EU institutions aim to agree directive to strengthen whistleblower protections

, by Juuso Järviniemi

EU institutions aim to agree directive to strengthen whistleblower protections

Many would first associate the word ‘whistleblower’ with Edward Snowden, the former American CIA employee who spoke to the world about the NSA’s surveillance of individuals’ private communications in the USA and beyond. Since the revelations, Snowden has been in exile from the United States, and may face up to 30 years in prison if extradited to the country.

On our continent, an EU directive on strengthening European whistleblowers’ protection is currently being discussed by the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The legislation would protect individuals from suffering retaliation as they report violations of EU law concerning tax evasion, corruption, public health and safety, and environmental protection.

In November, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee strengthened the already generous protections included in the Commission’s proposal. The Council of Ministers, for its part, adopted a favourable, though somewhat stricter position in January. The goal is now for the Parliament and the ministers to reach an agreement by mid-March, so that the directive could be approved before the European elections.

What’s being proposed?

In its press release from November, the European Parliament reports that currently only ten EU member states guarantee “comprehensive legal protection” for whistleblowers. It also repeats the Commission’s finding that proper protections could bring economic benefits of up to 9.6 billion euros each year solely in the field of public procurement. In brief, at stake in the directive are questions of both fundamental rights, and stopping waste of public money.

The EU directive, as proposed by the Commission, would ensure that if a whistleblower is sued, for example for breach of secrecy, they can appeal to the directive. Moreover, the proposal includes penalties for those who try to hinder reporting on breaches of law.

Among other things, the directive is also poised to require companies with over 50 employees or with an annual turnover of more than €10 million to establish an internal channel to report malpractices. In the public sector, internal channels should be set up by municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, as well as regional and state authorities, and other entities governed by public law. [1]

What are the main disagreements?

Compared to the Council of Ministers, the European Parliament would be ready to offer stronger protections to whistleblowers. One key difference concerns the circumstances where the whistleblower should rely on internal reporting channels, and when they can instead turn to ‘external’ regulators for help. The European Parliament would allow the whistleblower to freely choose between the two. Meanwhile, in its position taken in January, the Council would only allow this in certain circumstances, for example when ‘there is a high risk of retaliation’ if internal reporting channels are used.

According to the position that the legal affairs committee took in November, the European Parliament would also require anonymous reports to be followed up on when made through an internal channel. However, the Council would leave it to the member states to decide if anonymous reports should be accepted.

In February, 75 organisations signed an appeal for the Council to accept the European Parliament’s position on the whistleblower’s right to choose their preferred reporting channel. The letter expresses concern that otherwise some well-meaning disclosures to ‘competent authorities’ would be made illegal.

Signed by groups including journalists’ unions from different countries, and national branches of Transparency International, the letter overall says that the directive is to be a “momentous step”, and that “protecting those who speak up in the public interest saves lives, protects our environment, reveals and stops corruption, and stems the huge financial losses to business and governments that result from failures to address wrongdoing”.

Footnotes

[1The European Greens have published a detailed comparison of the Commission proposal, the European Parliament’s position, and the Council of Ministers’ position.

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