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December 15, 2004

Lies, Damned Lies & EU Statistics

Posted by Hector Boffey

Those presently at work on a new PR strategy for the EU have a mountain to climb, even if the forthcoming referendums on the Constitution do appear to provide a scintilla of hope. Starting with Spain in February, those countries that are most likely to give an emphatic yes vote will be the first to ask the voters to endorse the Constitution. In that way, the Commission and Council of Ministers hope that a huge and unstoppable momentum can be built up behind the yes campaign before the most eurosceptic nations – notably Britain and Denmark – hold plebiscites in early 2006. But otherwise, all the recent news about developments with in the EU '25', from crime to economics and from pensions to trade, has been grim and looks being even grimmer in the foreseeable future. Longer term prospects look grimmer still. But for our friends Maurice and Gerhard, who have been called in to work on the strategy, the deluge of bad news is merely grist to their mill, as the following conversation makes clear:

Tell me, Gerhard what's the worst news that we need to take account of?

Well, Maurice the news just in is not terribly helpful. An inquiry by Eurostat has confirmed that the Greek government consistently and systematically lied over the state of its public finances for years and years in order to join the single currency. Not exactly the kind of news that breeds public confidence in the political class.

This is no big deal, Gerhard. I knew the Greeks were lying, you knew they were lying, everyone knew they were lying; no one, for a moment suspected them of telling the truth. But it would have been terribly embarrassing all round if we had said this. Eurostat only agreed to carry out the investigation into the Greek public finances when the new Government in Athens blamed its predecessor for what had happened in order to score a cheap political point. I take a very dim view of such displays of righteousness. It's what the English call not playing cricket. What other bad news do we need to take account of?

Well, EU fraud is up, trade is down and we are losing market share, growth is stymied, exports are plunging, unemployment is near an all-time high, inflation is moving upwards, pensions in 2020 won't buy bag of chestnuts in the Grande Place, the population of Europe is shrinking like a deflating balloon, and there is more and more evidence that the CAP is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions in sub-Saharan Africa. And that's just for starters.

Well, let's see whether we can't put a positive gloss on things. Let's start with fraud. What do the annual figures from OLAF say?

They show a nine per cent increase in reported fraud. Virtually every EU department is being investigated and some investigations concern two or more departments. The budget which has been rifled most is that for overseas aid. Apparently millions intended for a dam in Lesotho that would provide water for South Africa have just disappeared into thin air. Three million euros in suspected bribes were traced to a bank account in Switzerland belonging to an official responsible for awarding contracts - and that accounts for only part of the missing funds. In Paraguay funds intended for another water project ended up in the bank account of a foundation that had nothing remotely to do with the project, H2O or the alleviation of poverty, except that of Swiss bankers and South American politicians.

No one cares a hoot for what goes on in Paraguay, Gerhard, but I acknowledge that we need to find a way to allay public concerns about fraud. Indeed the issue provides the opportunity to road test the strategy that I have been working on. The essence of this is to show that what at first appears to be bad news, even very bad news, when properly explained and properly understood, is really good news.

How can a nine per cent increase in fraud and the plod of heavy policemen's feet outside our door day after day be presented as good news?

What we are dealing with here, Gerhard, is reported fraud. We therefore say that the figures from OLAF demonstrate that more and more people are prepared to speak out in the public interest, and that the 'increase' is a reflection of this fact and is much to be welcomed. The increase can then be dismissed as merely statistical.

Brilliant, Maurice! But I am sure you won't mind if I point out that the total sum lost to EU taxpayers as a result of crime is unknowable and therefore it is not possible to say whether a higher or lower proportion of fraud is being reported. You take your life – well, at least your job - in your hands in this place if you snitch. You know what happens to whistle-blowers. To coin a phrase they are 'Kinnocked': first they are sent to Limoges by their colleagues, then their characters are systematically destroyed, and then they are sacked.

Gerhard, you display powers of logic and observation that I never suspected you possessed. But you are not being helpful. How else is an increase in fraud to be defended! Now, let us apply my strategy to other problems. The demographic problem, for example. What's the scale of the problem according to the new UN figures?

Europe is set to lose 100 million people in 50 years – 139 million if we halt all immigration. The implications of this are just mind-blowing.

No problem! We say that significant and promising changes to Europe's demographic profile will ease environmental problems, reduce the need for expensive child care and nursery provision, eliminate congestion and diminish traffic problems, particularly at choke-points, as well as shortening the queue at the post office.

People aren't stupid Maurice. They are beginning to cotton on to the fact that as a result of the falling birth rate and the decline in the proportion of those economically active they will need to remain in gainful employment until they are 87 in order to get a decent pension.

Again, we must stress the positive: we say that analyses of labour market data suggest that employers and consumers will benefit from a much under-valued resource, i.e. some of the most mature and highly experienced workers in the world!

What about falling assets values – of houses for example – to which the fall in population is expected to lead?

We say that as result of prudent macro-economic management homes are cheaper for first time-buyers.

What about all of those forecasts suggesting decades of zero growth?

We stress the virtues of stability. Do you think you are catching on? Remember: given the distinctly unhelpful material with which we have to work we must start from the assumption that there is simply no economic or social event including plague or civil war that cannot be portrayed as a blessing. Now, I think that we have done enough to reward ourselves with a very good lunch. I suppose that it would be too much to expect that population decline will make it easier to reserve the best tables!

Note to readers: Commenting on the increase in the numbers of reported frauds within the EU Franz-Hermann Brüner, the head of OLAF, the EU anti-fraud squad said: "The increase in cases is partially because there is an increase in people telling us [about fraud]…It is a very promising sign" (BBC Online News, 27th November 2004).

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