Protecting whistle-blowers in the EU

Briefing 25-04-2023

Protecting whistle-blowers in the EU

In December 2019, Directive (EU) 2019/1937 on the protection of persons who report breaches of Union law (hereafter 'the directive') entered into force. Member States had 2 years to transpose the directive into their domestic legal systems. Prior to the entry into force of the directive, the legal framework was fragmented at national level and limited in scope to specific sectors at EU level (i.e. financial services and transport safety). Transposition did not prove easy, and the European Commission was obliged to open infringement procedures against a number of Member States. The directive came into force after major cases of whistle-blowing (Panama Papers, Dieselgate, Wikileaks, Luxleaks, Cambridge Analytica) drew strong public attention to the situation of those who reveal misconduct and malpractice in public and private entities. Those who 'blow the whistle', and also their colleagues and their relatives, can face retaliation and suffer both economic and reputational harm. Fear of retaliatory measures can foster a culture of silence, with a dissuasive effect on individuals who are willing to report unlawful practices ('chilling effect'). The EU legislator has recognised the positive impact of whistle-blowers who act as public watchdogs. They promote a culture where speaking out is not penalised and where disclosing information in the public interest increases transparency, improves integrity and ensures public accountability. Whistle-blowers help the public to access accurate information on matters of public concern. Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that legislation alone is not enough, a cultural change in the workplace will also be necessary to ensure that those blowing the whistle are not stigmatised and do not suffer social, professional and personal repercussions.