MEPs accuse commission of blocking EU statistics 'whistleblower'
By Benjamin Fox
Talks aimed at increasing transparency on EU statistical output have collapsed after the European Commission refused to apply the rules it demands of national statistical offices to its own statistical agency.
Lawmakers have been working on a overhaul of the EU's statistical regulation which governs the role of national offices and the EU's own statistical agency, Eurostat, since 2012.
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EU lawmakers have sought to tighten the regulations governing the work of statistical offices in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the fraud scandal in Greece, where data on the size of the country’s budget deficit was deliberately falsified.
Having forecast a budget deficit of 3.7 percent for 2009, the Greek government was eventually forced to reveal a deficit of 15.4 percent. It was also condemned by the commission for fabricating and manipulating economic statistics.
The scandal plunged the country into crisis and, subsequently, into two EU-funded bailout packages worth a €240 billion in total.
Governments are now required by EU law to ensure that national statistical offices are statutorily independent and free from political influence.
Meanwhile, countries which miss statistical targets on their debt and deficit levels can also be fined under the eurozone's revised economic governance rules.
The legislation tabled by the EU executive in 2012 only applied to national statistics agencies, but MEPs agreed to extend its scope to apply the rules to Eurostat.
An agreement reached following a series of trialogue meetings between MEPs and ministers last summer would have inserted a ‘whistleblower clause’ giving the head of Eurostat the right to challenge the commission if it threatened the independence of the agency.
MEPs also wanted the parliament to be consulted on the nomination of the Eurostat boss and to appear before the assembly's economic affairs committee.
The clause backed by MEPs states that "the director-general shall act in an independent manner and shall neither seek nor take instructions from any government or any institution, body, office, or agency. If the Director-General considers that a measure taken by the Commission calls his or her independence into question, he or she shall immediately inform the European Parliament".
But the commission has argued that Eurostat, which is legally considered part of the commission, should be treated in the same way as other departments of the EU executive.
With MEPs refusing to back down on the point, negotiations on the dossier have now been abandoned.
"Eurostat is part of the commission, and the commission acts politically on the basis of what Eurostat produces," Liem Hoang Ngoc, the MEP tasked with leading parliament's negotiating team on the file, told EUobserver.
"Ensuring that those who use statistics for political purposes are not the same people than those who make them is the very point of this regulation. The commission lauds this principle when it comes to the national level, yet it shamelessly think that the EU can opt out."
Hoang Ngoc, a French centre-left MEP, also accused the commission of political interference during negotiations, commenting that it had "used the full extent of its powers, including threatening to withdraw the legislation and requesting a unanimity vote at the council, to prevent the council from signing off on the agreement."
However, commission spokeswoman Emer Traynor said that the EU executive had "never threatened to withdraw this proposal".
"We really regret that progress on this proposal – which is essential for more independent, reliable and coordinated statistics – has been held up by inter-institutional questions that do not belong in this discussion," she said.
The EU treaties allow the commission to unilaterally re-write or withdraw a proposal. Unlike governments, the EU executive can also insist that a bill be adopted by unanimity among ministers rather than the normal majority.