Talk about statistics and the EU and the things likely to spring to people’s mind are the fiddling of the Greek fiscal accounts or, in Germany at least, doubts that the official inflation rate was really telling the true story of how – allegedly – expensive everything had become after the introduction of the euro.
In fact one of the lesser-known, but non-trivial answers to the rhetorical question “What has the EU ever done for us?” is: comparable statistics. Now this might not be the sort of thing that sets your heart beating faster. It’s damned useful nonetheless. Both politicians and social scientists are interested in what policies and institutions generate better and worse outcomes. And a good way to find out is to compare countries with regard to both their institutional and policy inputs and their socio-economic outputs. This “comparativist” approach works best when countries are, broadly, similar, but at the same time vary in specific ways on both the input and output side. Like in Europe. For this approach to work well, however, you need to measure things in a consistent way.
And that is one thing that the EU has done quite effectively. EU institutions (such as Eurostat, the Commission, the ECB) devote considerable energy and resources to producing and disseminating statistics that permit valid comparisons. As a researcher I for one am very grateful. But also as a citizen: for this approach permits benchmarking and ‘open’ methods of policy coordination that, in principle, deliver better policies. (“In principle” because even with good statistics such processes can be used to push specific ideological agendas.)
So the statistics, in many areas, are available, but of course you have to use them, and this brings me to what sparked off this little diatribe. Larry Elliot makes an unusual slip here when comparing the performance of Germany and France. Reporting data from the two countries released yesterday, he says that while French unemployment is heading towards 11%, in Germany it is only 6.8%. The problem is that he is quoting national data sources and they are not comparable: the definitions used by the labour market authorities in the two countries differ. If you look at the latest Eurostat unemployment data, from earlier this month, you see that French unemployment, indeed, stands (Nov.) at 10.5% and is rising, but in Germany the jobless rate, on the comparable Eurostat definition, is just 5.4%.* And even if you think that the German way of calculating the numbers is better than the common European definition – a perfectly reasonable contention in itself – when making such an international comparison it can only ever be right to use comparable data.
In this case Larry’s argument would merely have been considerably strengthened by using the right data. But there are many occasions when completely erroneous conclusions could be drawn from comparisons based on national data that use inconsistent definitions. Of course there are many areas where such data are not available at all or are very patchy: one example I have come across is the incidence of accidents at work. But let us use the right data when it is available.
And remember that the list of small things that the EU has done for us is actually quite long. Peace? Oh peace!
* The December numbers came in just after I posted this: 10.6% and 5.3%.