Dalligate, the movie, is out. But its star is Green politician José Bové

‘Smoke Signals’ has premiered in Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament in France, where a crusading MEP is pitted against the European Commission in defence of the disgraced John Dalli

Green MEP and French farmer, José Bové
Green MEP and French farmer, José Bové

Just under 12 years ago, the disgraced European commissioner John Dalli made his exit from the Berlaymont building in Brussels, stripped of his role after an internal probe by the EU’s anti-fraud agency – OLAF – claimed he had failed to declare a bribery attempt.

The evidence, circumstantial at best, were the timings of phone-calls made to Dalli by the late Silvio Zammit, a confidant who had been roped in by a Maltese lobbyist, Gayle Kimberley, to convince Dalli to lift the EU retail ban on snus tobacco, which her clients, Swedish Match, produced.

Kimberley, a person of interest in the OLAF investigation was never charged. Zammit died in 2023 having spent the last 11 years of his life in unending court proceedings. Dalli has been belatedly charged in court to answer for trading in influence on the alleged €60 million bribe request which Zammit floated to Swedish Match.

Now, a new Belgian film is recounting this story, from the point of view of one of Dalli’s sole champions at the time: the Green MEP and French farmer, José Bové.

In ‘Smoke Signals’ – or Une Affaire de Principe – which stars the redoubtable Hollywood actor Joaquim de Almeida as former European Commissioner José Barroso, Bové (played by Boli Lanners) is the star of a film that pits the crusading MEP against a system he believes is manipulated by the great powers of trade and commerce.

The jury is out on how the film treats the discredited Dalli, even at a time when his maverick persecutor, OLAF director Giovanni Kessler, recently got a one-year suspended prison sentence by a Belgian court that ruled he taped witnesses surreptitiously in Dalligate probe.

But for Bové, whose book on the lobbies that power European policy is the basis for Antoine Raimbault’s film adaptation, it is still a matter of principle: his intimate conviction is that Dalli did not commit ‘an inside trade’. “Dalli is someone I fought on, on the issue of GMOs and other issues we disagreed upon. But I know him. I talked to him. I think I know who he is,” he tells the film’s producers in the film’s press kit.

“So when he gets kicked out of the Commission in half an hour, I think that there’s something wrong, something that’s not normal,” Bové says about what propelled his personal campaign to unlock the mystery of the Swedish Match complaint to OLAF.

But the other crucial reason was that two employees of Swedish Match, speaking to Bové during a recorded conversation, admitted that they had lied on the allegations at the request of OLAF. “We find ourselves in something that was built to legitimise the ousting of Dalli,” Bové says, recounting the staggering confession.

Together with his ally and fellow MEP Bart Staes, Bové had back in 2013 accused Barroso of being politically at fault in forcing out Dalli before verifying whether OLAF’s investigation – instigated by the smokeless tobacco lobby and allies of Philip Morris International – had been carried out legally or not.

Bové’s suspicions were prescient, given the shortcomings in the OLAF investigation, which included ambushing witnesses or suspects with no legal defence, treating suspects like Kimberley to dinner and wine after a round of questioning, and even using illegal taping of phone conversations.

Barroso was indeed only too happy to see Dalli’s back – he had not yet read the OLAF report when he was handed its summary, before telling Dalli to exit the Commission building. Neither had the OLAF report yet been evaluated by its supervisory committee.

“The fact that Barroso decided to send the OLAF report to the Maltese authorities before the supervisory committee could analyse it was so that it could not be discussed,” Bové had told the Maltese press in 2013. “The honour of Malta is at stake. Can you imagine had a French or German commissioner been ‘taken out’? It would have been a mess. As MEPs, we cannot accept that Europe works in this way, and that’s why we are arguing for transparency. This story has to come to an end.”

Bové had insisted that Dalli’s revision of the Tobacco Products Directive, which was intent on keeping the EU retail ban on snus, had also been repeatedly postponed for consultation by EC secretary-general Catherine Day.

“The fact that Mr Dalli was kicked out so quickly, without any legal basis, shows the tobacco companies wanted to win more time by postponing the Tobacco Products Directive... it was a very strong directive against the tobacco companies… Dalli was refusing to open the market for snus, so it makes no sense that he wanted to accept a bribe for the opposite reason. The fact that Swedish Match’s allegations were not verified by OLAF is incredible. OLAF accepted their version of events as fact.”

John Dalli, who has occupied no political post since his ouster from Brussels in October 2012, has always protested his innocence, claiming he was unaware of Silvio Zammit’s actions when Kimberley curried favour with him in the hope that he could get Dalli to accept cash to lift the snus ban.

After a Belgian judge delivered his ruling on former OLAF chief Kessler in 2023, Dalli described it as partial vindication. “It took 11 years to finally breach the European Commission’s secrecy, although on just one part of the investigation... the truth will prevail.”

In its ruling, the Belgian court said it was “concerned” by Kessler’s attitude, as he “claimed to be unaware of the existence of legislation regulating the recording of phone conversations,” even though these restrictions derive from the European Convention on Human Rights that he could not ignore given his role as chief of OLAF.

The case against Dalli in the Maltese courts, which include trading in influence and attempted bribery, is ongoing. He denies the charges.

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The action was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant programme in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information or opinions expressed in the context of this action. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or programme broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the action.

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