Eurozone unemployment figures hit a new high
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LONDON — Europe’s economic gloom deepened Wednesday on the back of news that unemployment in the 17-nation Eurozone hit another record high in September as the region’s debt crisis continued to sap the confidence of business owners, investors and consumers alike.
About 18.5 million people were out of work in the Eurozone in September, adding up to a jobless rate of 11.6%. That figure exceeds August’s record of 11.5% and follows the worrisome trend of the past half-year, during which unemployment has either remained static or worsened with each successive month.
The grim picture painted by Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, comes as the continent’s debt crisis sits on the cusp of entering its fourth year with no full resolution in sight. Lawmakers in Greece, where the crisis began, are still grappling with another punishing round of austerity cuts demanded by international lenders, while Spain is keeping markets on tenterhooks over whether it will become the latest country to seek a bailout from its European partners.
According to Eurostat, there were 2.2 million more people out of work in September than a year ago in the 17 nations that share the euro currency. Since then, a number of those economies have tumbled back into recession, government debt ratios have risen, commercial lending has dwindled and investors have taken flight.
But the newly released figures highlighted the alarming gap that continues to widen between nations in northern Europe and those in the south where the debt crisis is having the most crushing impact.
Although the overall Eurozone unemployment rate was 11.6%, in both Germany and the Netherlands it was a mere 5.4%. By contrast, Spain and Greece are struggling with almost unimaginably high jobless rates of about 25%.
In Athens on Wednesday, the government of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras offered a preliminary look at the new round of spending cuts and tax hikes that lawmakers must approve if Greece is to receive its next installment of bailout loans in November, without which the Mediterranean nation will go bankrupt. The $17.5-billion austerity package includes salary and pension cuts and a boost in the average retirement age from 65 to 67.
But Samaras faces dissension within his shaky coalition and could have a difficult time securing enough votes for the plan in the parliament. And public unrest engendered by the proposed cuts is growing: Unions called a 48-hour general strike for next week.
In Spain, politicians continued to send mixed messages about whether they would apply for their own European rescue.
Unnamed officials close to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told a Spanish radio station that he does not plan to ask for help this year unless something “cataclysmic” were to happen. The anonymous sources did not specify what that might be, but many Spaniards think that the high unemployment rate and stagnating economy already qualify.
Later Wednesday, Rajoy said in parliament that he would not rule out asking Europe for aid.
“If Spain needs it, you should have total and absolute certainty that I will request it,” he told lawmakers, some of whom accused him of indecision and procrastinating.
“Sometimes the hardest decision is not to take any decision,” Rajoy said.
Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal, approved a budget for 2013 that includes the biggest tax hikes in the country’s democratic history.
The vote Wednesday ran strictly along party lines, with all members of the center-right ruling coalition voting in favor of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s budget, and all opposition lawmakers, led by the Socialists, voting against it.
This is Coelho’s third attempt at unpopular austerity measures in recent months. His previous plan to hike workers’ social security contributions while lowering them for businesses sparked rare and angry street demonstrations in Lisbon and was ultimately withdrawn. The new budget faces its own legal challenge in Portugal’s constitutional court.
The new measures include tax hikes on property, income and financial transactions. For some households, that could mean an increased tax burden equivalent to two months’ salary.
For the record, 6:16 p.m. Oct. 31: A previous version of this post said the unemployment rate in both Germany and Austria was 5.4%. It should have said Germany and the Netherlands.
-- Henry Chu in London and Lauren Frayer in Madrid
A woman particpates in a union protest of new upcoming austerity measures Wednesday in Athens. Credit: Aris Messinis / Agence France-Presse