The European Union is a step closer to implementing EU-wide whistleblower protections after the European Parliament and member states reached a provisional agreement to implement rules first proposed by the European Commission in April 2018.

The new rules cover a wide reach of areas of EU law, including anti-money laundering and corporate taxation, data protection, protection of the EU’s financial interests, food and product safety, environmental protection, and nuclear safety.

Member states are free to extend the rules to other areas if they wish, and the Commission encourages them to establish comprehensive frameworks for whistleblower protection based on the same principles.

In particular, the new rules will:

  • Establish clear reporting procedures and obligations for employers so that there is a system of safe channels for reporting both within an organisation and to public authorities.
  • Encourage whistleblowers to report internally first (so long as they are guaranteed safety and if the breach they want to reveal can be effectively addressed within their organisation), but also then to report directly to competent authorities as they see fit. In addition, if no appropriate action is taken after reporting to the authorities (or if reporting to the authorities would not work because they are in collusion with the perpetrator of the crime, for instance), whistleblowers may make a public disclosure, including to the media.
  • Protect whistleblowers against dismissal, demotion, and other forms of retaliation. They will also be protected in judicial proceedings. The new rules will also require national authorities to inform citizens about whistleblowing procedures and protection available (presently, only 49 percent of EU citizens know where or how to report suspected incidences of corruption, and just a mere 15 percent are aware of existing whistleblowing protections, according to the Commission).

The EU’s record on whisleblower protection is patchy. Currently, only 10 EU countries (France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) have a comprehensive law protecting whistleblowers.

In the remaining 18 EU countries, any whistleblower protection granted is partial, covering—if at all—only public servants, or specific industry sectors, or select, specific types of wrongdoings (such as corruption). According to anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International, Cyprus, for example, has practically no whistleblower protection in place. Even at the EU level, there is only a very limited number of sectors where measures have been put in place to protect whistleblowers (mostly only in the areas of financial services).

As such, the Commission believes that greater EU-wide whistleblower protection is necessary to protect the integrity of EU policies, as well as the functioning of the European Union itself. It believes that recent scandals uncovered by whistleblowers—such as the diesel emissions scandal and the Panama papers detailing tax evasion schemes—show how insufficient protection in one country not only negatively impacts the functioning of EU policies there, but can also spill over into other countries and into the EU as a whole.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said in a statement: “These new, EU-wide whistleblowers’ protection rules … will make sure they can report in a safe way on breaches of EU law in many areas. This will help tackle fraud, corruption, corporate tax avoidance, and damage to people’s health and the environment. We encourage member states to put in place comprehensive frameworks for whistleblower protection based on the same principles.”

The provisional agreement now has to be formally approved by both the European Parliament and the Council. A Commission spokesperson says that this is likely to take place “within the next two or three months,” which will then give EU member states two years to implement the new rules once the final text is approved.