Bershidsky on Europe: Belgium OKs Child Euthanasia
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe.
Germany and France post similar Q4 growth data.
Germany's economy expanded 0.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, and France grew 0.3 percent. The same numbers were recorded in both countries for the full year. The quarterly data is ahead of some expectations, though the Bank of France did predict growth of 0.5 percent in Q4. Analysts and especially politicians are inclined to see it as evidence of a continued recovery. French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said the data showed the country was "back on a growth path" after flat growth in the third quarter. In fact, for both countries, especially for Germany, the paltry Q4 and full 2013 growth numbers are worrying signs of long-term stagnation. The first quarter is likely to yield similarly tepid results as a strong Euro hurts exports and near-zero inflation signifies stagnant domestic demand.
Renzi takes over as Italian prime minister.
The leadership of the Democratic Party, which heads Italy's ruling coalition, voted overwhelmingly to replace Prime Minister Enrico Letta with Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi. The 39-year-old winner promised to get Italy out of the "swamp", and some expect him to do just that, as Tony Blair once did for the U.K.: Renzi, too, has beaten back the stubborn leftists within the party. His coalition partners will probably acquiesce in his "back-door" entry for now, forgetting his earlier promises to only seek power though elections. It is dangerous, however, to put any amount of faith in an Italian government: They are fragile things, especially if they do not have massive popular support behind them.
Turkey's trade deficit higher than expected.
Turkey said its current account deficit reached $65 billion in 2013, up from $49.5 billion the year before and close to 8 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. The deficit is increasingly covered with short-term borrowing. Turkish corporations and the public sector together have $168 billion of foreign currency debt coming due in the next 12 months, a quarter of GDP. Everybody from the U.S. Federal Reserve to the International Monetary Fund is now calling Turkey the most vulnerable of emerging markets, quite a change from the recent universal admiration for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's economic achievements. Continued devaluation of the lira, which has stabilized after a rate hike, looks like the only way for Erdogan's government to rebalance Turkey's trade by making imports too expensive for Turks to buy. That course, however, is no help to his political survival.
Belgium legalizes child euthanasia.
The Belgian parliament voted 86 to 44, with 12 abstentions, to approve a bill allowing euthanasia for children. The bill needs the king's signature to come into effect, a formality. Belgium will be the first nation to legalize euthanasia for all ages. A terminally ill child will be able to ask for final relief with his or her parents' content. Opposition to the bill was fierce, someone shouting "Murderers!" from the gallery. The controversial legislation, however, is an important step in giving children some say in adult matters. If they are allowed to make life and death decisions, they may in time come to be seen as more responsible in matters of family law, criminal justice and even adult politics.
Germany to scrap statute of limitations on Nazi loot.
The world-class collection of 1400 paintings and drawings found in the apartment of a quiet Munich resident, whose father had been an art dealer for the Nazis, is prompting legislative change in Germany. Under current law, the man, Cornelium Gurlitt, cannot be forced to return any of the art even if it is proven to have been looted by the Nazis: There is a 30-year statute of limitations on such crimes. Now, a bill is coming before parliament on Feb. 14 that will make it impossible to avoid restitution regardless of any time limits, but only if the person holding the Nazi-expropriated property can be proven to have acquired it "in bad faith". Generally, that will not be easy to prove, but in Gurlitt's case plenty of proof is available: His father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, knowingly traded in confiscated art, though it may be argued that he did that to save the "degenerate" works from destruction. The point of art, however, is to be seen, and before opening up Gurlitt's trove to myriad legal claims, the German authorities ought to exhibit it, perhaps making a deal with the man that might even involve a certain amount of compensation. History is never straightforward, and simply changing the law to take away the paintings is hardly the right approach.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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