EFTA: A partner in European statistics

Official statistics is a genuinely international affair – whether it concerns estimates of economic growth or energy consumption, migration figures or data on greenhouse gas emissions. It needs to adhere to common practices and methodologies in order to ensure comparability across countries and be useful for policy making, economic analysis and society at large. This article provides a brief outline of EFTA’s cooperation with the EU in the field of statistics, with a particular focus on dissemination and how users can access European statistics.

The European Statistical System

Unlike many other policy areas, European statistics tends to be less about negotiations and competing interests among countries than about cooperation for the advancement of all. Although there are frequent discussions about methodology, priorities and the precise content of new legislation, the dominant attitude in the statistical community is that it is in everyone’s interest – not least the user communities – to have the greatest number of countries on board, adhering to the basic principles laid down in the European Statistics Code of Practice and in harmonised methodologies.

The European Statistical System (ESS) is a partnership between Eurostat – the Statistical Office of the European Union – and the National Statistical Institutes (NSIs) of the 32 EU and EFTA States. While the NSIs collect data and compile statistics at national level, Eurostat’s primary role is to lead the way in harmonising statistics in close cooperation with its ESS partners. Eurostat also plays an important role in the publication of European statistics.

The European Statistical System Committee (ESSC) consists of representatives of Eurostat and the ESS NSIs. The four EFTA States participate in the ESSC on an equal footing with the EU Member States, but without voting rights. The Commission consults the ESSC on measures it intends to take regarding the development, production and dissemination of European statistics, on multiannual and annual work programmes, on issues concerning response burden, confidentiality and the Code of Practice, and on methodology. For the EFTA States, this means that the ESSC provides an opportunity to influence forthcoming EEA legislation and other Commission initiatives.

Statistics in the EEA and Swiss-EU Agreements

The purpose of statistical cooperation in the European Economic Area (EEA) is to provide comparable and reliable statistical information in order to describe and monitor all fields of cooperation covered by the EEA Agreement.

Currently, the European Statistical Programme (ESP) 2013-2017 constitutes the framework for the EEA statistical actions to be carried out. While all main fields of the ESP are open for full participation by the three EEA EFTA States – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – the actual work programme is established on an annual basis in a process involving Eurostat and the EFTA Statistical Office, which consults the EFTA NSIs. In practice, the EEA Annual Work Programme is closely aligned with Eurostat’s Annual Work Programme.

Most legal acts in the field of statistics are incorporated into the EEA Agreement, although adaptations are sometimes required. The EEA EFTA States are also eligible for Eurostat grants.

Although legally and institutionally different, the Swiss-EU Agreement on statistics provides for many of the same rights and obligations as the EEA Agreement. Hence, all four EFTA States have the opportunity to participate in Eurostat working groups and task forces and contribute to the process of “decision shaping” on a par with the EU Member States.

The EFTA Statistical Office

The EFTA Statistical Office (ESO) is primarily a liaison office between the EFTA NSIs and Eurostat. At the core of ESO’s activities are monitoring new EU legislation in the field of statistics, and assisting NSIs in evaluating the EEA relevance of new legal acts and incorporating them into the EEA Agreement. Furthermore, ESO works closely with Eurostat on the development of the EEA Annual Work Programme and monitors the inclusion of EFTA data in Eurostat publications. As part of its cooperation with Eurostat and the EFTA NSIs, ESO also co-organises courses for statisticians in the framework of the European Statistical Training Programme and supports statistical training and capacity building in third countries, primarily in Europe’s border regions to the east and south. ESO is located at the premises of Eurostat in Luxembourg.

EFTA data in Eurostat publications – a mutual responsibility

The mutual obligations of the EEA EFTA NSIs and Eurostat with regard to the provision and dissemination of data are defined in Protocol 30 to the EEA Agreement. While the EEA EFTA States have an obligation to provide data in the areas where EEA legislation is in place, Eurostat is obliged to make these data available on a par with data for the EU Member States. Similar mutual obligations are included in the Swiss-EU Agreement.

What this means in practice is that Eurostat’s publications and databases contain a wealth of information about both the EU and EFTA States on a variety of topics in all statistical fields, like population and social conditions, economy and finance, business, energy and environment, international trade and social statistics.

Where to find European statistics?

Eurostat is an excellent source of comparable data for most European countries. At the core of Eurostat’s dissemination activities is Eurobase, an extensive and publicly accessible database covering statistics in all fields. As a rule, Eurostat publications are based on data extracted from Eurobase.

Like many NSIs, Eurostat has lately been phasing out many of its traditional printed publications and replacing them with online dissemination channels. One of Eurostat’s most prominent online publications is the Statistics Explained series. Statistics Explained is a collection of articles – at present around 880 – on a wide range of statistical topics. A typical Statistics Explained article contains tables, graphs and sometimes maps, a substantial analytical part explaining the results in more detail, and background information about the underlying methodology and legal basis. Most articles are updated regularly with the most recent statistical information, usually accompanied by a news release when new data become available.

Advances in digital media in recent years have changed the way in which the public gathers and shares information. In order to adapt to these changing circumstances, Eurostat has developed several data visualisation tools and mobile apps. These are intended to provide users with quick and easy access to a selection of important statistical indicators, with links to more extensive data. 

Deputy, EFTA Statistical Office
EFTA Statistical Office

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