* Commission aims to give EU statistics more credibility
* Greek, Spanish data helped to inflame euro debt crisis
By Robin Emmott
BRUSSELS, April 17 The European Union is seeking
the power to punish governments who massage their economic
statistics, aiming to stamp out political meddling that allowed
Greece to lie about its borrowings and trigger a debt crisis
across the euro zone.
New rules proposed by the European Commission on Tuesday
would allow the EU to apply sanctions on countries who fail to
safeguard the independence of national statistics institutes or
make politically-motivated appointments, saying statistics
chiefs should be "entirely autonomous in their work."
The proposal has yet to be approved by the European
Parliament and EU governments, but it looks hard to reject given
the intensity of investor pressures on the 17-nation euro zone
and the Commission's insistence on enforcing fiscal and debt
limits to win back confidence.
"Our statistics are good but we want to go further. We want
to ensure that, never again, will we have any political
influence in our statistics, " said Algirdas Semeta, the EU's
Commissioner's responsible for statistics.
"The economic crisis has shown us the importance of credible
statistics ... but they must be deemed credible," he told a news
conference to launch the plans.
The 27-nation bloc's statistics office Eurostat has been
complaining about the need for accurate budget data in Europe
But it was only in 2010, the year after Greece disclosed
vast hidden debts, that EU finance ministers agreed to grant
Eurostat more powers.
While it can now get access to government accounts, as well
as social security data, that reform came too late to stop a
collapse in investor confidence that forced Greece, Ireland and
Portugal to seek international bailouts and that now threatens
the far bigger economies of Spain and Italy.
SIX OR EIGHT PERCENT?
Greece has already signed up to the Commission's new
proposal, pending its approval probably by the end of this year,
promising to fully respect the independence of the Greek
statistics institute, ELSTAT.
Failure to comply could result in "infringement procedures"
the Commission said in a statement, referring to a step-by-step
process that can lead to fines for a member state or the
freezing of development aid, in the case of poorer EU countries.
The latest flare-up in the crisis, after weeks of calm
induced by copious European Central Bank lending to battered
commercial banks, was sparked by Spain's new government
announcing it had inherited a worse-than-expected
deficit from its predecessor.
Some officials in Brussels privately suspect the new Spanish
government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy overstated the 2011
budget deficit so this year's data might look better, something
Madrid strongly denied.
Commission inspectors have been in Spain to evaluate public
accounts after Madrid said at the end of February that its
deficit was 8.5 percent of economic output last year, above the
Commission's 6 percent forecast.
It will publish its reading of Spain's 2011 budget deficit
on April 23, Semeta said.
The Commission also raised concerns in 2010 about Bulgarian
statistics after revealing a hidden deficit for 2009.
"Of course, governments have a tendency to be a little bit
too optimistic about future economic growth," said Joost
Beaumont, a senior economist at ABN Amro in Amsterdam and a
former statistician at the Dutch statistics office CBS.
"In the case of the Spain, the shortfalls came from regional
and local authorities and provision of data to the statistical
office was probably not good and that of course can be induced
by politicians," he said.
Luxembourg-based Eurostat is widely viewed as credible by
economists and investors and publishes regular data ranging from
inflation to labour costs and unemployment, but it is still
reliant on individual countries' figures.