A recovery in Europe? Really?

March 8, 2012

There’s a sense of relief among European policymakers that the worst of the euro zone’s crisis appears to have passed. Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic officials, talked this week of a “turning of the tide in the coming months”. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, speaks of “sizeable progress” and “a reassuring picture”.

At last week’s spring summit, EU leaders couldn’t say it enough: “This meeting is not a crisis meeting … it’s not crisis management,” according to Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. All the talk is of how the euro zone’s economy will recover in the second half of this year.

But for the 330 million Europeans who make up the euro zone, the outlook has, if anything, darkened. As euro zone governments deepen their commitment to deficit-cutting, and rising oil prices mean higher-than-expected inflation, households can’t be counted on to drive growth. Not only did housing spending fall 0.4 percent in the October to December period from the third quarter, but unemployment rose to its highest since late 1997 in January.

Joblessness is reaching shameful levels in southern Europe. In Greece, unemployment rose to a new record high of 21 percent in December and to 23 percent in Spain in January. Even in wealthy, northern Europe, the number of people out of work has started to rise in France, the Netherlands and Germany.

Just over half of the euro zone‘s economic output is generated by domestic consumer spending, but demand for goods looks chronically weak and fiscal austerity is aggravating the situation. Euro zone governments, desperate to distinguish themselves from debt-stricken Greece, are completely unwilling to step in and spend. The European Commission, persuaded mainly by Germany that fiscal discipline will lift economic growth, is on their backs to get their deficits within the 3 percent level of GDP by the end of 2013.

“The case against Europe‚Äôs growth strategy is that it is all supply and no demand,” said Philip Whyte, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. “Fiscal policy is being tightened too rapidly. The more certain EU countries do to balance their budgets, the more output contracts,” he said in a recent paper.

So where will growth come from? The ECB’s Draghi said this week he is counting on foreign demand. Emerging Asia and a stronger recovery in the United States might help pull the euro zone out of its slump. But with Germany responsible for almost 40 percent of the euro zone’s exports, a wider tide of prosperity across the currency area looks unlikely.

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