by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Dec. 18 (Xinhua) -- Facing what some economists say could be a "lost decade", the fate of the European Union's most debt-ridden countries could depend on the steps governments take in the coming year.
The recent economic signals coming out of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain have been mixed.
All the countries except Spain have debt-to-GDP ratios of at least 100 percent, according to statistics from the World Bank, making them subject to refinancing debt on fickle markets. They all suffer from slow growth, high unemployment levels, and overly cautious banking sectors.
Ireland appears to be the healthiest of the bunch. The country exited its EU bailout program earlier this month, and the economy is growing. But property values remain deflated and debt levels are approaching 125 percent of the country's GDP, a level economists say is unsustainable.
Italy and Spain are also on the mend, with some upgrades from rating agencies bolstering investor confidence. But statistics show the strength of the recovery in those countries varies widely from one economic sector to another, and growth rates predicted for 2014 may fail to even keep track with population growth. Portugal is further behind, but on a similar path.
The Greek government, meanwhile, is being kept solvent mostly due to bailout funds from the European Central Bank. Nevertheless, Greece's Central Bank is predicting positive economic growth for 2014 as a whole. At the very least, the Greek economy is shrinking slower than it had been.
The gradual economic turnaround in North America should help Europe's export sector, economists said.
But according to Luigi Pugliese, managing director for the Italian offices of consultants Booz and Co., much of the positive signals come from short-term thinking from economic planners.
"There's too much thinking about the best next step and not enough long-term planning," he said. "My sense is that there's no good long-term plan or design."
Puglies pointed to the need for dramatic structural reforms in order to foster long-term growth rates - something that requires political will and capital countries are unwilling to invest.
"If you could start from scratch and design an economy, there is no way you'd have anything resembling these peripheral European economies," Pugliese said.
Giuseppe de Arcangelis, an international economics expert at Sapienza University in Rome, agreed.
"The European Central Bank can't do more than it's done, unless it does something extreme like negative interest rates that could add liquidity to the money supply," de Arcangelis said, "Growth needs to come from inside these economies."
If that does not happen - and Pugliese said it must happen before 2015, when bailout loans start coming due - it could set up a long and disastrous period of economic stagnation that could have an impact on these countries for years. According to a recent study from U.S. economists Peter Rupert and Thomas F. Cooley, Europe risks losing a generation of leaders who may end up under-educated, under-trained and accustomed to working in an unstable economic climate.
"There is a larger implication people don't think about, said Rupert, who works at the University of California at Santa Barbara, "There is a huge decline in human capital."
A good first step, economists said, is reforming each country's banking sector to increase efficiency and ease access to credit.
Others mentioned increasing incentives for innovation or for companies that take on new workers - especially workers aged under 35 - or invest in expanding operations at home. Economists said overall tax burdens should be lowered as that becomes possible in order to reduce their drag on the economy.
"Countries have papered over a lot of problems with EU bailout money," Pugliese said, "But this is clearly not a long-term solution. There must be a return to structural competitiveness."