- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 8, 2013

BRUSSELS — Record unemployment and fraying social welfare systems in southern Europe risk creating a new divide in the Continent, the European Union warned Tuesday, as newly released figures showed joblessness across the 17 EU countries that use the euro hit a new high.

Eurozone unemployment rose to 11.8 percent in November, the highest since the euro currency was founded in 1999, according to the statistical agency Eurostat. The rate was up from 11.7 percent in October and 10.6 percent a year earlier.

In the wider 27-nation European Union, the world’s largest economic bloc with 500 million people, unemployment broke the 26 million mark for the first time.

But the trend is not uniform. Unemployment is increasing mainly in countries, mostly in southern Europe, where market concerns over excessive public debt have pushed governments to make the toughest savings, pushing the economies into recession.

States have raised taxes and slashed spending — including by cutting wages and pensions, measures that hit the labor force in the pocket and reduce demand in the economy.

Laszlo Andor, the EU’s employment commissioner, warned that the uneven impact of the crisis could create a rift.

“A new divide is emerging between countries that seem trapped in a downward spiral of falling output, fast-rising unemployment and eroding disposable incomes and those that have so far shown good or at least some resilience,” a statement from Mr. Andor’s office says.

“It is unlikely that Europe will see much socio-economic improvement in 2013.”

The biggest increase in unemployment in the past year was in Greece, where joblessness soared to 26 percent in September, up 7.1 percentage points over September 2011’s 18.9 percent. The highest overall rate in the EU was in Spain, where 26.6 percent of the workforce was jobless in November, up 3.6 percentage points over last year.

By contrast, Austria posted the lowest unemployment rate in the EU at 4.5 percent. The rate in Luxembourg was 5.1 percent, and the rate in Germany was 5.4 percent.

Beyond Europe, unemployment in the U.S. has been edging down this year and was at 7.8 percent as of November. In Japan it was only 4.1 percent.

“It is clear that the economic implosion of several member-states continues at a troubling pace,” said Graeme Leach, chief economist at the London-based Institute of Directors. He said the stark EU statistics were “compounded by the political and human impact of terrifying levels of youth unemployment in Spain, Greece and Italy.”

The problem of joblessness is made worse by the fact that southern EU nations are increasingly chipping away at their social safety system to make ends meet.

“Most national welfare systems have lost much of their ability to protect household incomes against the effects of the crisis,” Mr. Andor said.

The figures illustrate the daunting tasks confronting the European Union. While the threat of a collapse of the eurozone because of too much government debt may have receded, the national economies — many of which are in recession — will struggle to recover as long as joblessness continues to rise, creating poverty and fueling social discontent.

And things may get worse before they improve.