Eurozone unemployment hits new peak
Unemployment in the 17 countries using the euro has hit its highest since the currency was introduced in 1999, adding to fears the region is back in recession.
Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, said unemployment in the eurozone rose to 10.8% in February from 10.7% the previous month. The number of unemployed totalled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than the same month a year ago.
The eighth straight month of rising unemployment is likely to reinforce concerns that the eurozone is in recession just as many countries pursue austerity measures to get control of their crippling debt loads.
Spain, whose government announced another series of austerity measures last Friday, had the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone of 23.6%, with youth unemployment - those under 25 years of age - standing at 50.5%. The lowest rate among the euro countries was Austria's 4.2%.
With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have been reluctant to spend and that has been holding back the eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere, notably in the US and in emerging markets.
"Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region's periphery," said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.
She warned that the situation is likely to get worse and that even in Germany, where unemployment held at 5.7%, "survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come."
Figures earlier indicating a bigger-than-anticipated downturn in manufacturing only added to the gloom surrounding the eurozone economy. Financial information company Markit said its purchasing managers index - a gauge of business activity - fell to a three-month low of 47.7 in March from the previous month's 49 - anything below 50 indicates a contraction.
Markit said Germany and France, the eurozone's two powerhouse economies, saw activity levels deteriorate. France, in particular, fared worse with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7. Only Austria and Ireland saw output increase during the month.
Across the eurozone, Markit said, new orders contracted at a faster rate than in February and that led to further job losses.