The election results, furthermore, are a signal that, to the people of Europe, the euro zone debt crisis is far, far, far from over. Sure, bond markets may have stabilized, but the ordinary worker is still suffering badly from the crisis. Unemployment in the euro zone stood at an ugly 11.7% in December. In Spain and Greece, the rate is more than 26%. There is no relief in sight. The E.U. expects unemployment to climb even further in 2013. The prospects for growth aren’t any better. Euro zone GDP contracted by 0.5% in 2012 and the E.U. forecasts the zone to suffer another 0.3% decline in 2013. Even core countries like Germany and France will barely grow.
Even though markets may have been sedated – pacified by central bank largesse or promises of largesse — the crisis in the real world has entered a different stage. Perhaps the threat to the survival of the euro has receded (at least temporarily), but now Europe is faced with the daunting task of repairing a fundamentally broken regional economy. How countries like Spain and Greece begin to create jobs again and restart healthy growth is far from clear. Some of the weaker euro zone economies – Spain, Greece, Portugal – are already halfway through a lost decade. Even those economies that are supposed to be stronger – Germany, the Netherlands – are struggling. What I’m afraid of is a Japan-like scenario in Europe, where a financial crisis is not handled forcefully up front, and that stifles growth for years after the worst market turmoil is over.
The reasons Europe is in this mess are the same ones the gloom-and-doom types have been pointing out all along. Europe has no region-wide strategy to spur growth; the banks haven’t been fixed; progress towards integration remains mired in mud; the austerity-obsessed approach to reform is counterproductive.