The number of people without a job increased at the end of last year, highlighting a deteriorating situation in the eurozone, according to figures released by Eurostat yesterday (31 January).
The jobless rate in the 17 countries that use the euro reached 10.4% in December, remaining above 10% for eight consecutive months.
Some 16.5 million people were out of work in the eurozone in December, up 751,000 on the year before.
The euro bloc data show a widening divide between Germany's unemployment rate, which fell to a two-decade low, and others in the region. Spain was the hardest hit with an unemployment rate at 22.9%, while Austria remains the least affected with 4.1%.
In Portugal, one of the eurozone countries struggling to keep down its debt costs, the unemployment rate rose to 13.6% in December from November's 13.2%. French unemployment rose to 9.9% from 9.8%, and in Ireland the unemployment rate rose to 14.5%.
Retail sales in the last month of 2011 also fell unexpectedly in Germany and France, the two economies expected to support weaker economies, like Italy, whose downturn didn’t show any sign of relief with unemployment reaching 8.9%, its highest level in more than a decade.
In Germany, retail sales fell 1.4% on the month, and are likely to weigh on fourth-quarter GDP, economists reportedly said. The German fall was the biggest surprise, as it does take place amid improving consumer and business sentiment and falling unemployment.
Economists say high unemployment rates cast a dark cloud over growth prospects in the eurozone, after EU leaders agreed on Monday (30 January) to focus energy on generating jobs and growth.
EU leaders are looking to deploy up to €82 billion of unspent funds from the EU's 2007-2013 budget in an attempt to boost employment. But most economists expect scant progress while the eurozone's high debtors are compelled to persist with harsh austerity programmes under a new 'fiscal compact'.
Citigroup analysts dubbed the German-inspired pact for stricter budget discipline, agreed by 25 EU leaders on Monday, as a "compact for low growth", while one European diplomat has said that it "essentially makes Keynesianism illegal."
Even with a pro-growth plan, a growing gap between the wealthy nations of northern Europe and those of the poorer, less productive south overshadows any EU-wide jobs policies implemented from Brussels.
High joblessness is a blight on the European economy, and youth unemployment is a particular problem, especially in Spain, where almost half of young people cannot find full-time work.
A spokeswoman for European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said pan-EU youth unemployment was "unacceptable" and "alarming."
Even in non-eurozone Britain, one of the world's top 10 economies, youth unemployment is almost three times that of Germany, at 22%. That figure reaches 24% in France and 30% in Italy.
Intervening at a think tank forum in Brussels, Dominique Moisi, founder of the French Institute of International Affairs (IFRI), noted that social injustice will not be accepted if sacrifices are not equally shared in Europe.