Record levels of heat, soaring inflation and energy prices, resurgent levels of Covid infections, travel chaos at understaffed facilities, and clouds of recession looming on the horizon.
Yet it seems an unleashed and unmasked Europe is going about business as usual as it prepares for its hallowed summer holiday.
Near us the aperitivo crowd is taking over some streets at night as partiers seem to howl at the moon, begging the question of whether a two-plus-year pandemic and lockdowns have had an impact on collective mental health.
Is it denial or determination to enjoy life even in the face of dire challenges?
Now the talk has inevitably turned to holidays at the seaside, the usual subject in July. A measure of status as well as a time for rejuvenation, where one will spend the upcoming ferragosto holiday is nearly an obsession.
Yet it could be an autumn of angst after August holidaymakers return from the beach. Let’s hope they bring back a sunny attitude because the challenges will likely be formidable.
In ancient Rome, the àuguri or augurs, a group of shaman priests, would interpret signs taken from the natural world to divinate the future. Today’s soothsayers, whether they be economists, climatologists or epidemiologists, all say signs do not augur well for Europe in the coming months.
On a continent determined to show it is ready for normalcy and a return to mass tourism, Europe is already facing snarled airports and cancelled flights due to staff shortages. And the pinch is not in just one sector – airlines, airports and the hospitality industry are understaffed despite robust efforts to hire.
Airports in Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands have tried offering perks including higher pay and bonuses for workers who refer a friend. Yet the hiring blitz seemed more of an aborted takeoff.
By the end of June, air carriers in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain had cancelled nearly 8,000 flights, about three times the figure for the same period in 2019, according to air travel consultancy Cirium.
Still, holidaymakers are determined to brave the serpentine queues at European airports, perhaps because the continent’s fabled destinations are the most affordable they have been in a generation. The euro, normally significantly more valuable than the US dollar, has dropped to its weakest level in at least 20 years – a sign that the market is far from confident about Europe’s economic prospects.
If the trend continues and the euro drops to parity with the dollar – a one-to-one exchange rate – it would be the first time since 1999, when it hit equality for a time shortly after the common currency was first introduced.
The European Central Bank plans to raise interest rates to combat inflation after prices rose at a record high rate of 8.1 percent in June, yet higher interest rates will disproportionately affect the most heavily indebted countries in Europe: Italy, Spain and Portugal among them. The confluence of challenges could see Europe attempting to handle recession and a sovereign debt challenge while trying to tame inflation.
Part of what’s driving inflation are record-high energy prices in Europe due to the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent events. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, seems particularity vulnerable due to its heavy reliance on Russian gas.
Perhaps some international tourists are keen to visit Europe because they enjoy hot dry weather. The continent had plenty of that on offer as temperatures hit 40 degrees in June. Countries in western Europe have been experiencing intense heat, with Italy declaring a state of emergency due to drought. The fabled Po River, the longest in Italy, is literally drying up due to a lack of rain.
The Italian government has declared a state of emergency in five northern regions – Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia – as power stations, spas and ornamental fountains were shut down. Experts are blaming climate change for the unprecedented range of extreme weather events.
Also troubling is yet another surge in Covid-19 as several western European countries register more than 100,000 new infections a day. Some observers say the seventh wave of the pandemic is upon us.
German health minister Karl Lauterbach has a reputation for blunt talk. He says he is hopeful that the summer could lead to better days in the pandemic, but he expects some “very serious variants” would return with holidaymakers and be felt in autumn.
While most of Europe has dropped mandatory pandemic measures, last week the Mediterranean island of Cyprus reinstated indoor mask rules while France’s fifth-largest city, Nice, will require masks on public transport, a measure not mandated by the central government.
European countries now defined as hotspots by the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford include France, Cyprus, Austria, Britain, Germany, Greece, Italy and Switzerland. Sweden’s health minister Lena Hallengren noted at a news conference that cases were rising “even though we are in the middle of the summer”.
But even with deep concerns abounding, the habit – not the requirement – should be to enjoy the good things on offer. And those are still abundant in Europe as blue skies sparkle across the azure Mediterranean and ancient wonders beckon.
The autumn and its hard realities will arrive soon enough. Perhaps now is indeed the time to cut loose and howl at the moon.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Italy
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