How Civil Society Came Together to Protect EU Whistleblowers

Four years ago, during a meeting in Brussels, a civil society advocate raised the idea of an EU directive for whistleblowers—and was unceremoniously rebuffed. There is no legal basis for such directive, he remembers being told by an EU commission staffer; there is, the staffer said, no political will.

Fast forward to April 2019 and an EU-wide directive to protect whistleblowers has been approved by the European Parliament. How did we get here, and why is this such an important moment in Europe? 

For one, because whistleblowers play a vital role in combatting corruption. But the decision to become a whistleblower is never easy. When a person becomes a whistleblower, they risk alienating themselves from their colleagues in the workplace, and the impact on their personal lives can be immense. 

Take the so-called #LuxLeaks case as an example. Antoine Deltour, an employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers, discovered that large multinationals—including Pepsi, IKEA, and Deutsche Bank—were using the Luxembourg government to avoid their global tax obligations. Deltour shared his discovery with a journalist. Instead of being praised, however, Deltour was subjected to a trial and threatened with a possible 10-year prison sentence and €1 million fine—all for calling out wrongdoing in the public interest. 

Deltour’s case re-emphasized the need for an EU directive for whistleblowers. Until then, protections for whistleblowers across Europe had been piecemeal at best. Only a third of EU member states had comprehensive legislation to support whistleblowers. Even in those instances, though, provisions were often vague, did not ensure anonymity, and failed to include all civil servants and their employees. Deltour found himself without any protection because he had reported this wrongdoing directly to the media, something that was outside eligibility for whistleblower protections in France.

Deltour’s case, alongside the release of the Panama Papers, which revealed how the rich and the famous were able to exploit little-known offshore tax havens to avoid paying taxes at home, incensed the public and changed the political landscape. The moment for reform seemed right. And if the commission still did not see the legal basis for an EU-wide directive for whistleblower protection, it was up to civil society to persuade them otherwise. Given the proximity of the European Parliament elections in May 2019—which could result in a new parliament, one with different views about whistleblower protection—time was of the essence.

Rising to the occasion, an informal coalition of civil society actors came together and began peppering lawmakers in Brussels with arguments about why the directive was so important. They introduced lawmakers to whistleblowers, who spoke directly to the reasons why they had chosen to speak up, as well as to the ramifications of their decisions; they wrote reports; they mobilized over a quarter of a million European citizens to put pressure on their national governments. And it worked.

Of course, the directive is not perfect. But once it is implemented, it will introduce sanctions for people attempting to retaliate against whistleblowers, and it will exempt whistleblowers from civil or criminal liability relating to the disclosure of information which is in the public interest. 

Four years after an EU commission staffer said that there was neither the legal basis nor the political will to institute an EU-wide directive on whistleblower protection, coordinated action from civil society and a groundswell of support from European citizens had led to just that. Their perseverance not only demonstrates the value and importance of civil society; it should be an inspiration to those fighting hard for the rights of whistleblowers, as well as to all those who believe that the European Union can be an agent of positive change.

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thank you all. i am supported your campaign . i want to work together your team just part of Dhaka Bangladesh . . we want to change human right lawful society and justice . i am editor the national daily jatioarthonitee. please cooperation me and include your team

Great, inspiring story. All I can hope is that the legislation is retroactive (which I know is rare to the point of probably not existing) but previous whistleblowers also deserve protection and compensation - like Monsieur Deltour.
Bruce Danckwerts,
CHOMA,
Zambia

Hello! Will you, please, send me a link to the UE Directive protecting whistleblowers? Where can I report harassment, intimidation and violence related to whistleblowing? Thank you!! Ileana Rusenescu Romania

Yes is a good initiative ,but I think the politician have a lot of power and every day are controlling the Institutions on the name of democracy . The power comes from freedom of the people and the freedom could be guaranty if would be respected the indipendence of the Institutions. The excecutiv are to controll everything and the democracy really don't exist anymore in my Country but not only.

We the Ececutive and members of the National Old Folks of Liberia (NOFOL), have interest in the process of whistblowering, we support the effort of EU and the United Nations for there role in support of civil society around the world. NOFOL is requesting for support such as training, and logistical support to enable us carryout our campaign.

Excellent news, and congratulations to all involved in making this vital piece of legislation happen in the E.U. R.C.

Interesting article ... but can you put a link to the directive?

How can this help in any way Julian Assange not to be extradet to USA where leaders are unaccountable of their crimes against mankind while incarcarating millions of their fellow citizens in the so called " land of the Free " ? and what Right do USA have , who don't recognized the Internation Court of Justice to Judge others ?

yes,help congo kinshasa.

Wow this is fantastic news i hope it save Julian depotation and a life of Hell Please can you share all of this knowlege with me i feel ts a very important time in EU history to get this Law thru at the very important time

Gabrielle

Could this action help Julian Assange?

Can you help Julian Assange? This is the most important whistleblower at the moment, we are waiting for a mass action to release it
Thank you

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