How Civil Society Came Together to Protect EU Whistleblowers

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.

by Peter Matjašič, April 29, 2019

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.

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here.