Ombudsman pushes for more protection for EU whistleblowers

Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman, with EU Commission president 2009-2014, José Manuel Barroso [European Commission]

Emily O'Reilly, EU Ombudsman, with EU Commission president 2009-2014, José Manuel Barroso. [European Commission]

The EU Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, on Monday (27 July) opened an investigation into nine EU institutions, which have failed to put in place protective measures for staff members that report corruption or malpractice.

“Whistleblowers play a key role in uncovering serious irregularities,” the EU Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly said in an announcement of the investigation. 

“I want to ensure that the EU institutions have in place the necessary rules to protect whistleblowers and to deal with complaints they submit about how they have been treated.”

The Ombudsman’s office has drafted their own internal rules for the protection of whistleblowers. These include rules stating that someone who reports suspicion of corruption should be able to be transferred to another EU body or institution, and that managers should ensure that whistleblowing is favourably recognised when assessing EU officials for promotion.

The procedures to protect EU staff that report on malpractice are still being fully developed. In January, a new staff regulation took effect that obliged EU institutions to adopt internal rules on whistleblowing. But the Ombudsman’s office stressed that not one institution has put them in place yet.

So far, the European Commission is the only institution that has adopted guidelines. They state, “An official who receives orders which he considers to be irregular or likely to give rise to serious difficulties shall inform his immediate superior […].” In case of presumed illegal activity, fraud or corruption, an official must “without any delay” notify his superior, Director-General or the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), the document adds.

How many EU officials have relied on such whistleblower protection measures is difficult to say, the European Commission told EURACTIV on Monday. “There is no way to give a figure,” said a spokesperson for the Commission, “as sometimes, staff go directly to OLAF [the Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office] and supervisors don’t always report publicly on whistleblowing to protect their staff.”

Poor practice

A report by Transparency International’s EU affairs office (TI-EU), launched in April, flagged the lack of protection for whistleblowers. Even in the case of the Commission, which has guidelines, the framework fails because of poor practice, a lack of resources and staff to enforce, or a lack of clarity over the rules itself.

“What the Commission has put in place is good, but it isn’t the last word on whistleblower protection,” Carl Dolan, director at TI-EU, told EURACTIV on Monday. “We’d be curious to see whether other institutions are willing to implement other, additional measures, too.”

“People are concerned about corruption in the EU institutions,” Dolan stressed. A Eurobarometer survey, published last February, showed that 70% of European citizens believed corruption exists within EU institutions. The figures are even higher when asked about corruption in national institutions (80%) or regional institutions (77%).

The European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union. Past opinion polls amongst EU citizens have proven the concern over corruption and malpractice in public policy in the EU institutions.

Whistleblowing is seen as an essential element for self-scrutiny in public institutions. Public institutions set up internal rules to report irregularities or suspicion of corruption.

The practice of whistleblowing to press and media – more commonly dubbed whistleblowing – differs from such internal procedures.

  • 31 October: Target date for EU institutions to put in place protective measures for whistleblowers.

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