EU officials were guilty of maladministration because they failed to be “open” about meetings with tobacco company lobbyists, the European Ombudsman has found.
The role of big tobacco in shaping EU policies on smoking has long been suspect, with a commissioner being forced to resign two years ago, and revelations about close links between retired commission officials and the industry.
The UN convention on tobacco aims to “protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke”.
The ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said the convention, which the EU signed, meant they should have limited their contacts with the industry and published details of any meetings they had.
However, while the directorate responsible for health adhered to the rules, the rest of the commission argued it did not need to.
It limited information to answering questions if asked, and if minutes had been kept.
“In the absence of such a request or question, information is not forthcoming. Making a relevant access-to-documents request, or posing a relevant MEP question, is likely to elicit the type of information sought only where such request or question is carefully worded.
“If no record of a meeting with a tobacco industry representative is kept [because there is no requirement to keep such a record], then an access-to-documents request will be futile,” she said.
“Likewise, in the case of an MEP question, where no record has been kept, a full reply depends on whether the officials concerned are able to recall having had any such meetings and what was actually discussed.”
The ombudsman service examined commission files and staff agendas to identify possible meetings with tobacco lobbyists. They found officials from the commission’s legal service said they did not meet tobacco industry representatives, despite having met lawyers working for Philip Morris.
The ombudsman said this appeared to result from a belief by those in the commission’s legal service that they did not have to register their contacts with lawyers.
“This has the effect of concealing meetings between commission staff and representatives of the tobacco industry. It also illustrated the danger of leaving it up to staff to decide whether to report a meeting and goes against the need for transparency in the convention,” her report said.
She was also critical of new rules applying only to certain senior officials on publishing the details of meetings with lobbyists, and said they need to apply to members of the legal service dealing with tobacco issues and others down the line. The commission is asked to explain by the end of December their plan to implement her recommendation.
Previously, the ombudsman criticised the commission’s links with the tobacco industry when a former official went to work for tobacco industry lawyers and was also head of a commission committee advising on whether former commissioners could work in specific areas immediately after leaving the service.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and several ministers were criticised for meeting tobacco industry representatives just prior to Ireland taking over the EU presidency two years ago .
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