supposed to be ready for the summer of 2011.
Big tobacco seeks to take advantage of Dalligate
The EU Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration, Slovak Maroš Šefčovič, has been tasked to temporarily take over as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, until Malta designates a replacement for John Dalli, which it is expected to do by mid-November. Šefčovič has told Bratislava daily SME that he aims to ensure that the new anti-tobacco directive, on which Dalli was working, “is adopted as quickly as possible”. Even more restrictive than its predecessors, the directive will pave the way for more severe warnings on cigarette packets and impose new restrictions on flavoured and electronic cigarettes.