The European economy continues to show resilience in a challenging global context. Lower energy prices, abating supply constraints and a strong labour market supported moderate growth in the first quarter of 2023, dispelling fears of a recession.
This better-than-expected start to the year lifts the growth outlook for the EU economy to 1.0% in 2023 (0.8% in the Winter interim Forecast) and 1.7% in 2024 (1.6% in the winter). Upward revisions for the euro area are of a similar magnitude, with GDP growth now expected at 1.1% and 1.6% in 2023 and 2024 respectively. On the back of persisting core price pressures, inflation has also been revised upwards compared to the winter, to 5.8% in 2023 and 2.8% in 2024 in the euro area.
According to Eurostat's preliminary flash estimate, GDP grew by 0.3% in the EU and by 0.1% in the euro area in the first quarter of 2023. Leading indicators suggest continued growth in the second quarter.
The European economy has managed to contain the adverse impact of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, weathering the energy crisis thanks to a rapid diversification of supply and a sizeable fall in gas consumption. Markedly lower energy prices are working their way through the economy, reducing firms' production costs. Consumers are also seeing their energy bills fall, although private consumption is set to remain subdued as wage growth lags inflation.
As inflation remains high, financing conditions are set to tighten further. Though the ECB and other EU central banks are expected to be nearing the end of the interest rate hiking cycle, the recent turbulence in the financial sector is likely to add pressure to the cost and ease of accessing credit, slowing down investment growth and hitting in particular residential investment.
After peaking in 2022, headline inflation continued to decline in the first quarter of 2023 amid a sharp deceleration of energy prices. Core inflation (headline inflation excluding energy and unprocessed food) is, however, proving more persistent. In March it reached a historic high of 7.6%, but it is projected to decline gradually over the forecast horizon as profit margins absorb higher wage pressures and financing conditions tighten. The April flash harmonised index of consumer prices estimate for the euro area, released after the cut-off date of this forecast, shows a marginal decline in the rate of core inflation, which suggests that it might have peaked in the first quarter, as projected. On an annual basis, core inflation in the euro area in 2023 is set to average 6.1%, before falling to 3.2% in 2024, remaining above headline inflation in both forecast years.
A record-strong labour market is bolstering the resilience of the EU economy. The EU unemployment rate hit a new record low of 6.0% in March 2023, and participation and employment rates are at record highs.
The EU labour market is expected to react only mildly to the slower pace of economic expansion. Employment growth is forecast at 0.5% this year, before edging down to 0.4% in 2024. The unemployment rate is projected to remain just above 6%. Wage growth has picked up since early 2022 but has so far remained well below inflation. More sustained wage increases are expected on the back of persistent tightness of labour markets, strong increases in minimum wages in several countries and, more generally, pressure from workers to recoup lost purchasing power.
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