BRUSSELS: The economic crisis in southern Europe may be easing, a key survey signaled on Monday, but unemployment figures showed that the eurozone jobless rate hit a previous record-high of 12.1 percent in May.
The Eurostat figures offered little hope of a quick end to the social fallout from austerity seen in many countries, with the unemployment rate for the entire European Union being unchanged at 10.9 percent.
Provisional official data in Italy showed the unemployment rate rising to a record-high level of 12.2 percent, an increase of 0.2 points from the April level and 1.8 percentage points higher over 12 months.
European Union (EU) leaders agreed to deploy up to 8 billion euros ($10.4 billion) in programs to fight youth unemployment at a summit in Brussels last week, after US President Barack Obama warned of the risk of a “lost generation” in Europe.
The Eurostat report, which revised previous figures, showed the eurozone rate reached 12.1 percent in March, then inched down to 12.0 percent in April—a slight improvement that ended two years of increases—before rising again in May.
The results were far worse than in May of last year, when eurozone unemployment was at 11.3 percent and the EU jobless rate at 10.4 percent.
For under-25s, the picture was even worse, with the rate for the eurozone rising to 23 percent for the EU as a whole from 22.8 percent in May 2012, and to 23.8 percent for the eurozone from 23.0 percent over the same period.
Eurostat said that 26.4 million men and women in the EU are now out of work.
There were wide differences between EU members, however, with unemployment actually decreasing in May in 10 countries on a 12-month comparison.
The best results were in Latvia, where the rate fell to 12.4 percent from 15.5 percent and Estonia, where it went down to 8.3 percent from 10 percent.
The worst was Cyprus, an island nation that has been plunged into a banking crisis over the past year, that has drastically cut down its financial sector and where the jobless rate rose to 16.3 percent in May 2013 from May 2012.
Unemployment data is a lagging indicator, and in a separate set of figures, however, eurozone manufacturing showed signs of continued improvement in June.
Businesses still optimistic
The Markit Eurozone Composite Purchasing Managers Index (PMI), a survey of what businesses see happening in their production processes, rose to 48.8 in June—a 16-month high—from 48.3 in May.
The PMI index is considered to be a reliable indicator of the future trend of activity.
Ireland saw an improvement and Spain remained stable, while the rates of contraction eased in Austria, France, Greece, Italy and The Netherlands.
“Strong improvements in Spain, Italy and France more than offset a mild German setback as exporters there struggle with weakness in China and competition from Japan,” said Christian Schulz, an economist at Berenberg bank.
“On current trends, the end of recession in the crisis countries is approaching fast. Spain’s manufacturing PMI left contraction territory for the first time since April 2011 and Italy was not far behind,” he said.
The PMIs for Italy and Spain were higher than Germany’s for the first time since the eurozone debt crisis reached its peak in 2011.
Meanwhile, William Jackson, the emerging markets economist at Capital Economics in London, said that the latest batch of “emerging European” PMI indicators for several countries in central Europe added “to the growing sense that things are improving in the region.”
But he also commented: “Even so, we still expect the recovery to be pretty lackluster.”