The eurozone is now in its longest ever recession — a stubborn slump that has surpassed even the calamity that hit the region in the financial crisis of 2008-2009.
The European Union statistics office said Wednesday that nine of the 17 EU countries that use the euro are in recession, with France a notable addition to the list. Overall, the eurozone's economy contracted for the sixth straight quarter, shrinking by 0.2 per cent in the January-March period from the previous three months.
Though the contraction is an improvement on the previous quarter's 0.6 per cent decline, it's another unwelcome report for the single-currency bloc as it grapples with a debt crisis that has prompted governments to slash spending and raise taxes.
"The eurozone is facing a double blow from necessary restructuring of its domestic economy and somewhat disappointing growth in world trade, in particular demand from emerging markets," said Marie Diron, senior economic adviser to Ernst & Young.
This recession is not nearly as deep as the one in 2008-9, which ran for five quarters, but it is now the longest in the 14-year history of the euro. A recession is typically defined as two straight quarters of negative growth.
Austerity measures have inflicted severe economic pain and produced social unrest across the eurozone, where the average unemployment rate is a record 12.1 per cent and higher in some places. In Spain, it's 26.7 per cent and in Greece 27.2 per cent.
Wednesday's report also brought bad news for the wider 27-country EU, which includes non-euro members such as Britain and Poland. The EU too is now in recession after shrinking by a quarterly rate of 0.1 per cent in the first quarter, following a 0.5 per cent drop in the previous period.
With a population of more than half a billion people, the EU is the world's largest export market. If it remains stuck in reverse, companies in the U.S. and Asia will be hit. Last month, U.S.-based Ford Motor Co. lost $462 million in Europe and called the outlook there "uncertain." McDonald's saw its sales in Europe, the hamburger chain's biggest market outside the U.S., fall 1.1 per cent of in the first quarter.
Other major economies have faltered this year but none are in recession. The annualized contraction in the eurozone, based on this quarter's figures, of around 0.9 per cent contrasts with the equivalent expansion of the U.S. of 2.5 per cent. Meanwhile, China, the world's No. 2 economy, is growing around 8 per cent a year.
For many analysts, that discrepancy highlights Europe's flawed economic approach since the end of the financial crisis. Instead of keeping the spending taps on — as the U.S. has largely done — the region concentrated on austerity even though companies and consumers weren't able to plug the gap left by the retrenching state.
However, there have been some recent indications that Europe's leaders are willing to ease up on their adherence to cuts and tax increases at a time of recession. Some countries, for example, are being given more time to meet certain economic and financial targets.
Also, the European Central Bank cut its benchmark interest rate this month a quarter-point to a record low of 0.50 per cent. President Mario Draghi has said the ECB was prepared to flex its muscles further if needed.
Despite the latest relaxation of some deficit-reduction targets — and an easing of concerns over the debt crisis in financial markets — most economists think the eurozone will remain in recession in the second quarter.
Growth is expected to emerge in the second half of the year, but it isn't likely to amount to much. Many economists warn of a lost decade ahead for the eurozone similar to the one endured by Japan, which, like the eurozone, has zigzagged in and out of recession over the past few years. In the fourth quarter of 2012, the last set of available figures, Japan's economy was flat.
The eurozone has been in recession since the fourth quarter of 2011. Initially it was just the countries at the forefront of its debt crisis, such as Greece and Portugal that were contracting.
But the malaise is now spreading to the so-called core countries. Figures released Wednesday showed Germany, Europe's largest economy, grew by a less-than-anticipated quarterly rate of 0.1 per cent, largely because of a severe winter.
"The Achilles heel for the German economy right now is the weak demand for investment goods" such as industrial equipment and factory machinery, said Ralf Wiechers, economist for the German Engineering Association.
"No one knows where things are going in Europe."
Germany's paltry growth still allowed it to avoid a recession after orders for the country's high-value goods from its struggling euro neighbours declined.
However, France, Europe's second-largest economy, has not avoided that fate. On the first anniversary of Francois Hollande becoming president, figures showed that the country's economy contracted by a quarterly rate of 0.2 per cent for the second quarter running.
"The eurozone countries are our main clients and our main suppliers," French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici said.
This marks the third time that France has been in recession since 2008, when a banking crisis pushed the global economy into its deepest contraction since World War II.
Guillaume Cairou, CEO of the consultancy Didaxis and president of France's Club of Entrepreneurs, said the news that the country is in recession merely confirms the difficulties its businesses have long experienced.
"The situation of companies on the ground is grave and more serious today than in 2008," Cairou said in a written statement.