European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli, yesterday afternoon announced his resignation from the commission with immediate effect.
The decision was taken following an investigation by OLAF, the EU's antifraud office, into a complaint made last May by the tobacco producer, Swedish Match.
The company alleged that a Maltese entrepreneur had used his contacts with Mr Dalli to try to gain financial advantages from the company in return for seeking to influence a possible future legislative proposal on tobacco products, in particular on the EU export ban on snus.
This is a type of tobacco snuff consumed in the form of a moist powder which is placed under the upper lip, without chewing, for extended periods of time.
Speaking on TVM, Mr Dalli said he is still waiting for the report. He referred to its conclusions which say that there is no evidence against him and that the decision process was not influenced. Mr Dalli denied that he was aware of what was going on, contrary to what is being claimed by the report. He also accused the authors of the report of basing their claims on circumstantial evidence.
He added that he will defend himself from these claims, and will be seeking advice from his lawyers on how to proceed. Mr Dalli indicated that he knows the identity of the Maltese entrepreneur mentioned in the report, but said that at this stage, he prefers not to divulge any information.
He branded this incident as a déjà-vu, warning that this time around, he will take a much harsher stance to defend himself. In the meantime, he expressed his wish that the European Commission proceeds with his plans to introduce harsher legislation on tobacco products, which was set to be unveiled next Monday.
Asked for the reason which led him to resign and whether this decision was imposed on him by the president of the Commission, Mr Dalli repeatedly said that he will not stay on if he is not welcome by some. He added that now that he has resigned, he will have a free hand to defend himself.
The shocking news, which is set to have repercussions also in the local political scene, was broken in a statement issued by the European Commission.
It said that Mr Dalli had informed the President of the Commission Jose Manuel Barroso of his decision to resign from his post.
The European Commission said that as soon as it received the complaint, it immediately requested OLAF to investigate.
The OLAF final report was sent to the Commission on 15 October. It concluded that a Maltese entrepreneur had approached the company using his contacts with Mr Dalli and sought to gain financial advantages in exchange for influence over a possible future legislative proposal on snus.
No transaction was concluded between the company and the entrepreneur and no payment was made. Although the OLAF report did not find any conclusive evidence of the direct participation, it remarked that it took into consideration that Mr Dalli was aware of these events.
The OLAF report showed clearly that the European Commission's decision making process and the position of the services concerned has not been affected at all by the matters under investigation.
The final OLAF report and its recommendations are being sent by OLAF to the Attorney General of Malta. It will now be up to the Maltese judiciary to decide how to follow up.
The commission said that after the President informed Mr Dalli about the OLAF report, the latter decided to resign in order to be able to defend his reputation and that of the Commission.
Successor will be chosen in reasonable time -PM
In a short statement in parliament Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi said that earlier in the day, at about 3pm, he received a phone call from the president of the Commission who gave him the news.
Dr Gonzi said that he asked Mr Barroso for a copy of the OLAF report. However, the commission president explained that in such cases, the standard procedure is for the report to be handed to the Attorney General.
The Prime Minister added that in a telephone conversation he had with Mr Dalli two hours later, at around 5pm, the latter categorically denied any wrongdoing and said that he decided to resign to be able to defend himself to prove he is totally clean. He concluded his statement saying that the government will proceed to nominate a successor to Mr Dalli in reasonable time.
Opposition leader Joseph Muscat urged for caution and to keep the national interest above any other consideration in these delicate circumstances. He urged the government to be prudent when nominating Mr Dalli’s successor, in the context that this legislature is in its final months.
Marcos Sefcovic appointed on an interim basis
In the meantime, Vice-President Maros Sefcovic will take over the portfolio of Mr Dalli on an interim basis until a new Commissioner of Maltese nationality is appointed.
John Dalli had been serving as European Commissioner since February 2010. Prior to that, he served as Minister for Social Policy from 2008 to 2010 and Finance Minister in several administrations between 1992 and 1996 and 1998 and 2003.
The turning point of his political career was in 2004, when he unsuccessfully contested for the PN leadership, in which Lawrence Gonzi triumphed.
Some months later, he resigned from Foreign Affairs Minister in the wake of a report by a private investigator over the tender of medical equipment for Mater Dei hospital. However, this report turned out to be false and the investigator ended up in jail.