Europe's Malaise: The New Normal?

By George Friedman

Russia and Ukraine continue to confront each other along their border. Iraq has splintered, leading to unabated internal warfare. And the situation in Gaza remains dire. These events should be enough to constitute the sum total of our global crises, but they're not. On top of everything, the German economy contracted by 0.2 percent last quarter. Though many will dismiss this contraction outright, the fact that the world's fourth-largest economy (and Europe's largest) has shrunk, even by this small amount, is a matter of global significance.

Europe has been mired in an economic crisis for half a decade now. Germany is the economic engine of Europe, and it is expected that it will at some point pull Europe out of its crisis. There have been constant predictions that Europe may finally be turning an economic corner, but if Germany's economy is contracting (Berlin claims it will rebound this year), it is difficult to believe that any corner is being turned. It is becoming increasingly reasonable to believe that rather than an interlude in European prosperity, what we now see is actually the new normal. The key point is not that Germany's economy has contracted by a trivial amount. The point is that it has come time to raise the possibility that it could be a very long time before Europe returns to its pre-2008 prosperity and to consider what this means.

Faltering Europe

The German economy contracted despite indications that there would be zero economic growth. But the rest of Europe is faltering, too. France had zero growth. Italy declined by 0.2 percent. The only large European economy that grew was the United Kingdom, the country most skeptical of the value of EU membership. Excluding Ireland, which grew at a now-robust rate of 2.5 percent, no EU economy grew more than 1 percent. Together, the European Union scarcely grew at all.

Obviously, growth rate is not the full measure of an economy, and statistics don't always paint the full picture. Growth doesn't measure social reality, and therefore it is important to look at unemployment. And though Europe is fairly stagnant, the unemployment situation is truly disturbing. Spain and Greece both have around 25 percent unemployment, the level the United States reached during the Great Depression. While that's stunning, 15 of the 28 EU members have unemployment rates of more than 10 percent; most have maintained that high rate now for several years. More alarming, these rates are not falling.

Half of all EU residents live in four countries: Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. The average growth rate for these countries is about 1.25 percent. Excluding the United Kingdom, their economies contracted by 0.1 percent. The unemployment rate in the four countries averages 8.5 percent. But if we drop the United Kingdom, the average is 9.2 percent. Removing Britain from the equation is not arbitrary: It is the only one of the four that is not part of the eurozone, and it is the country most likely to drop out of the European Union. The others aren't going anywhere. Perhaps the United Kingdom isn't either, but that remains to be seen. Germany, France and Italy, by population if nothing else, are the core of the European Union. They are not growing, and unemployment is high. Therefore, Europe as a whole is not growing at all, and unemployment is high.

Five to six years after the global financial crisis, persistent and widespread numbers like this can no longer be considered cyclical, particularly because Germany is running out of gas. It is interesting to consider how Germany has arrived at this point. Exports continue to grow, including exports to the rest of Europe. (That is one reason it has been so difficult for the rest of Europe to recover: Having lost the ability to control access to their markets, other European countries are unable to compete with German exports. It may be free trade, it may even be fair trade, but it is also a trade pattern that fixes failure in place.) Employment remains strong. The German financial system is viable. Yet consumer and corporate confidence is declining. As we look at the situation Germany is facing, confidence should be decreasing. And that in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: German employment has been supported by exports, but there is a limited appetite for Germany's exports amid Europe's long-term weakness and a world doing better but still not well enough to float the German economy.

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George Friedman is chairman of Stratfor. Reprinted with permission.

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