Europe’s economy will shrink in 2012, with Italy and Spain facing sudden crunches as they battle to escape the debt crisis, the European Commission said.
The 17-nation euro economy will contract 0.3 percent, the commission said, abandoning a November forecast of 0.5 percent growth. The downgrade was mainly due to projected contractions of 1.3 percent in Italy and 1 percent in Spain.
“The euro area has entered into a mild recession,” European Union Economic and Monetary Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters in Brussels today after releasing the forecasts. “Prospects have worsened and risks to the growth outlook do remain, but there are signs of stabilization.”
Two days after Greece clinched a second bailout, the forecasts showed an economy pockmarked by the two-year-old fiscal crisis and looked set to stiffen resistance in southern Europe to further doses of German-demanded austerity.
The full-year Europe-wide contraction would be the first since 2009, when a 4.3 percent drop in the wake of the U.S.-led banking crisis exposed the overborrowing and imbalances that plunged Europe into its sovereign debt troubles.
Financial markets “remain still rather fragile, but there arre also signs of stabilization,” Rehn said.
The euro pulled off its high against the dollar after the forecasts were published, trading at $1.3313 at 10:16 a.m. in London, up 0.5 percent on the day, after reaching $1.3343 earlier.
The growth downgrade went along with a higher inflation forecast, potentially limiting the European Central Bank’s scope for a further cut in its main interest rate from 1 percent. Euro-area inflation will reach 2.1 percent, topping the central bank’s 2 percent limit, the commission said. In November it had counted on 1.7 percent inflation.
With countries along the Mediterranean rim plagued by too much debt and too little competitiveness, divergences within what is supposed to be a unified continental economy have become more “pronounced,” the commission said.
Declining employment, two years of budget cuts and financing constraints for businesses will combine for a “substantial drop” in Italian domestic demand in 2012, the commission said.
It painted a similar picture in Spain, stuck with a 22.9 percent unemployment rate and mounting doubts whether Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government will meet deficit-reduction targets.
Spain is still suffering from the aftershocks of the burst housing bubble, compounded by fiscal austerity and high corporate debt that is holding back business investment, the commission said.
“Growth differentials are set to remain substantial,” the commission said.
The divergences carried through to the three countries -- Greece, Portugal and Ireland -- forced to fall back on a combined 386 billion euros of financial aid to stave off default.
Greece met with the sharpest downgrade, with this year’s contraction now seen at 4.4 percent compared with 2.8 percent in November. Portugal’s economy will shrink 3.3 percent, compared with the previous forecast of 3 percent. Ireland, by contrast, will grow 0.5 percent, expanding for the second straight year.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, will muster 0.6 percent growth, down from a November estimate of 0.8 percent. Germany will get away with a “temporary interruption” of its economic momentum instead of tipping into a technical recession, the commission said.
Germany’s decoupling from southern Europe was reflected in a greater-than-expected increase in business confidence, according to a separate report by the Ifo institute today.
The EU forecast for France, the second largest, was scaled back to 0.4 percent from 0.6 percent. In a potential fillip for the struggling re-election campaign of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the commission said France too will escape a recession, commonly defined as two consecutive quarterly contractions.
Overall, the EU was more downbeat than private-sector analysts surveyed by the ECB, who on Feb. 16 predicted a 0.1 percent decline. The ECB’s latest projection, released in December, was for 0.3 percent growth. It will put out new forecasts next month.
The economic retrenchment will be “rather mild and temporary, but the turnaround of the trend needs to be confirmed in coming months,” Rehn said.