LONDON — Unemployment in the 17 countries that use the euro hit its highest level since the currency was introduced in 1999, official figures showed Monday, adding to fears that the region is in a recession.
Eurostat, the European Union's statistics office, said unemployment in the eurozone rose to 10.8 percent in February from 10.7 percent in January. The number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than during the same month a year ago. Of the 17 countries in the eurozone, seven countries had unemployment rates of at least 10 percent.
The figures stand in marked contrast to the situation in United States — with an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent — which has recorded solid increases in the number of people finding work over the past few months.
The eighth straight month of rising unemployment will probably reinforce concerns that the eurozone is in a recession just as many countries pursue austerity measures to get a handle on their crippling debt loads.
Spain, where the government announced another raft of austerity measures last Friday, had the highest unemployment rate in the eurozone, 23.6 percent, with youth unemployment — for those younger than 25 — standing at 50.5 percent. The lowest rate among the euro countries was Austria's 4.2 percent. Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have already received a debt bailout — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively.
With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have been reluctant to spend, and that's been holding back the eurozone's economy.
Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics, warned that the situation is likely to get worse and that even in Germany, where unemployment held at 5.7 percent, "survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come."
Figures earlier indicating a bigger-than-anticipated downturn in manufacturing only added to the gloom surrounding the eurozone economy. Financial information company Markit said its purchasing managers index — a gauge of business activity — fell to a three-month low of 47.7 in March from the previous month's 49. Anything below 50 indicates a contraction.
Markit said Germany and France, the eurozone's two powerhouse economies, saw activity levels deteriorate. France, in particular, fared worse with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7. Only Austria and Ireland saw output increase during the month.