A high-level football (soccer) quarrel
On December 17 Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly stated that there could be an appearance of “conflict of interest” on the fact that the European Commission had taken too long to open a State aid investigation affecting, among others, Athletic de Bilbao, the team apparently supported by Vice-President Almunia.
No kidding, look:
“The Commission has failed to act on this complaint for more than four years. Not only is this bad administration, but to the European public it can look like a conflict of interest given the Commissioner’s strong links to one of the football clubs in question. In my inquiry, I have not looked into the merits of the allegations concerning the breach of State Aid rules. I trust, however, that the Commission will decide to open an investigation tomorrow in order to investigate the facts and dispel any suspicions.” (see here)
The day following this a bit
absurd unusual reproach, the Commission did open an investigation which, by the way, had the effect of suddenly and exponentially multiplying the number of State aid experts in my home-country.
And last week we learnt –thanks to Lewis Crofts and MLex– that the Commissioner –who by now must be, understandably, fed up of being spied upon and even of having Spanish press report on personal matters- immediately responded to Ms. O’Reilly, explaining that:
“I am also a Spanish citizen, a member of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, a keen opera-goer, I enjoy cinema and I use the Internet every day (…). These elements are however irrelevant when it comes to the commission adopting decisions on State aid regarding Spanish cases, or granted by center-left governments, or benefiting cinema or culture in general, or to tackling antitrust issues with Microsoft and Google”.
It is certainly quite unusual in the EU context to point out at “apparent biases” in the way Ms. O’Reilly did, and it makes it more striking that the bias in this case consisted in supporting a given football club.
For instance, we’d absolutely never dare to suggest or imply that it may be relevant to the investigation that Ms. O’Relly is Irish and that Irish football teams haven’t fared well against Spanish teams (with the last Irish defeat occurring in the course of the procedure before the Ombudswoman’s office!) 🙂
By the way, an “interesting” fact for competition geeks: Ms. O Reilly previously worked at Magill and RTE, two of the parties to the well-known Magill case.
P.S. For the record, we predicted this State aid to football clubs mess almost 4 years ago (see here).