Euro zone unemployment equals record high in March

BRUSSELS Wed May 2, 2012 5:13am EDT

A woman passes a shop with a closing down sale in Madrid April 27, 2012. Spain's sickly economy faces a ''crisis of huge proportions'', a minister said on Friday, as unemployment hit its highest level in two decades and Standard and Poor's weighed in with a two-notch downgrade of the government's debt. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

A woman passes a shop with a closing down sale in Madrid April 27, 2012. Spain's sickly economy faces a ''crisis of huge proportions'', a minister said on Friday, as unemployment hit its highest level in two decades and Standard and Poor's weighed in with a two-notch downgrade of the government's debt.

Credit: Reuters/Sergio Perez

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Unemployment in the euro zone rose to 10.9 percent in March, equaling the record high of 15 years ago, data showed on Wednesday, driven by rises in Italy and Spain.

The jobless rate in the 17 nations using the single currency increased by 0.1 percentage point from February, as expected by economists polled by Reuters.

The unemployment rate was also 10.9 percent in February, March and April 1997. It has never risen above that in data stretching back to the start of 1995.

In the wider 27-nation European Union, unemployment was steady at 10.2 percent, equivalent to some 24.8 million people.

A number of euro zone members are in or on the verge of falling back into recession.

Some European countries are threatened by a negative spiral of austerity measures, forced on governments by the debt crisis, which undermines consumer and business confidence and growth and requires even further budget cuts.

Spain indeed sank back into recession in the first quarter, according to data issued on Monday. Its unemployment rate hit 24.1 percent in March, a level not seen in euro zone data stretching back to 1986.

Within the euro zone, unemployment also rose in Cyprus, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. It was unchanged in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Malta and fell in Austria, Ireland, Slovakia and Slovenia. There was no data for Estonia and Greece.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Rex Merrifield)

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