European Commission president José Manuel Barroso. Photo: ReutersEuropean Commission president José Manuel Barroso. Photo: Reuters

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso has stood by his decision to ask former Commissioner John Dalli to step down, despite the “media speculation” over the EU anti-fraud probe that led to his resignation.

A spokesman for Mr Barroso shrugged off suggestions by Green MEPs that he would have acted differently had the commissioner involved in the investigation been German or French.

“The nationality of the former commissioner played no role whatsoever in Mr Dalli’s resignation, which was based on the conclusions of the OLAF (anti-fraud agency) report,” the spokesman told Times of Malta.

Earlier this month, two Green MEPs, José Bové and Bart Staes gave a press conference in Malta urging Mr Barroso to explain why he had failed to ensure the investigation on Mr Dalli stood up to scrutiny before he forced him to resign.

The nationality of the former commissioner played no role whatsoever in Mr Dalli’s resignation

They released a confidential report by the committee that oversees OLAF raising questions about the methods used in the investigation into Mr Dalli.

The report expressed “serious concern” over OLAF’s alleged instructions to a tobacco lobbyist to record a conversation she had with a protagonist in the €60 million case, Mr Dalli’s former canvasser Silvio Zammit.

Former EU Commissioner John Dalli.Former EU Commissioner John Dalli.

“Can you imagine if this story concerned a French or German commissioner? If they had been put out in this manner?” Mr Bové had said.

“As parliamentarians we cannot accept Europe acts in this way, which is why we insist on transparency.”

Reacting, a spokesman for Mr Barroso said: “President Barroso’s position on the reasons leading to Mr Dalli resignation – the conclusions of the OLAF report made the former commissioner’s position politically untenable – has not changed.”

Adding that it was closely following the “speculation” in the media on the case, the European Commission warned that “this political interference might threaten the independence of ongoing investigations”.

The spokesman stressed that,while Mr Dalli was presumed innocent until proven guilty, the Commission had continuously said that his decision to resign, in agreement with Mr Barroso, was motivated by the fact that it was politically impossible for Mr Dalli to continue to act as commissioner.

There were very serious allegations, the spokesman said, with a direct link to his portfolio that overshadowed his office, coupled with Mr Dalli’s intention to clear his name.

OLAF had started a thorough investigation after receiving information that a person close to Mr Dalli was asking for bribes in exchange for trading in influence – the alleged aim was to have the Commission change its rules on tobacco, particularly the nearly EU-wide ban on the smokeless tobacco snus.

According to OLAF, the investigation found “unambiguous circumstantial evidence” that Mr Dalli knew what was going on and that Mr Zammit was using his name to obtain bribes.

According to OLAF, Mr Zammit asked a manufacturer of snus, Swedish Match, for €60 million for the ban on snus to be lifted.

Mr Dalli has always denied these allegations but agreed to tender his “resignation voluntarily” after a meeting he had with Mr Barroso on the findings of this report.

“There are many parallels both in national and international political systems where politicians sometimes have had to resign when their situation becomes politically untenable,” the spokesman said.

During a recent television interview, the head of the Commission representation in Malta, Martin Bugelli, said the Commission’s stand on this issue had always been consistent.

Saying that resignations due to political responsibility were common, Mr Bugelli said the Commission had always refrained from putting pressure on authorities conducting independent investigations into matters of fraud and trading in influence.

“What is different in this case and where there are no precedents is the level of local hype and trial by the media going on in Malta,” Mr Bugelli said.

As a result of the OLAF investigation, Mr Zammit has been arraigned in court on fraud and trading-in-influence charges.

Mr Dalli has been interrogated by the police but no criminal charges have been brought against him.

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