Jobless data show twin-speed Europe

Unemployed workers wait outside a government job centre in Madrid July 29, 2011.

Story highlights

  • German unemployment hit 20-year lows as Spanish figures rose
  • Spanish jobseekers rose to 4.4M while Germany's jobless count fell to 3M
The starkly contrasting economic trajectories of countries inside the eurozone were highlighted on Tuesday as Germany reported unemployment at 20-year lows while Spanish jobless figures rose for the fifth consecutive month.
The number of Spanish jobseekers rose to 4.42m, while Germany's jobless count fell to 2.976m. Another measure, based on household surveys, puts Spanish seasonally adjusted unemployment at 5.4m, nearly 23 per cent of the workforce. The comparable German figure decreased to 6.8 per cent in December from 6.9 per cent the prior month.
The divergence of eurozone economies has been a source of tension since Europe's sovereign debt crisis struck, with northern countries around Germany recording much stronger growth than their southern neighbours, whose less competitive economies have been further burdened by austerity measures to correct unsustainable fiscal policies.
While Spain and others have announced labour-market reforms to give their economies new bounce, the big question for eurozone leaders as they enter 2012 is whether the bloc's ruling politicians have the support -- and nerve -- to see them through.
"The brunt of the crisis will be borne by the lowest qualified, and those in the public sector, whose wages and jobs are likely to be impacted first by austerity measures," said Ronald Janssen, economist at the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels, warning that anaemic growth or recession in the eurozone could lead to even bleaker prospects for national labour markets this year.
But economists said the eurozone's southern nations had to stick to their policies to make their economies competitive again and ultimately create jobs.
"Far from pulling the eurozone apart, this divergence is the path to economic convergence and sustainability," said Holger Schmieding, an economist at Germany's Berenberg Bank. "Spain is undoubtedly at the start of a tough two-year phase of recession and reform. But the German jobless numbers show the pain is worth it -- labour-market reforms are painful, but they work."
Europe's largest economy went through wrenching labour-market reforms between 2003 and 2005, which helped German manufacturing regain global competitiveness, and put the country on a solid footing as global crises struck in 2008 and 2009.
Despite a marked cooling of the global economy, German companies are still profiting from solid order books, with demand for their goods in the past year coming from domestic companies and consumers as well as foreign ones.
The German car makers' association said on Tuesday that 3.2m new cars had been registered in Germany in 2011, 9 per cent more than the year before, with domestic brands beating foreign rivals.
"Companies are still sitting on a huge pile of backlog orders," said Andreas Rees, an economist at UniCredit. December's unusually warm weather gave the German jobs market an extra boost by spurring construction activity, he said. Seasonally adjusted unemployment fell 22,000 from November into December, twice the amount economists had forecast.
Although Spain's absolute increase in unemployment was small -- an extra 1,897 people sought unemployment benefit -- its jobless rate remains by far the highest among the larger eurozone economies.
Spain's jobless total has more than doubled in the past four years, with hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in construction and services after the sudden end in 2007 of a decade-long homebuilding spree and the economic recession that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
The government of Mariano Rajoy, the new prime minister from the centre-right Popular party, insists that aggressive reforms to the Spain's inflexible labour market, combined with incentives for small businesses, will help to create jobs even as it cuts public spending and raises taxes to reduce the budget deficit in line with European Union targets.