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Whistleblowers to be protected by EU law

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Whistleblowers to be protected by EU law

Timmermans - Jourova - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - In the wake of the Dieselgate, Luxleaks, Panama Papers and recently the Cambridge Analytica revelations, the EU Commission proposed Monday a new law strengthen whistleblower protection across the EU.

Launching the new proposal, the Commission paid tribute to the courage of whistleblowers, who can play an important role in 'uncovering unlawful activities that damage the public interest and the welfare of our citizens and society'.

The proposal guarantees a high level of protection for whistleblowers who report breaches of EU law by setting new, EU-wide standards. It establishes safe channels for reporting both within an organisation and to public authorities. And it also protects whistleblowers against dismissal, demotion and other forms of retaliation and require national authorities to inform citizens and provide training for public authorities on how to deal with whistleblowers.

Currently protection given to whistleblowers across the EU is fragmented and uneven. Only 10 EU Member States currently ensure that whistleblowers are fully protected. In the remaining countries, the protection granted is partial and only applies to specific sectors or categories of employee.

The Commission's first vice-president Frans Timmermans said "if we better protect whistleblowers, we can better detect and prevent harm to the public interest such as fraud, corruption, corporate tax avoidance or damage to people's health and the environment."

Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova added said the new whistleblower protection rules would be a game changer: "In the globalised world where the temptation to maximise profit sometimes at the expense of the law is real we need to support people who are ready to take the risk to uncover serious violations of EU law. We owe it to the honest people of Europe."

The Commission also believes the rules can 'play an important role in enabling journalists and the free press to play their fundamental role in our democracies'.

In the past, many whistleblowers have paid for their action with their jobs, their reputation and even their health: 36% of workers who reported misconduct experienced retaliation (2016 Global Business Ethics Survey). Protecting whistleblowers will also help safeguard freedom of expression and media freedom, and is essential to protect the rule of law and democracy in Europe.

The proposal ensures EU-wide protection for blowing the whistle on breaches of EU legislation in the fields of public procurement; financial services, money laundering and terrorist financing; product safety; transport safety; environmental protection; nuclear safety; food and feed safety, animal health and welfare; public health; consumer protection; privacy, data protection and security of network and information systems. It also applies to breaches of EU competition rules, violations and abuse of corporate tax rules and damage to the EU's financial interests. The Commission encourages Member States to go beyond this minimum standard and establish comprehensive frameworks for whistleblower protection based on the same principles.

All companies with more than 50 employees or with an annual turnover of over EUR 10 million will have to set up an internal procedure to handle whistleblowers' reports. All state, regional administrations and municipalities with over 10,000 inhabitants will also be covered by the new law.

The protection mechanisms that will have to set up must include:

  • Clear reporting channels, within and outside of the organisation, ensuring confidentiality;
  • A three tier reporting system of:
    • Internal reporting channels;
    • Reporting to competent authorities – if internal channels do not work or could not reasonably be expected to work (for example where the use of internal channels could jeopardise the effectiveness of investigative actions by the authorities responsible);
    • Public/media reporting – if no appropriate action is taken after reporting through other channels, or in case of imminent or clear danger to the public interest or irreversible damage;
  • Feedback obligations for authorities and companies, who will have to respond and follow-up to the whistleblowers' reports within 3 months for internal reporting channels;
  • Prevention of retaliation and effective protection: all forms of retaliation are forbidden and should be sanctioned. If a whistleblower suffers retaliation, he or she should have access to free advice and adequate remedies (for example measures to stop workplace harassment or prevent dismissal). The burden of proof will be reversed in such cases, so that the person or organisation must prove that they are not acting in retaliation against the whistleblower. Whistleblowers will also be protected in judicial proceedings, in particular through an exemption from liability for disclosing the information.

The proposal protects responsible whistleblowing genuinely intended to safeguard the public interest. It therefore includes safeguards to discourage malicious or abusive reports and prevent unjustified reputational damage. Those affected by a whistleblower's report will fully enjoy the presumption of innocence, the right to an effective remedy, a fair trial, and the right of defence.

Communication on strengthening whistleblower protection at EU level

Directive on the protection of persons reporting on breaches of Union law

Whistleblower protection - background information

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