Those disclosing information acquired in a work-related context, on illegal or harmful activities, will be better protected, under new EU rules approved on Tuesday.

The new rules, adopted with 591 votes in favour, 29 against and 33 abstentions and already agreed with EU ministers, lay down new, EU-wide standards to protect whistle-blowers revealing breaches of EU law in a wide range of areas including public procurement, financial services, money laundering, product and transport safety, nuclear safety, public health, consumer and data protection.

Safe reporting channels

To ensure potential whistle-blowers remain safe and that the information disclosed remains confidential, the new rules allow them to disclose information either internally to the legal entity concerned or directly to competent national authorities, as well as to relevant EU institutions, bodies, offices and agencies.

In cases where no appropriate action was taken in response to the whistle-blower’s initial report, or if they believe there is an imminent danger to the public interest or a risk of retaliation, the reporting person will still be protected if they choose to disclose information publicly.

Safeguards against retaliation

The law explicitly prohibits reprisals and introduces safeguards to prevent the whistle-blower from being suspended, demoted and intimidated or facing other forms of retaliation. Those assisting whistle-blowers, such as facilitators, colleagues, relatives are also protected.

Member states must ensure whistle-blowers have access to comprehensive and independent information and advice on available procedures and remedies free-of-charge, as well as legal aid during proceedings. During legal proceedings, those reporting may also receive financial and psychological support.

The law now needs to be approved by EU ministers. Member states will then have two years to comply with the rules.

Recent scandals, from LuxLeaks to Panama Papers, have demonstrated how important whistle-blowers’ revelations are to detect and prevent breaches of EU law harmful to the public interest and the welfare of society. Lack of effective whistle-blower protection at EU level can also negatively impact the functioning of EU policies in a member state, but can also spill over to other countries and the EU as a whole.

Currently, only 10 EU countries (France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Slovakia, Sweden and UK) provide comprehensive legal protection. In the remaining countries, protection is only partial or applies to specific sectors or categories of employee.

A 2017 study carried out for the Commission estimated the loss of potential benefits due to a lack of whistle-blower protection, in public procurement alone, to be in the range of €5.8 to €9.6 billion each year for the EU as a whole.

Whistleblowers play an essential role in our democracies

“Recent scandals such as LuxLeaks, Panama Papers and Football leaks have helped to shine a light on the great precariousness that whistle-blowers suffer today. On the eve of European elections, Parliament has come together to send a strong signal that it has heard the concerns of its citizens, and pushed for robust rules guaranteeing their safety and that of those persons who choose to speak out,” said the rapporteur Virginie Rozière (S&D, FR).

“Whistleblowers play an essential role in our democracies, ensuring that corruption and dodgy dealings are exposed. Too often, these people face the consequences while those they expose continue to get away with it. The proposals we have backed today will help redress the balance, ensuring that whistleblowers have legal protection wherever they are in Europe. Despite strong resistance from conservative MEPs and some national governments, we have secured a strong set of protections. Whistleblowers will be able to decide whether to report wrongdoing through internal channels or directly to an external body. This is essential as in many cases reporting within an organisation is not an option,” she added.

“The fight to protect whistleblowers does not end here. We want to see the scope of this agreement expanded to cover social rights and we’ve secured a review clause to ensure that the European Commission looks at doing this in the next legislature. We also ensured that these are only minimum standards, so national governments can still provide even stronger protections. We must never stop fighting to protect those expose corruption or wrongdoing,” Rozière concluded.

“Overwhelming majority for the #Whistleblower protection. I remember, few years ago everyone said we shouldn’t even try to push for a new directive. Now it’s reality!” tweeted Green MEP Benedek Jávor.