Warning lights are flashing in the eurozone economy, with first-quarter growth in France stalling and shrinking in Italy, as Russia’s war in Ukraine drives up energy costs across the continent.
Figures from Eurostat, the EU’s statistics body, showed GDP growth across the single currency area slipped to 0.2% in the first three months of 2022, down from 0.3% in the final quarter of 2021, when Omicron weighed on activity.
City economists had forecast a growth rate of 0.3% for the 19 euro area countries, highlighting the economic risks from the war in Ukraine amid soaring wholesale oil and gas prices exacerbated by the conflict.
Raising the spectrum of stagflation – when living costs soar while growth in GDP falters – France’s economy unexpectedly ground to a halt, recording zero growth as supply chain disruption and higher energy costs held back activity.
Italy’s economy shrank, Spain lost momentum, while Germany rebounded from a contraction in the fourth quarter when Omicron and supply chain problems had weighed heavily on the euro area’s largest economy.
Suggesting a weaker period ahead as the conflict continues to push up the price of energy, hitting net importers of gas across the continent, separate figures for April showed eurozone inflation hit a record high of 7.5%.
Prices jumped by 0.6% in April alone. Energy was the biggest single factor, driving up costs with a 38% year-on-year increase as wholesale prices for oil and gas soared, amid fears over disruption to supplies across the continent as the war continues.
The figures come as the European Central Bank faces pressure to raise interest rates from the current historic low of -0.5% on its main deposit facility, with inflation more than three times its official 2% target rate.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has added to soaring inflationary pressure this year as the global economy recovers from the Covid pandemic, leading to steep growth downgrades across advanced economies from the International Monetary Fund earlier this month.
Faced with sweeping economic sanctions imposed by western powers, the Russian central bank moved on Friday to cut interest rates from 17% to 14% in an attempt to shore up economic growth as the country’s heads for a deep two-year recession. Russian GDP is expected to shrink by between 8% and 10% this year, the biggest annual decline since immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reflecting growing isolation from the world economy, inflation is forecast to climb as high as 23% this year.
However, with Russia a major global oil and gas exporter, the war has had severe consequences elsewhere, particularly in European nations reliant on Russian gas.
Economists said the eurozone was at heightened risk of slumping into contraction in the second quarter, raising the risk of recession for several countries as the rising cost of living forces consumers to rein in their spending.
Andrew Kenningham, chief Europe economist at the Capital Economics consultancy, said: “Manufacturers will take a bigger hit in Germany than in other parts of the eurozone but the increase in energy prices will affect the entire region, as will fall in export demand and business confidence. ”
Tensions over the continued supply of Russian gas to the rest of Europe have risen in the past week as the Kremlin cut off Poland and Bulgaria after Putin ordered importers to pay in rubles to sidestep western sanctions. Analysts said an end to Russian gas supply is becoming a growing risk, with Germany expected to be among the hardest hit countries given its reliance on Russia for 40% of total imports.
Melanie Debono, a senior European economist at the Pantheon Macroeconomics consultancy, said Germany was still expected to grow by 2% this year, although there were mounting risks to the downside. The German economy grew by 0.2% in the first quarter after a contraction of 0.3% in the final three months of 2021.
“An embargo on Russian gas, especially if overnight, poses a real threat to the outlook; it would all but certainly drag the economy into recession, dragging the rest of the eurozone along with it, ”Debono said.
The slowdown in the eurozone compares with a 0.4% contraction in the US economy in the first quarter amid a weaker contribution from trade and government spending. The UK economy is forecast to grow by about 0.5% in the first quarter. However, analysts have warned of the risks of a summer recession amid a rise in inflation to the highest levels since the 1990s.