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24th Sep 2020

Eurostat denies it was influenced by lobbying pressures

  • Luxembourg, home of Eurostat (Photo: EUobserver)

The EU's statistics agency, Eurostat, has denied Belgian accusations that some of its decisions are influenced by lobbying from larger EU countries.

"Eurostat's role is to treat all member states equally," the Luxembourg-based agency told this website in an emailed statement on Wednesday (17 February).

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On Monday, the European Commission handed member states a proposal to award Eurostat auditing powers in response to doubts over Greek data. The following day, Belgian finance minister Didier Reynders said any increase in Eurostat's remit should be accompanied by an internal overhaul to increase the independence and transparency of the statistics office.

Mr Reynders said he regretted the importance of lobbying in Eurostat decision-making. "I have a few memories from school and, just like in the playground, one doesn't get in the way of the biggest and strongest," he said.

In particular, the Belgian politician pointed to certain Eurostat decisions relating to accounting practices used by telecommunication companies in Europe. "The decisions did not seem quite the same" in different countries, he said.

Commission economy spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said on Wednesday it was unclear whether new Eurostat powers would be accompanied by internal reforms, although he did not rule out the possibility of some increase in staff numbers.

The statistics agency has not been immune from controversy in the past. In 2003, three senior officials were removed from their posts and a number of contracts with outside companies were cancelled after it was alleged that a double accounting system had been used during the 1990s to transfer large amounts of money to secret bank accounts.

"We shouldn't forget that we have also known problems within Eurostat," said Mr Reynders, in reference to a scandal.

Greece

The commission's call for Eurostat auditing powers on Monday follows fresh EU doubts over the reliability of Greek financial data. Having been swept to power in national elections last October, Greece's centre-left Pasok administration quickly revised the country's 2009 deficit forecast figure to 12.7 percent of GDP, more than double previous estimates.

"Reliability and transparency of the main indicators of public finances are a crucial factor," said Mr Tardio.

In 2005, the EU executive body made a similar request for Eurostat auditing capabilities but was rebuffed by member states, who were reluctant to hand over power to the Luxembourg-based body. Observers suggest the current Greek crisis has softened government positions this time round however, although some concerns remain.

Recent news that Greek governments used financial derivatives such currency swaps to hide the true extent of its debt over the last decade have added to doubts.

Eurostat was unaware of the Greek use of derivatives supplied by Wall Street investment banks until news reports broke last week. The statistics agency is still in the dark regarding the scale of the problem, said Mr Tardio.

"This is something we do need to look at very closely. Eurostat doesn't know about these practices so they don't necessarily know what the extent of this happening is," he said.

Greece has until 19 February to give Eurostat information on the currency swaps and in particular how this affected Greek reporting of its debt figures.

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