Europe not out of the woods yet

PHOTO: Europe not out of the woods yet

The tentative green shoots of exports and consumer spending are too slender to sustain Europe's exit from recession. The 0.3 per cent euro area growth in the second quarter that Eurostat has estimated amounts only to a feeble recovery. It is a relief the zone is exiting its longest slump since the single currency's debut, but it is too early to celebrate.

Exports cannot be unduly relied upon as demand beyond Europe remains weak. The United States has not exactly come roaring back to help European sales. Emerging economies, including the Brics, are no longer expanding at double digits; some are not growing at even half their previous rates. So, demand will remain only mainly intra-European.

Even then, consumer spending has largely been on cars, appliances and other durables - delayed purchases unlikely to recur frequently enough to boost further growth.

Neither are all euro members out of the woods yet. Growing at 0.7 per cent last quarter, Germany did the heavy lifting, with France barely making positive, but Greece remains in crisis and Spain and Italy continue to shrink, although at a slower pace. Neither in scale nor in scope has the zone's uptick really begun to tell.

Stupendously high unemployment persists in many countries. With more than half their youth out of work, Greece and Spain risk losing a whole generation to the recession. Political complications and social tensions that joblessness brings will continue to preoccupy European governments. Meanwhile, consumer and investor confidence will shrivel.

Governments also have to deal with debts piled so high that one fiscal crisis follows another. None of the southern European nations is sure it no longer needs bailing out. They certainly will not soon forget the pain of austerity externally enforced to clear the mess of living beyond their means, which inflated housing bubbles and government spending.

There is a danger in drawing a conclusion that it was the recent easing of austerity measures that is slowing or ending the recession. Even if that is the case, Europeans should persevere with financial reform and economic restructuring.

They need to straighten their banks and reduce or write down debts. They should be serious about creating a banking union to regulate credit and see that businesses get the loans they need. And they should foster productive investment and free trade, which the euro is meant to facilitate. Without such change, Europe will recover only slowly, if at all.

After being a drag for so long, it needs to start doing more for the world economy. It has to join Asian and other emerging economies as well as the US in providing global economic locomotion.

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