John Dalli’s resignation yesterday afternoon as EU Commissioner for Health did not just come as a surprise, but it was a complete shock. Whatever one’s political opinions, this is bad news for a small country like Malta.
The allegations being made by the EU’s antifraud office, OLAF, are serious enough to have caused him to leave a high-profile and prestigious post.
It is alleged that a Maltese businessman had used his contacts with Mr Dalli to seek to gain financial advantage in exchange for influence over a possible future legislative proposal concerning the tobacco industry falling within the remit of the former Commissioner’s portfolio.
No transaction was concluded between the tobacco company and the businessman, and no money changed hands. Nor did OLAF find any “conclusive” evidence of the “direct participation” of Mr Dalli. It did, however, consider that he was “aware” of these events and this is presumably what has precipitated his departure.
Mr Dalli has categorically rejected OLAF’s findings, which have been passed on to the Maltese Attorney General.
It is to be expected that further details will emerge in the coming days, both in relation to what allegedly took place as well as comments by Mr Dalli in defence of his actions.
One hopes that this process is speedy in order for the truth to be established beyond reasonable doubt – out of fairness to the public as well as Mr Dalli himself.
This is, of course, not the first time that Mr Dalli has faced troubled waters in his long career. Soon after being appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs after the 2004 election, Mr Dalli was forced to resign after certain allegations were made about his ministerial conduct.
These included a directive to government ministries to purchase air tickets from a company in which Mr Dalli’s daughter had an interest as well as a fabricated allegation by former private investigator Joe Zahra that the minister was involved in corrupt practices in relation to the contract for Mater Dei Hospital.
Mr Zahra was subsequently prosecuted for producing the fabricated report implicating Mr Dalli in the hospital contract while the former minister was ‘rehabilitated’ into the Nationalist Party shortly before the 2008 election.
Lawrence Gonzi, who in 2004 assumed the PN leadership after winning a race against Mr Dalli, was never categorically clear as to the reason for the minister’s resignation.
Mr Dalli, on the other hand, has always insisted that Dr Gonzi acted on the fabricated report. Furthermore, the then minister pointed fingers at various journalists whom he said were involved in a plot to bring about his downfall.
That episode was most unsavoury because it allowed doubt to linger and for many aspersions to be cast over a long period of time. Allegations and counter-allegations were commonplace.
And despite the ‘rehabilitation’, there has clearly never been a rapprochement between Mr Dalli and Dr Gonzi. Quite the contrary, Mr Dalli has been a constant critic of the Government throughout his term as commissioner.
Dr Gonzi said yesterday that the Government would nominate a new commissioner within a “reasonable time”.
However, whoever is put forward – the favourite government candidate seems to be Foreign Minister Tonio Borg since Richard Cachia Caruana was forced out of the running by rebel Nationalist MPs – will have to pick up the pieces.
Given the contents of the OLAF report and Mr Dalli’s premature departure, this will be no easy task.
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