Media attention regarding Europe's economy has largely focussed on the debt crisis in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, together with some discussion of whether the radical cuts in public spending in the UK will undermine its economic recovery. Both are important topics. However they are insufficient to answer a more general question – how well is the European Union (EU) recovering from the Great Recession?
This relates to another misunderstanding of the trend in Europe's economies - a tendency to present the situation as a 'two track Europe'. In this conception, there is primarily a division between ‘northern' and 'southern’ Europe – with the former recovering and the latter not (in this perspective Ireland is an honorary member of southern Europe).
Examination of factual trends, however, shows a different situation. There are three groups, not two, within the EU's economy:
- Significantly recovering economies - centred on Germany and France.
- Small economies which have undergone serious economic decline, of which the most well known cases are Greece and Ireland - but even taken as a group these are too small to determine the course of Europe's economy.
- A group centred on what may be termed the ‘large relatively stagnant economies’ - the UK, Italy and Spain, which underwent substantial economic decline and in which recovery is currently slow.
Due to their size it is likely to be this third group that determines the dynamic of the EUs economy in the coming period.
This article analyses these trends
The overall situation in the EU economy
To give a context for the the EU's economic performance, the overall trends in GDP in the three major centres of developed economies – the US, the EU, and Japan – are shown in Figure 1. This shows GDP since the peak of the previous business cycle.
Regarding the EU, its GDP in the last quarter of 2010 remained 2.8% below in its peak – the latter occurring in the 1st quarter of 2008. It is highly improbable that growth in the 1st quarter of 2011 will be sufficient to take EU GDP back to its previous peak level. Therefore, over a three year period, the EU will have experienced net negative growth.
To take a comparison, three years after the beginning of recession, US GDP just regained its previous peak level in the last quarter of 2010 - technically on OECD data it was 0.1% above it. Japan’s GDP remained 4.2% below its previous peak.
Figure 2 shows that there is no essential difference between the performance of the EU as a whole and that of the Eurozone. Therefore in this article concentration will be on the Eurozone plus the one large European economy outside it – the UK. Together these determine the European economic situation.
Three groups in the EU
Considering trends within the EU in more detail, three distinct groups in terms of economic recovery can be identified.
- The first group, centred on Germany and France, is enjoying relatively synchronised and significant recovery.
- A second group, consisting of Greece, Ireland, Estonia, and Slovenia has undergone severe economic contraction and recovery in these states is either limited or so far has not occurred. The combined GDP of these countries is, however, too small to determine the overall economic situation in the EU.
- A third group includes three major European economies – the UK, Italy and Spain. These underwent more substantial economic decline than the grouping centred on Germany and France. Recovery in this third group of economies substantially slowed during 2010. Given that these economies have significant economic weight, equal to approximately three quarters of the GDP of the states centred on Germany and France, it is the performance of what may be termed ‘large relatively stagnant economies’ that is likely to determine the course of the EU’s recovery as a whole. These might be termed so far 'Europe's stagnant middle'.
The three groups will be considered in turn.
German/French group of recovering economies
The first group of EU economies centres on Germany and France. Their situation is shown in Figure 3. All have recovered significantly from recession.
Both Germany and France are specified in this group as, contrary to some media impressions, Germany's overall economic performance during the ‘Great Recession’ has not, so far, been notably superior to France’s. While in the most recent quarters German economic growth has been more rapid than French, German economic decline at the beginning of the downturn was significantly greater than in France. Overall, by the 4th quarter of 2010, Germany and France’s economic recovery differed only marginally – Germany’s GDP being 1.4% below its previous peak and GDP in France being 1.6% below its peak.
Continuation of more rapid German economic growth in 2011 would, of course, alter this picture and create a situation of significantly superior German recovery. This trend must therefore be watched. However to date France’s economy has also recovered significantly.
The smaller states in this group of substantially recovering economies are the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, and Luxembourg. The GDP of none, in the 4th quarter of 2010, was more than 2.1% below its previous peak level.
As analysed elsewhere, it remains to be seen if Portugal’s agreement of an austerity package with the EU will lead to it dropping out of this category.
The combined GDP of this group of economies, measured on an annualised basis in the 4th quarter of 2010, was $8.2 trillion, or 55% of the GDP of the combined Eurozone plus UK – Table 1.
The size of this group of economies is therefore substantial, but as it represents only slightly over half the GDP of the Eurozone economies plus the UK it is not sufficient in itself to determine the course of the EU’s economy. Only if these economies can act, together with other factors, as a locomotive for a wider range of states can Europe's broader economy undergo substantial or accelerated recovery.
EU economies suffering sharp economic decline
The second economic group, which has received much attention due to the European debt crisis, includes the two economies which have agreed emergency debt packages with the EU – Greece and Ireland. Two other Eurozone economies, Estonia and Slovenia, have also suffered severe economic declines without having to reach debt agreements with the EU. In the case of all these economies, current GDP is at least 6% below the peak of the previous business cycle – Figure 4.
Slovenia and Estonia are undergoing some recovery. Greece and Ireland, in the 4th quarter of 2010 were still undergoing economic decline.
The financial impact of the crises in Greece and Ireland was, of course, considerable. The economic impact of their recessions on the population of these countries is severe. But this entire group of economies is too small to determine the economic course of the EU or Eurozone. Their collective GDP, $0.5 trillion, is significantly smaller than that of the Netherlands alone, and less than 4% of the total GDP of the Eurozone plus the UK. It is only 7% of the size of the recovering economy group centred on Germany and France – Table 2.
While this group of economies has received great publicity due to the impact of the debt crisis, it is therefore too small to directly inflect the course of EU GDP.
Large and relatively stagnant EU economies
The third group, which may be charcterised as ‘large and relatively stagnant economies’ – is constituted by the UK, Italy and Spain. These underwent both more substantial recession than the group centred on Germany and France and their recovery is much weaker. In each case their GDP’s remain 4-6% below previous peak levels – Figure 5. In the 4th quarter of 2010 Spain's GDP was 4.3% below its peak, the UK's 4.6% below, and Italy's 5.2% below. In Italy and Spain, after the decline during the recession, recovery has been extremely weak, while in the UK there was significant recovery during 2009 which then stalled in the the last quarter of 2010.
Finland's much smaller economy falls in the same range of percentage decline but its recent grown has been more dynamic.
These economies are substantial, accounting for 42% of the GDP of the Eurozone plus the UK.
It is clear that without serious recovery in the three large economies in this group, France and Germany by themselves are not large enough to lead to rapid economic recovery in the EU as a whole. It is therefore in these economies constituting 'the stagnant middle' that the trajectory of Europe's economy will be decided.
The analysis of Europe's economy as being essentially divided into a 'recovering north' and a 'crisis ridden south' is not accurate. A bloc of countries centring on Germany and France is clearly recovering. A number of states, most spectacularly Greece and Ireland, remain in deep crisis but are too small to determine the overall economic trajectory in Europe. It is therefore likely to be the so far 'stagnant middle' - the UK, Spain and Italy - which detemines whether relatively rapid recovery remains confined to economies centred on Germany and France or spreads to Europe as a whole.
Regarding this group of economies, the evident key factors will be the unwinding of the property bubble in Spain, the impact of the deep cuts in public spending in the UK, and whether Italy can break out of what is now a prolonged economic stagnation - Italy's average annual growth rate over the last 20 years is 0.9%, a performance as bad as Japan's.
The UK, Italian and Spanish cases should therefore be analysed not only individually but in terms of their impact on the trajectory of Europe's economy as a whole.