EU ministers on Monday adopted a directive providing protection for whistleblowers so that they may alert public opinion to financial, health or environmental scandals without fear of reprisals.
The role of whistleblowers is now the focus of media attention in the United States, where a second official has broken his/her silence and is providing information on the Ukrainian controversy that sparked impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump.
The ministers approved the new rules at a European Council meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. They will now have to be incorporated into national law within two years by Member States.
“No one should risk their reputation or job for exposing illegal behaviours,” Finland’s Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson, whose country occupies the EU presidency, is quoted as saying in a press release.
In recent years, persons anxious to expose crimes or threats to public interest have uncovered a series of scandals, from the Panama Papers to Cambridge Analytica, and from Luxleaks to Dieselgate. Some of these concerned citizens subsequently came under various types of pressure, and were even hauled before the courts, like Antoine Deltour, who, together with a former colleague, leaked documents related to the Luxleaks financial scandal.
The protection given to European whistleblowers by national law differs greatly from country to country. Only 10 countries, including France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, offer them full legal protection. At the EU level they were hitherto protected only in a limited number of areas, essentially in financial services. They will now receive protection in a wide range of sectors, particularly public procurement, financial services, money laundering, product and transport safety, public health, consumer protection and data protection.
The new rules will require the creation of safe channels for reporting in companies with more than 50 employees and cities with over 10,000 inhabitants. Whistleblowers are “encouraged to use internal channels within their organisation first” but “will not lose their protection if they decide to use external channels,” the Council said in its press release.
The new rules require the authorities and companies “to respond and follow-up to the whistleblowers’ reports within three months” and include safeguards for protecting those who assist the whistleblowers.
Potential losses resulting from insufficient whistleblower protection throughout the EU in the area of public procurement alone amount to between 5.8 billion euros and 9.6 billion euros per year, according to a 2017 European Commission study.
The European Parliament had already voted by a wide margin in mid-April to approve a draft version of the directive issued by the European Commission in April 2018.