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José Manuel Durão Barroso

President of the European Commission

Statistics for policy-making

Eurostat conference on "Statistics for policymaking: Europe 2020"

Brussels, 10 March 2011

Thank you very much dear Directorate-General,

Dear Janez,

Distinguished guests,

It is a pleasure for me to open such an important conference where both policymakers and statisticians meet. I have seen how impressive is the group of people that will participate in this conference. As the Director-General just said, I think it is extremely timely.

It is indisputable that official statistics do matter. The role of statistics in the social and economic development of our societies has now been officially acknowledged with the first World statistics day celebrated on the 20th of October 2010, and rightly so.

Statistics also play a key role in communicating our policies. We all enjoy watching diagrams and tables when we read the papers or watch websites. Moreover, modern communication tools, such as blogs and websites, are as hungry for reliable quantitative information as they are hungry for videos: because it captures the essence in a visual and user-friendly way.

Today and tomorrow you will have in-depth discussions on the role of statistics in policy-making using the Europe 2020 strategy as a case in point.

And so intervening at the opening of these series of debates, I thought of just sharing with you a few general remarks from a policymaker's perspective.

First, I would like to say a few words on the current European context.

The economic and financial crisis has wiped out years of economic and social progress. And it has vividly exposed structural vulnerabilities within the economies and societies of individual Member States.

It has highlighted weaknesses in the implementation of our Economic and Monetary Union. And above all it has clearly shown how interdependent our economies became.

The crisis has amplified the need for strengthened economic coordination and enhanced surveillance in the Euro zone in particular and more generally in the European Union as a whole.

We clearly need an effective framework to deal with macroeconomic imbalances.

We need a common strategic vision on the future of our European social market model in a fast-changing, uncertain and increasingly competitive globalised world.

To address these challenges, the Commission has front-loaded all the measures and put forward new instruments that are to set the agenda for the European policy-making over the coming years: the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs, the reinforced economic governance (the six proposals that we have put forward and that are now for a decision by the Council and the Parliemant. I would like to see them adopted by June), including also through the European Semester the ex-ante coordination of economic policies in the European Union, - and the regulation and supervision of financial markets. These are in fact, major changes in terms of the economic governance of the European Union and it is indeed very interesting that the crisis has made it possible. Frankly speaking, it would not have been possible just two or three years ago the willingness of all our governments to adopt this reinforced governance at the economic level, mainly in the euro area and also beyond the euro area.

The Europe 2020 strategy itself is an integrated and coherent approach to support smart, sustainable and inclusive growth rooted in greater coordination of policies at the national and European levels.

The structural reforms that are being implemented as part of the Strategy will contribute to stimulate a broad-based growth, create jobs and allow economies to adjust more readily to changing conditions.

But why are statistics so valuable to policy makers in addressing the crisis and laying sound foundations for an inclusive and sustainable growth?

In a nutshell: implementing the overall response to the crisis will require sound, high quality data and statistical analysis, on which decisions can be based.

As we are increasingly faced with complex questions to answer and complex decisions to take, we obviously need to know what is going on in our economies and our societies.

The essence of statistics is precisely to concentrate the complexity we face into meaningful and relevant information for the policy makers, but also for the citizens; to ensure transparency of decisions and of decisions making process.

Transparency and accountability are indeed crucial to foster mutual trust between policy makers, both in Brussels and the capitals of our Member States and the citizens.

There must be not doubt on the European determination to draw a line under the crisis. That is why we need to be providing first a credible assessment of our strengths and weaknesses as well as vulnerabilities. It is only based on such a sound diagnosis that the policy-makers can take decisive actions to address them.

Broader and enhanced surveillance of fiscal policies, but also macroeconomic policies and structural reforms must rely on high quality statistical information.

Statistics are also crucial when setting our targets and using indicators for monitoring and evaluation purposes.

In particular, measuring trends in competitiveness and following the developments in the macroeconomic imbalances within the enhanced economic governance framework will be based on a scoreboard of economic indicators.

The high quality of statistics produced under robust quality management becomes even more important when new enforcement mechanisms are foreseen in case of non-compliance by Member States with agreed targets or policy commitments taken.

Sound statistics are also a condition sine qua non for accurate forecasts and projections that also form an integral part of the recommendations made by the Commission in the framework of the economic policy coordination and fiscal surveillance in the European Union.

Statistical information that the policy-makers receive must be relevant, timely and accurate to best decide on the policy direction and the best course of action to take that should be both ambitious and realistic.

Statistics are, therefore, literally present in all parts of our global response to the crisis. And it is in this overall framework that the Commission has repeated the necessity to grant Eurostat with extended powers in the field of fiscal statistics, which was agreed by the Council in August last year. These powers allow for an in-depth review of upstream data sources used in the excessive deficit procedure.

