Meals out, babysitters, and hotel stays: Europe is trying to save its economy with elaborate giveaway schemes

July 9, 2020, 4:36 PM UTC

In an effort to simultaneously prop up the economy and avoid spiraling unemployment and company defaults, Europe’s governments are getting creative. In the U.K., that includes an unusual offer: what Britons are calling “a meal deal.”

It’s not quite a free lunch, but it should at least put food in the nation’s stomachs.

As part of the U.K.’s latest £30 billion stimulus package, unveiled on Wednesday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that customers can get £10 ($12.62) off per person per meal, a discount that works out to half-price on the average restaurant meal. The offers, budgeted to cost the government £500 million, are squarely designed to help Britain’s hurting hospitality sector.

This is Britain, so the perk comes with conditions. The discount is only valid on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through August. Also, the offer applies to dine-in meals only, which might make health officials a bit leery. And, while it can be redeemed at a gastropub, the voucher does not cover the price of alcohol—making the discount nearly as complicated as the U.K.’s government’s rules for going to the pub in the first place.

The discount, dubbed “Eat Out To Help Out” is only a small part of the government’s sprawling summer stimulus package, large sections of which were focused on a “green” and sustainable recovery. But it quickly drew much of the attention.

After announcing the deal, Sunak posted a Twitter photo of himself picking up what appeared to be a katsu curry (a favourite of Londoners) at the Wagamama fusion Asian chain, drawing front pages with headlines like “GRAB A £10 RISHI DISHI” and another calling him the “half price meal deal chancellor.”

There’s been a big debate among economists about how to design stimulus measures to boost domestic consumption. Do you go the helicopter-money route and hand out no-strings-attached checks, alá the Trump Administration? Or, do you target the measures to prop up strategic industries?

The Europeans seem to prefer the latter. The Italian government, for example, has offered a holiday tax credit for families vacationing in-country, while Greece committed to paying the traditional Easter bonuses to employees who were furloughed. Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Germany, among others, offered grants to compensate parents for child care, and Spain committed to paying the household bills for vulnerable families.

The assorted goodies are unlikely to make that much of a difference. The eurozone economy is expected to contract by 8.7% this year, the European Commission now says.

Europe’s relatively generous employment schemes, however, have been key in keeping unemployment rates so far more stable from Athens to London. The U.K. alone has 9 million jobs on its scheme. It involves paying 80%, or up to £2,500 ($3,122), of the salaries of furloughed workers, as long as they’re kept on payroll.

The popular payroll program will last until October, though Downing Street watchers were disappointed when Sunak did not address the program’s future in his latest address.

Instead, the government will pick up part of their lunch tab.