BRUSSELS – The EU ombudsman has demanded the European Commission explain the flights of Henrik Hololei, director-general of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE), paid for by Qatar, a letter published Monday said.
Hololei traveled a number of times between 2015 and 2021 to Qatar at the expense of its government or organizations close to it.
The free business class trips -- first reported by Politico last week -- came as his department was involved in negotiating an air transport agreement with the Gulf State.
The news of the paid flights emerged as EU institutions are in the spotlight due to a high-profile scandal at the European Parliament involving alleged bribery by Qatar and Morocco.
"In the context of the ongoing corruption scandal involving current and former MEPs and non-EU countries, the role of third parties and how they seek to influence EU public officials, as you are aware, has come under renewed scrutiny," ombudsman Emily O'Reilly wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
"The Qatari government and organizations close to it paying for travel expenses for DG MOVE's most senior official gives rise to legitimate questions around possible undue influence of the EU's decision-making in this area," she added.
The ombudsman laid out a series of questions for the EU's executive arm to answer by June 3, including how the visits were authorized and steps being promised to tighten rules around trips.
The European Commission has said Hololei's visits appeared to be in line with regulations at the time, but that it is going to limit the leeway for accepting such trips.
Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the executive "will of course respond" to the questions from the ombudsman.
"We are already revising the rules to severely limit the cases in which such hospitality is allowed," he said.
Depending on the answers obtained, the mediator may decide whether or not to open an investigation, following which she may make recommendations.
The scandal around the European Parliament -- dubbed "Qatargate" by the media -- erupted in December when Belgian police detained a senior MEP, raided addresses in Brussels and seized over 1.5 million euros in cash.
Investigators suspect an alleged bribery scheme in which Qatar and Morocco funneled money to EU politicians to influence decisions by the parliament.
Both Qatar and Morocco insist they played no role in the scandal.
The European Parliament voted in December to suspend work on all pending legislation relating to Qatar, including the air transport pact and a visa liberalization deal.