Greece is back in recession. Italy is barely growing. Portugal expanded but only at half the expected rate. The message could hardly be clearer: the next phase of the eurozone crisis is about to begin.
On the face of it, the performance of the eurozone economy in the final three months of 2015 looks solid if unspectacular, with growth as measured by GDP up by 0.3%.
But scratch beneath the surface and the picture looks far less rosy. The beneficial impacts of the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing programme have started to wear off, as has the effect of the big drop in oil prices in the second half of 2014. The eurozone peaked in the second quarter of 2015 and the trend was starting to weaken even before the recent turbulence on the financial markets.
Three individual countries bear closer examination. The first is Germany, for which growth of 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2015 and 1.4% for the year as a whole is as good as it gets. Exports – the mainstay of the German economy – are going to face a much more challenging international climate in 2016, particularly with the euro strengthening on the foreign exchanges.
Finland is noteworthy, not just because it is officially back in recession after two successive quarters of negative growth and still has a smaller economy than it did when the financial crisis erupted in 2008, but because its performance is worse than that of Denmark and Sweden, two Scandinavian EU members not in the single currency.
But by far the most worrying country is Greece, where a crumbling economy and the attempts to impose even more draconian austerity is leading, unsurprisingly, to violent protests on the streets.
A contraction in growth makes it even harder for Greece to achieve the already ridiculously ambitious deficit and debt reduction targets set for it by its creditors, and on past form that will lead sooner or later (sooner in this case) to a fresh financial crisis and the imposition of further austerity measures. After six months out of the headlines, Greece is coming back to the boil. The danger is that other weak countries on the eurozone’s periphery – most notably Italy and Portugal – suffer from contagion effects.
In the short term, further stimulus from the ECB is a bolt-on certainty next month, either through cuts in interest rates or an expansion of its QE programme, or more likely both. In the longer term, a summer of crisis eurozone summits to discuss the fate of Greece looms. Probably not what David Cameron wants as he contemplates how to win his Brexit referendum.
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