Unemployment up and inflation down in the eurozone

ECB rate cuts expected

The latest unemployment figures in the Eurozone are really, really bad. In fact, they are – again – the worst they've ever been:

That's an average unemployment rate of 12.1 per cent in the eurozone (and 10.9 per cent in the wider EU). But that high rate disguises enormous disparities: unemployment in Greece is 27.2 per cent; unemployment in Spain is 26.7 per cent; but in Austria, just 4.7 per cent of people looking for work can't find it, and in Germany it's only 5.4 per cent.

At the same time, inflation in the eurozone has been plummeting. In the latest quarterly data, the all-items index is estimated to have grown by just 1.2 per cent over the year – well below the 1.6 per cent which was predicted.

That offers a ray of hope for the continent. Unlike the (claimed) British plan of fiscal restraint and monetary activism, Europe has experienced crippling austerity without any major monetary policy designed to ease the burden. Typically, that reluctance is ascribed to the stereotypical German fear of inflation. Regardless of whether or not the blame truly lies at the feet of Germany – and whether the fear of inflation is just a hangover from the harrowing experience of hyperinflation in the 1920s, or something more concrete – the ECB is an exceptionally inflation-averse central bank.

All eyes will be on the bank later this week, then, as it announces whether or not it will be cutting rates for the first time in almost a year. It's bumping against the lower bound, since the bank already pays 0 per cent on overnight deposits; but the rate it charges for overnight loaning is still at 1.5 per cent. And its headline rate, which it charges to the majority of the banking system, is still at 0.75 per cent, leaving ample room for a cut.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.