By GABRIELE STEINHAUSER and PAN PYLAS, Associated Press
BRUSSELS (AP) — Half the economies in the 17-nation eurozone are forecast to shrink this year, raising concerns that government austerity programs introduced to combat unsustainable debt levels are holding back growth.
In its latest projections, the European Commission, the European Union's executive body, forecast a 0.3 percent contraction in the eurozone economy for 2012, with Greece's economy leading the way downward with a massive 4.4 percent decline.
In its last forecast in November, the Commission had predicted a 0.5 percent expansion across the eurozone economy following last year's 1.4 percent growth. The difference this time is that it now expects the economies of Belgium, Spain, Italy, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Slovenia to contract in 2012, not just Greece and Portugal.
The overall decline is limited by resilient activity the eurozone's two-largest economies, Germany and France. Growth in Germany for the coming year is expected to hit 0.6 percent while France is forecast to grow by 0.4 percent.
The new forecasts will add to fears about Europe's prosperity and that government cutbacks to reign in spending and deficit levels are having a negative impact. Unemployment levels have been increasing across the region — the jobless rate in Spain has hit 23 per cent, for example — while European banks have been finding it increasingly hard to raise new funds.
Describing the economic conditions for 2012 as a "mild recession", Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs added that although growth had stalled, "we are seeing signs of stabilization in the European economy."
"Economic sentiment is still at low levels, but stress in financial markets is easing."
He said the forecast was based on the assumption that uncertainty created by the debt crisis "will gradually fade away."
Sony Kapoor, managing director of economic think-tank Re-Define, urged Europe not to get complacent over its handling of the debt crisis.
"Our predictions of a euro-area wide recession, it seems, are coming true; the banking system, at least in the Euro area remains on life support; the politics in the euro area remain as fraught as ever and the social fabric is being stretched to its limit," Kapoor said.
Last November, financial markets were struck by fears that Europe's debt crisis would not be confined to the relatively small economies of Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Worries grew that Spain and Italy could get swamped by their debt loads, too. Both countries now have new governments to enact sweeping austerity measures.
Trading on the stock and bond markets has improved since the turmoil of late last year. Stock indexes have risen across Europe and yields — the interest rate countries offer to pay to sell their bonds — have also fallen.
The improved market atmosphere has been helped by the European Central Bank offering super-cheap long-term loans to banks and the 17 euro countries deciding to tie their economies closer together.
Though austerity measures are the main pillar in Europe's strategy to fight the debt crisis, they are clearly hurting the economy in the short-term — Spain and Italy are expected to sink into recession this year as their governments cut debt aggressively.
Italy, which is the eurozone's third-largest economy and has a debt mountain of around euro1.9 trillion ($2.5 trillion), is predicted to contract by 1.3 percent this year, in contrast to the 0.3 percent growth predicted in November.
And Spain is expected to contract 1 percent in 2012, against the 0.7 percent growth predicted in the fall. The Commission warned that if the Spanish government enacts further budget cuts in an effort to meet its 2012 targets, its economy will likely shrink even more.
Rehn dodged questions on whether the Commission would be willing to give Spain more time to cut its deficits considering the country's worsened economic situation. Under current commitments to the EU, Spain has to cut its deficit to 4.4 percent of its economic output — or gross domestic product — for 2012. But the new government, facing another recession, has hinted it wants the EU to lower the target a bit.