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Lockdowns fuel fears of eurozone double-dip recession

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Eurozone nations’ escalating restrictions to tackle the coronavirus pandemic have significantly slowed economic activity, fuelling fears that the bloc faces a double-dip recession, according to widely watched and timely alternative data indicators.

Travel to retail and hospitality venues and workplaces, as well as consumer confidence and spending, have all taken a hit in the first weeks of 2021, according to high-frequency activity trackers. These indicators offer a more timely gauge of the economy than official statistics, although they are less comprehensive and reliable.

Bert Colijn, senior eurozone economist at ING, said early data suggested that, since the start of the year, “activity continues to trend lower”.

In contrast to the sudden, deep shock that the eurozone economy experienced last spring when the pandemic first hit, the new surge in infections was “dragging on for longer”, causing a slower but “steady decline in activity” that increased “the risk of a delayed wave of bankruptcies if generous [government and central bank] support measures do not stay in place”, Mr Colijn said.

Line chart of Government response tracker: stringency index showing How restrictions are tightening again

As a result, economists anticipate that the estimated fall in output in the eurozone in the final three months of 2020 — Oxford Economics and Nomura forecast a contraction of between 1.8 per cent and 2.3 per cent — will be followed by another drop in the first quarter of 2021 in many of the bloc’s major economies, including Germany and Italy.

That could leave the eurozone in its second recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, in less than two years.

Line chart of Trips to shops and entertainment (% change compared with average from Jan 3 to Feb 6 2020, rolling seven-day average) showing Travel for retail and leisure has fallen

Katharina Utermohl, senior European economist at Allianz, said: “We expect the eurozone economy to kick off 2021 with a double-dip recession, with a second consecutive quarterly GDP contraction [in the first quarter] all but certain following the prolongation and further tightening of Covid-19 restrictions in recent weeks.”

Chiara Zangarelli, European economist at Nomura, said the rollout of vaccines was “encouraging” but as lockdowns lengthened, the outlook for first-quarter eurozone gross domestic product was becoming gloomier.

Line chart of % change compared with average from Jan 3 to Feb 6 2020, rolling seven-day average showing Travel to workplaces got off to a slow start after Christmas break

Daniela Ordonez, an economist at Oxford Economics, said the drop in activity “might be only the beginning of a new phase of deterioration in the bloc’s health situation”, citing the risk that more transmissible variants of the virus could take hold.

The fresh upsurge in cases and restrictions is hitting some nations’ economies that avoided the worst damage last year.

In Germany and the Netherlands restrictions are now harsher than in the first phase of the pandemic, resulting in sharper falls in the number of journeys to shops, bars and restaurants than in other European countries.

German consumer spending in the second week of January was 25 per cent lower than in the same period last year, according to Fable Data, which tracks bank transactions. Spending fell across most consumption categories except for groceries, the company said.

Line chart of Annual % change in transactions  showing German consumers hold back spending in most areas except groceries

The German central bank’s weekly economic activity index — an experimental measure that draws on high-frequency indicators such as pollution, Google searches and consumer confidence — fell that week for the first time since the summer.

The proportion of German consumers who said now was a bad time to make major purchases rose from 16 per cent in December to 20 per cent in mid-January, according to data from Morning Consult. Consumer confidence was largely subdued across major eurozone economies in the first two weeks of January, the data showed.

Line chart of Index* showing Eurozone consumers' confidence low

One bright spot is the bloc’s manufacturing sector. Eurozone industrial production was surprisingly strong in the autumn, supported by rising exports, so factory output is expected to have cushioned the economy to some degree in the final quarter of last year.

More up-to-date measures of industrial production suggest this resilience has continued into 2021. The mileage logged by German trucks, a proxy for industrial production, is running at above the levels of early January last year, after the usual Christmas dip.

Line chart of Index, 2015 = 100 (rolling seven-day average) showing Germany truck mileage is above the post-holiday period of last year

Economists warned, however, that the high level of uncertainty about the economic outlook could ultimately feed through into manufacturing production.

Claus Vistesen, chief eurozone economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said: “The recovery in the eurozone manufacturing sector will slow in [the first quarter].”



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Europe

UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy

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UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise

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France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.



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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies

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The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.



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