Anti Corruption Activists recently met in Tubingen in South-West Germany to discuss how we can best protect whistleblowers across Europe.

We need to talk about protecting whistleblowers in Europe

This past weekend, the European Anti-Corruption Youth Conference [EACYC] on Whistleblower Protection has brought together young people from all over Europe, eager to change the prevalent insufficiencies in whistleblower protection, and to impact the ongoing legislative process towards a common whistleblower protection law in the EU. Anti Corruption International (ACI) will give youth this opportunity through a three-day conference in Tübingen, Germany.

– The aim is that European young people will be aware of what is on the agenda of political Europe, and will want to make an impact that is in favour of strong whistleblower protection in the EU, says Felix Amelung, Cofounder of ACI.

The conference included workshops and talks by speakers with experience on the topic of whistleblowing and there was input from EU politicians, interest groups and organisations. Journalist organisations from all over Europe are amongst the conference supporters.

Stéphanie Gibaud, formerly of UBS France, Rudolf Elmer, formerly of private Bank Julius Bär and Wendy Addison, formerly of Enron South Africa spoke about their personal experiences as whistleblowers and what issues they faced and continue to face.

– We were very happy to have such prominent guests with us and we expect them to give us a unique perspective on whistleblowing and the challenges that whistleblowers have experienced in the aftermath of blowing the whistle, says Amelung. We hope their stories will further engage others to support their cause.

Dennis de Jong, Evelyn Regner and Julia Reda are parliamentarians from different wings in EU politics, who support the project and support the conference. They express enthusiasm for the topic and urgency for whistleblower protection. However, there are multiple opinions on what the best possible law should look like, and the means to get there.

Trade secret directive — sufficient or not?

– “Concerning the protection of the whistleblowers within the trade secret directive, I am absolutely convinced that whistleblowers are covered, they are really protected” says Evelyn Regner, European parliament member of the S&D Group. She continues to say that the trade secret directive is only sectorial, and agrees that there is a need for a more broad reaching (horizontal) whistleblower law. Therefore, she urges the European Commission to come forward with a proposal on EU-wide legislation to protect whistleblowers.

Regner also expresses concern about how the directive is being implemented in the different member states, and says that the key to good whistleblower protection lies here, in the implementation of the law in the member states.

Julia Reda, Vice-Chair of the Pirate Party and member of the Greens Group/EFA, strongly disagrees with the trade secret directive being sufficient for whistleblower protection:

– “I have argued against this directive from the very start” says Reda. “Mostly because it allows companies to protect any kind of information without there actually being an element of any trade secrets being exposed. I think the directive can be abused to go against whistleblowers.”

She gains support by Dennis de Jong, MEP from the GUE/NGL group, and known supporter of the whistleblower protection cause:

– “I am very much aware of the trade secret directive, which I see as bad and unnecessary. The whistleblower protection in the directive is very weak, and because of that we need a counterbalance, to protect journalists and whistleblowers”.

Philippe Lamberts, co-chair of the Green Group/EFA in the Parliament, stresses the need to protect whistleblowers, not only to report illegal but grey area actions:

– “There are actions that can be legal, but illegitimate when exposed. Making things public forces the person responsible to be accountable, and this might help steer behavior, that is why we need whistleblowers. Some member states have whistleblower protection, but we are a political union and single market. We need a EU level law on whistleblower protection.”

Inside sources that we have spoken with, express concern about the lack of whistleblower protection also within the EU institutions themselves. A law on EU level may also have an important effect with repercussions very close to home.

With a current Report, de Jong urges the European Commission to introduce Whistleblower mechanisms and protection whenever EU funds are involved.

– “We could have an institution, a house of whistleblowers like in the Netherlands and suggested in the report on financial interests. If implemented, this can then function as a blueprint for whistleblower protection in other sectors,” says de Jong.

The importance of EU Whistleblower law

According to the EC’s impact assessment on whistleblower protection, roughly 40% of all detected fraud cases in the world are uncovered by whistleblowers. The loss of income due to corruption may be as high as 990 billion euros a year. Whistleblowers would not only help in reducing corruption and detect illegal activities but could also re-establish trust in democracies and institutions across the EU.

– Many European countries have little whistleblower protection in law, or law not sufficient for adequate protection. In some cases blowing the whistle can cause prosecution of the subject in question, of his or her family and/or several years of imprisonment. “Lux leaks highlights tous that whistleblowers everywhere run a high risk. If correctly formulated, an EU law on whistleblowing would protect people in all countries with insufficient laws” says Johanne M Lund, Campaigning Coordinator of ACI. — There are many lobbyists in favour of a law that will keep big businesses safe and whistleblowers exposed. Therefore, activism and awareness prior to the actual decision and acceptance of the law is crucial. The cause of whistleblowing protection is very important, as most journalists are aware of. I hope that we are able to get more people engaged on this important topic and make an impact on the Commission with our campaign.

Friendly students and a steep learning curve

Locals from Tübingen have agreed to house the participants of the conference, the campus TV will broadcast and the University and Global Ethics Institute (Weltethos-Institut) have also been helpful with providing a location for Anti Corruption International, a young organisation which was only established in 2015.

– “It has been a challenge, but also a positive experience for us” says Amelung. We are all new to this and have experienced a steep learning curve in developing the conference, bad and good. Despite the limited budget and frame, we believe that we will make an impact with our conference and campaign, as youth are an important and central resource, and a force to be reckoned with.