Europe’s economy shrank by 0.6 percent in first quarter.
Coming a day after the United States disclosed that its economy expanded 1.6 percent over the same period, the European downturn presented a contrast of fortunes on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Propelled by dramatic public expenditures to stimulate growth, as well as swift increases in vaccination rates, the United States — the world’s largest economy — expanded rapidly during the first months of 2021. At the same time, the 19 nations that share the euro currency were caught in the second part of a so-called double-dip recession, reflecting far less aggressive stimulus spending and a botched effort to secure vaccines.
But figures for gross domestic product represent a snapshot of the past, and recent weeks have produced encouraging signs that Europe is on the mend. The alarming spread of Covid-19 in major economies like Germany and France has begun to trend downward, factories have revived production, while growing numbers of people are on the move in cities.
Even as the German economy diminished by 1.7 percent from January to March, Italy and Spain slipped by much smaller magnitudes — 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent respectively. The French economy grew by a modest 0.4 percent, though its prospects face a fresh challenge in the form of new pandemic restrictions imposed this month by the government.
The initial lockdowns last year punished Europe’s economies, bringing large swaths of commercial life to a halt. But the current restrictions are calibrated to reflect improved understanding of how the virus spreads. Rather than closing their doors altogether, restaurants in some countries are serving meals on patios and dispensing takeout orders. Roofers, carpenters and other skilled trades have resumed work, so long as they can stay outside.
“We have sort of learned to live with the pandemic,” said Dhaval Joshi, chief strategist at BCA Research in London. “We are adapting to it.”
Vaccination rates are increasing throughout Europe, a trend likely to be advanced by the European Union’s recent deal to secure doses from Pfizer.
Most economists and the European Central Bank expect the eurozone to expand at a blistering pace over the rest of 2021, yielding growth of more than 4 percent for the full year.
Still, even in the most hopeful scenario, Europe’s recovery is running behind the United States, a reflection of their differing approaches to economic trauma.
Since last year, the United States has unleashed additional public spending worth 25 percent of its national economic output for pandemic-related stimulus and relief programs, according to the International Monetary Fund. That compares to 10 percent in Germany.
But Europe also began the crisis with far more comprehensive social safety net programs. While the United States directed cash to those set back by the pandemic, Europe limited a surge in unemployment.
“Europe has more insurance schemes,” said Kjersti Haugland, chief economist at DNB Markets, an investment bank in Oslo. “You don’t fall as hard, but you don’t rebound that sharply either.”