But let me tell you here that it is already in 2005, in fact it was one of the first initiatives of my first Commission, that we have put forward the proposal to strengthen the mandate of Eurostat, which was unfortunately not met with enthusiasm by the Member States at that time. I am being very diplomatic. In fact there was a strong opposition. I personally believe that we could have avoided many of the future problems were the extended powers to the European Statistical Authority granted earlier than last year. Better late than never.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Distinguished guests,

Given that in your discussions you will take the Europe 2020 strategy as a relevant policy case example, let's have now a closer look at it.

Sound statistical analysis underpinned by robust statistics will be key for steering the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy. As you know, statistics are almost all over the Strategy starting with its headline quantitative targets that embody its overall objectives. Let me recall them for you at the beginning of your conference:

Europe 2020 is about boosting growth and employment through the following objectives at the European level:

  • raising the employment rate from the current 69% to 75%;

  • boosting spending on R&D to 3% of GDP from the current 2%;

  • reducing the school drop out to less than 10% from the current 15% and increase the share of people in their early 30s with a university degree or equivalent from 31% to at least 40%;

  • achieving the EU's 20/20/20 climate change goal;

  • lifting at least 20 million people out of the risk of poverty and exclusion.

These targets serve as a benchmark for the necessary policy action and at the same time as a communication device. Of course, I want to underline this point because I was in those very interesting debates in the European Council regarding those targets. As you remember, there was some discussion, particularly regarding education targets and poverty targets, mainly because of subsidiarity concerns. But in fact it is interesting to have the Heads of State and Government for several hours discussing not just abstract ideas, but concrete targets. I have no special fetishism with figures, but I think that to have sound decisions, it is better to focus the mind on this kind of figures. Of course we cannot be completely automatic about those figures, but in fact, adopt this targets it is a way also of translating publicly a commitment and also to mobilise the public opinion for it.

This is why now these targets are being translated by the Member States into national targets under each of the headings. This allows citizens to know why and how decisions are taken, and follow their implementation. We will only make a verifiable progress with the many initiatives under Europe 2020 if the related policy assessments are grounded in an indicator-based analysis.

Thus the appropriate choice of indicators is key to boost our understanding of the complexity of our diverse societies within the European Union, to better communicate on it, and to better respond to new policy needs as for example with the "GDP and beyond" initiative to include measurement of well being. It was in 2007 that the Commission organised with other institutions that very interesting "Beyond GDP" conference that you know is the origin of a Communication. And in fact, our initiative was followed by several others, including in some European countries, of course for more attention to these more qualitative elements of statistical analysis.

That being said, certain pre-conditions have to be respected for producing statistics of the highest quality.

Statistics are compiled within the European Statistical System based on an extended cooperation between the National Statistical Institutes across the Union and between the Institutes and Eurostat.

The data used by the Commission reflect both, the Eurostat competence but also the quality of data notified by the Member States. In case the latter were of insufficient quality, this would have a negative impact on the quality of the European statistics but would also put at stake the credibility of our European policy-making.

We have seen in the context of the recent economic and financial crisis that the weaknesses in the quality of upstream public accounting data were compounded by the weaknesses in the statistical governance arrangements in place at the national level, in Europe, but also out of Europe. This in turn influenced the way we were seeing the economic reality in some Member States at that particular moment.

Further strengthening of the governance of the European Statistical System will be key in this respect. The Commission is currently reflecting on ways to achieve it and we will soon present, most probably in April, some concrete proposals in a forthcoming Communication precisely on the main topic of your conference.

Obviously designing and monitoring statistical indicators for policy purposes requires close cooperation between policymakers and statisticians at national and at European levels. Policy-makers must provide the right incentives for and guarantee the professional independence of statisticians, strengthening their impartiality and objectivity. This is even more relevant in the European context to ensure trust between the Member States and between the Member States and the Commission. I really believe that there is a great importance from a political point of view, because if we politicise the debates about statistics, we will have problems. The more credible the statistics and the more independent the authority of the statistical analysis, the easier it will be to take decisions in such sensitive matters where in fact we have to establish benchmarks and we have to deal sometimes with enhanced surveillance in extremely sensitive issues. That is why what I am saying is not just out of courtesy because I am speaking to an assembly mainly composed by statisticians. It is critically important, I can tell you now based on my six years of experience in this position, where in some cases, not many but in some very sensitive cases, we had to argue with the governments, including at Head of Government level, about the quality of our statistics. So this shows how politicised this issue, whether we like it or not, becomes and that is why I think the only way to deal with this matter is in fact the independence (this is also a way to protect the political decision at European level), but of course the overall objective quality and expertise of our statistical methods.

Given that statistics are expected to assume an even stronger role in our democracies, this is the right moment to reflect on the challenges in the use of statistics in the policy-making.

Your conference, organised in a very timely manner, is the appropriate forum to foster such a discussion.

I wish you very fruitful deliberations and am looking forward to reading your conclusions.

I thank you for your attention.

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