Whistleblowing is a thankless job. Ask Paul van Buitenen, now sitting in the European Parliament as a one-man party, Europa Transparant. Shortly before I first met him in Brussels ten years ago, his exposure of corruption and cronyism involving Former French Premier, Edith Cresson, had caused the resignation of the whole of Jacques Santer’s European Commission. But before his allegations were proven to be true, van Buitenen had been suspended, his salary halved and he faced disciplinary action.Public indignation over his treatment eventually contributed to the fall of the Commission in March 1999. Later he was named ‘European of the Year’ by Reader’s Digest magazine and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He donated his prize money to help other whistleblowers. He also wrote a book telling the full story, and later a sequel which only came out in Dutch and German. The English version was blocked by Commissioner Neil Kinnock.
Three or four years before his exposure, van Buitenen had become a believer. His personal commitment to a God of truth and justice has remained the driving force behind his investigations over the years, despite the constant cold-shouldering and stone-walling he has continued to experience in the European Commission.
Whistleblowers have always received contradictory responses. Some viewed them as martyrs for public justice. Others called them ‘tell-tales’, seeking only personal glory and fame. It takes a brave and motivated person to face the fear of retaliation, the loss of relationships in the office and at home, of persecution and outright bullying, and of retaliation, wage-reduction, discrimination or dismissal.
We have not had much contact since sharing a platform at a student conference in Brussels, just the occasional email.
But on Saturday, another email from van Buitenen arrived in my intray, alerting me to a programme about his work to be shown on Dutch television, Sunday evening.
Martyrs or Tell-tales?
The KRO Reporter programme on the Catholic television channel reviewed his work over the years and his role in the resignation of the Commission.
While he initially had enjoyed much goodwill from public quarters, van Buitenen still suffered the whistleblower’s lot of ostracisation and discrimination.
In fact, he claimed, things had got even worse. Despite a regulation supposedly protecting so-called whistleblowers, in reality, such individuals were destroyed.
Yet van Buitenen had battled on. During his parliamentary term from 2004 to 2009, he had brought to light many instances of corruption in EU-institutions. None of these revelations however led to any further investigation by the EU antifraud department OLAF or justice. Instead, complained van Buitenen, the European Commission, the Parliament and OLAF simply looked the other way.
In vain he had tried to get the European Commission to investige the involvement of the former Dutch commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, with the Russian Bank Menatep and secret accounts in Clearstream (a European banking institute embroiled in money laundering and tax evasion via secret accounts).
The television programme particularly focussed on The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), mandated to combat corruption in member states. But the OLAF itself was compromised with cronyism and fraudulent practices, van Buitenen claimed. OLAF’s independence existed only on paper, and promises to improve situations were never followed up.
Under these circumstances, van Buitenen concluded in the last few minutes of the programme, there was no point standing again for the European Parliament in the next elections in June. He had done everything humanly possible to keep the EU transparent. But every channel seemed blocked.
With a heavy heart I realised why Paul had sent out this email. This was his announcement of withdrawal from politics. We were losing his prophetic presence in Brussels. Only intervention from God could change van Buitenen’s mind, he said.
While critics say he ignores his parliamentary duties by only focussing on corruption issues, van Buitenen reponds that he was elected on a Europa Transparant platform to do that very work.
The European Union requires democratic structures, checks and balances, at the European level. When prophetic voices like Paul’s remain unheeded, crying in the wilderness, the European project is headed in the wrong direction.
Till next week,