By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Europeans security specialists are well aware of the “WikiLeaks” organisation, and the dilemma that its leaks create between supporting transparency in government actions and hindering government efforts to protect our publics.
They might be less aware that parties within the European Parliament have their own, in-house version of WikiLeaks, although its organisers profess not to like the comparison.
It’s called ‘EUleaks’, and is openly run by the EP’s Greens/European Free Alliance political group. A pop-up on the Greens/EFA website directs self-declared whistle-blowers on how to submit confidential documents anonymously, with the expectation that the EP will examine and address their concerns.
SECURITY EUROPE contacted EUleaks to see how the project started, and how it has evolved. It grew out of the LuxLeaks, or Luxembourg Leaks, scandal that erupted in November 2014. That month, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism released confidential information on Luxembourgish tax rulings and private sector practices that appeared to offer tax avoidance schemes to multinational corporations based in the Grand Duchy. Rather than tighten its tax regime or discipline the accounting firms that made the avoidance possible, Luxembourg authorities sought, found and prosecuted a journalist and two whistle-blowers. Eventually the journalist was found innocent, but the whistle-blowers were convicted.
One of the whistle-blowers later stepped into the public spotlight as Antoine Deltour, a French citizen and former PwC employee. In 2015, the European Parliament awarded him its European Citizens’ Prize for his actions. Luxembourg’s response was not so kind. On 29 June 2016, a Luxembourgish court convicted Deltour and Raphael Halet, another former PwC employee, of theft of tax rulings and computer fraud. Deltour received a suspended 12-month jail term with a EUR 1 500 fine, and Halet received a nine-month suspended sentence and a EUR 1 000 fine. They both appealed. On 15 March 2017, Luxembourg’s Court of Appeal re-affirmed the convictions while reducing Deltour’s suspended sentence to six months.
Luxembourg’s reaction to the leaks outraged the European left, including left-leaning MEPs. The EP convened a committee to investigate the scandal that grew out of the tax rules passed when European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was still Luxembourg’s Prime Minister. In the course of its work, the parliamentary committee asked the European Council and several member states for information about their tax laws, but received no response.
In this context, the idea grew among parliamentarians that some method for receiving documents anonymously could be a way to gain information about corruption and tax avoidance schemes in Europe, without potential whistle-blowers needing to fear prosecution. Thus EUleaks was born as a running protest against Council and member state intransigence on whistle-blower protection and the EP’s right to information.
To sound an alarm against corruption or tax malfeasance, potential whistle-blowers contact EUleaks through instructions available on the Greens/EFA web portal. The user is instructor to download Tor, a ‘dark web’ internet browser whose surfing information is believed to be difficult to track. Using Tor, the whistle-blower can submit documents anonymously without fear of being discovered by the employer or police authorities. EULeaks even provides information about how to encrypt documents before submitting them.
EUleaks has received multiple submissions and it guards the documents carefully. Each submission is put through a long and arduous verification analysis to determine if it is genuine. Some submissions involve personal cases of whistle-blowers who blew the whistle in the past, but did not believe their cases were handled fairly. In some cases, whistle-blowers agreed to meet with EUleaks personnel, giving up their anonymity.
One case alleged that a Green Party French MEP was using parliamentary funds to employ people working for their national party. EULeaks investigated the case, and found the accusations to be unfounded. Another ongoing case involves a UK contract for the construction of infrastructure related to the environment. The contract’s handling raised questions that are currently being investigated. While WikiLeaks often releases huge troves of documents without much effort to determine the motives behind their submission, the manner of their acquisition, or what the consequences of their dissemination could be, EULeaks says that its researchers strive to fully vet any documents before acting on their contents.
The EULeaks project will officially run until September 2017. Its organisers are now running a midterm review to determine what to do with the site after that date. It may continue in its present form, or evolve into another project intended to make member state tax policies more transparent.
Yet EULeaks is not WikiLeaks, however much its name may invite the comparison, and the security dangers of its existence appear small. It is rather a weapon in a political campaign and an institutional squabble.
The political campaign is the desire for better whistle-blower protection among many MEPs. The EP has approved legislation providing such protection, and now awaits input from the Commission and the Council’s support. Agreement will probably be reached later this year.
The institutional squabble is the Council’s dismissal of MEPs’ requests for information about the LuxLeaks crisis and other controversies such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
The obvious question is, once this political squabble has been settled, what will become of EULeaks? Will it fade away, or become a more permanent form of left-wing protest against a pro-establishment EU leadership?