* Euro zone inflation rate falls to 1.8 percent in February
* Unemployment hits new high of 11.9 percent in January
By Ethan Bilby
BRUSSELS, March 1 Inflation fell in the euro
zone in February and joblessness rose to an all-time high,
highlighting the impact of the bloc's debt crisis and putting
pressure on the European Central Bank to consider cutting
interest rates to a new low.
Annual inflation in the 17 countries sharing the euro was
1.8 percent in February, the EU's statistics office Eurostat
said on Friday, below the ECB's target of below but close to 2
percent, and by more than expected.
Thirty economists polled by Reuters had expected the
inflation rate to fall to 1.9 percent in the month. The reading
compared to a 2 percent rate in January.
While the slowing pace of price increases may make it easier
for Europeans to buy food and clothing, it is little comfort to
the record 19 million people unemployed in the euro zone.
January's unemployment rate rose to 11.9 percent in the
bloc, up from 11.8 in December, with another 201,000 people out
of work, Eurostat said separately on Friday.
Three years of crisis have driven major euro zone economies,
such as Italy and Spain, into a grinding recession, with
businesses unable to obtain the financing they need to expand
and citizens unable to earn enough to buy goods.
The data also masks a large divide, with only 4.9 percent
unemployment in Austria compared to 27 percent in Greece,
although Eurostat's data from Athens was from November, the
"The economic division between the southern periphery and
the core will not change in 2013," said Commerzbank economist
Christoph Weil in a report. "While the economy in the core
countries... should grow again in the first quarter, it will
probably still contract in most periphery countries through to
the second half of the year," he said.
The sombre economic situation will likely weigh on the ECB's
Governing Council when it meets on March 7, and economists are
divided over whether the bank will cut rates to below the
current 0.75 percent.
According to a Reuters poll, only 17 of 75 economists see a
cut this year, but the European Commission's forecast last week
that the euro zone will remain in recession this year could
change that view.
Inflation pressures seem to have subsided overall, and the
Commission, the 27-nation bloc's executive, forecast a euro
zone's yearly inflation rate of 1.8 percent in 2013.