What faint hopes remained that Europe was recovering from the economic catastrophe delivered by the pandemic have disappeared as the lethal virus has resumed spreading rapidly. Image Credit: AFP

London: What faint hopes remained that Europe was recovering from the economic catastrophe delivered by the pandemic have disappeared as the lethal virus has resumed spreading rapidly across much of the continent.

After sharply expanding in the early part of the summer, Britain’s economy grew far less than anticipated in August - just 2.1% compared with July, the government reported Friday, adding to worries that further weakness lies ahead.

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This week, France, Europe’s second-largest economy, downgraded its forecast for the pace of expansion for the last three months of the year from an already minimal 1% to zero. Overall, the national statistics agency predicted the economy would contract by 9%.

The diminished expectations are a direct outgrowth of alarm over the revival of the virus. France reported nearly 19,000 new cases Wednesday - a one-day record, and almost double the number the day before. The surge prompted President Emmanuel Macron to announce new restrictions, including a two-month shutdown of cafes and bars in Paris and surrounding areas.

Accelerating spread of virus

In Spain, the central bank governor warned this week that the accelerating spread of the virus could force the government to impose restrictions that would produce an economic contraction of as much as 12.6% this year.

The European Central Bank’s chief economist cautioned Tuesday that the 19 countries that share the euro might not recover from the disaster until 2022, with those that are dependent on tourism especially vulnerable.

Summer increasingly feels like a long time ago.

In July, with infection rates down, lockdowns lifted and many Europeans indulging in the sacred ritual of the summer holiday, signs of revival appeared abundant. Many European economies expanded strongly as people returned to shops, restaurants and vacation destinations. The most optimistic economists began celebrating a so-called V-shaped recovery, featuring a bounce-back just as steep as the plunge that had preceded it.

Hopes had also been buoyed by a landmark agreement forged by the European Union to raise a 750 billion euro ($883 billion) relief fund through the sale of bonds backed collectively by all members. That move transcended years of resistance from debt-averse northern European countries, while signaling that the European bloc - not generally known for cooperation in the face of crisis - had achieved a new state of solidarity.

But most economists assumed that better days would last only so long as the virus could be contained. Restrictions imposed by governments appeared less important than the willingness of consumers to interact with other people, returning to workplaces and shopping areas.

In a report this week, Oxford Economics, a research institution in London, analyzed data across the eurozone, noting that much of the improvement in the late summer was the result of factories springing back to life after shutdowns. For expansion to continue, people have to buy the products the factories are making. The willingness to spend is influenced by confidence - whether people feel safe enough to move about; whether they fear they could lose their jobs.

By September, as coronavirus cases climbed anew, consumption was falling off.

“With the health situation unlikely to improve in the near term, we expect the recovery to slow again over the next few weeks,” concluded the report, which was written by Moritz Degler, an Oxford Economics senior economist.

Slowdown unfolding

The economic slowdown is unfolding just as some European economies begin to taper off the extraordinary sums they have expended to protect workers from joblessness, prompting worries about a seemingly inevitable increase in unemployment.

In Britain, the government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has been aggressively subsidizing wages at businesses hurt by the pandemic so long as employers do not fire their workers. The public covered 80% of wages when the program began in the spring. Even after a gradual easing, the government is picking up 60% of the cost this month.

But the furlough program, which has cost the Treasury 39 billion pounds (about $50 billion), is set to expire this month. The overseer of the public finances, Rishi Sunak, has been expressing worries about the size of Britain’s debts, while pledging to square the books. Under a slimmed-down replacement program he announced last month, the government would cover only 22% of wages going forward.

But the rapidly deteriorating economic outlook has forced Sunak to go back to the well. On Friday, in anticipation of tighter limits on businesses, he announced a new furlough program that would cover two-thirds of wages at businesses that are required to shut down as virus cases increase rapidly, and that would also increase grants. The measures could be particularly significant in industrial areas in the north of England, where a surge of electoral support for the Conservative Party in last year’s elections helped keep Johnson in office.

Fears of diminishing fortunes in Britain have been amplified by the possibility that the nation could crash out of the EU at the end of the year - completing the tortuous process of Brexit - absent a deal governing future trade. That would risk job-killing chaos, especially at ports.

On the other side of the English Channel, the fall has brought a realization that complex hurdles remain before the EU’s relief fund can be administered, limiting prospects in the worst-hit countries like Spain and Italy.