Europe’s recovery gains speed in turbulent year

Europe's recovery gains speed in turbulent year

FRANKFURT — Europe’s economic recovery is on more solid ground ahead of what could be a turbulent political year.

Official figures showed clear signs of improvement in the 19 countries that share the euro currency. Statistics agency Eurostat said Tuesday that eurozone growth accelerated in the fourth quarter to 0.5 per cent from 0.4 per cent in the previous three-month period. As a result, the eurozone economy grew by 1.7 per cent in 2016.

That solid — if unspectacular — growth helped unemployment drop 0.1 percentage point in December to 9.6 per cent. That is the lowest since May 2009, before a financial implosion in Greece that year set off a debt crisis that almost shattered the eurozone.

The growth and unemployment figures offer a boost to supporters of the European Union and the euro currency after years of crisis management. Eurozone governments have had to bail out Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, and set up new banking regulations aimed at preventing future crises. A perceived emphasis on controlling deficits over promoting growth fueled resentment in bailed-out countries.

One of the most striking numbers from Eurostat showed inflation across the eurozone rising sharply in January to 1.8 per cent from 1.1 per cent the month before — a jump that will likely encourage critics who think it’s time for the European Central Bank to start withdrawing its stimulus programs.

Inflation was the highest since February 2013 and now — on paper anyway — at the ECB’s goal of just below 2 per cent.

The upturn is unlikely to quell populist resentment of the EU in a year that will see challenges from nationalist and populist anti-EU parties. Elections in France, the Netherlands, Germany and possibly Italy will give such forces a chance to test their support.

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National, for example, wants a referendum on leaving the EU, which she has compared to the Soviet Union. Polls suggest she could make it past the first round of voting in April but would lose in the May runoff.

Europe’s recovery remains uneven. Germany, benefiting from strong exports and domestic demand, has an unemployment rate of only 3.9 per cent, according to Eurostat.

Greece, which has struggled to get its finances under control despite three rounds of bailout loans from its euro partners and the International Monetary Fund, remains mired in economic misery. The latest unemployment figures there, from October, showed 23.0 per cent of the workforce out of a job.

Spain has showed a stronger recovery from a collapsed real estate boom, but the jobless rate remains at 18.4 per cent despite a substantial drop in December from 20.7 per cent.

Unemployment for young people leaving school is even worse in the lagging countries still feeling the effects of the debt crisis: 44.2 per cent for under-25s in Greece, 42.9 per cent in Spain and 40.1 per cent in Italy.

The inflation figure could present a headache for Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank. It’s likely to embolden critics, particularly in Germany, who say it’s time for the bank to start withdrawing its extraordinary stimulus aimed at increasing inflation toward the bank’s goal.

The ECB has held its short-term benchmark interest rate at zero and is purchasing government and corporate bonds with newly printed money, a step that pumps fresh cash into the financial system and drives down longer-term borrowing rates. Critics say the zero-interest rate policy punishes savers, who get no return on conservative holdings such as bank deposits, and supports indebted governments with cheap borrowing costs.

Draghi however has shown no signs of readiness to start scaling back. He says the spike in inflation is caused by volatile oil prices, not by underlying price pressures in the economy such as wage increases passed on to consumers. That means the inflation spike could fade over coming months, as the effect of sharply lower oil prices a year ago is left behind. Core inflation, which excludes oil and food prices, remained stuck at 0.9 per cent, about where it has been for months.

David McHugh, The Associated Press