BRUSSELS (AP) — Europe will take longer to recover from its economic crisis as it tackles a worse-than-expected recession in the eurozone and unemployment at record levels, the European Union warned Friday.
In its spring economic forecast, the EU said that gross domestic product in the 17 member countries that use the euro will shrink by 0.4 percent this year, better than the 0.6 percent contraction in 2012 but 0.1 percentage points worse than the EU had forecast back in February.
The report also had bad news for the wider 27-country EU: it now expects the region's economy to shrink by 0.1 percent in 2013, against a forecast of 0.1 percent growth in February.
"Grappling with the aftermath of a profound financial and economic crisis, the EU economy is set to pick up speed only very slowly in the course of this year," the report said.
The grim outlook even forced EU Commissioner Olli Rehn to raise the specter that France, the bloc's second biggest economy, may be given two extra years to bring its deficit within the target 3 percent of gross domestic product needed for a sustainable future.
"It may be reasonable to extend the deadline by two years and to correct the excessive deficit at the latest by 2015 in France," Rehn told reporters.
After the eurozone crisis over too much debt broke in late 2009, the region's governments slashed spending — either to meet conditions for bailout loans, or to reassure jittery bond markets. But austerity has also inflicted severe economic pain. Slashing spending and raising taxes have proved to be less effective at reducing deficits than initially thought — and perhaps counter-productive. As economies shrink, so do their tax revenues, potentially making it harder to close budget gaps.
The impact of the eurozone's austerity measures and recession are being felt even in the region's more prosperous countries. The EU report forecasts GDP growth in Germany, Europe's largest economy, will fall from 0.7 percent in 2102 to 0.4 percent this year as demand from other parts of Europe falls. France, meanwhile, is expected to fall into negative territory in 2013, with GDP dropping 0.1 percent.
Against such a depressing background, Rehn chided France for the "persistent deterioration of French competitiveness" and called for "substantial structural reforms in the labor market."
Instead of moving toward a safe 3 percent deficit, France is forecast to have a deficit of 3.9 percent this year and 4.2 percent next year. The French government said that new legislation is already in the pipeline to cut spending and increase the fight against fiscal fraud to bring its deficit down.
In a move designed to help the eurozone's economic recovery, the European Central Bank on Thursday cut its benchmark interest rate a quarter-point to a record low of 0.50 percent. Bank President Mario Draghi added that the ECB was prepared to flex its muscles further, saying the ECB stood "ready to act if needed." But Draghi also implored Europe's governments to do more to stimulate economic growth.
Unemployment across the eurozone is expected to hit an average of 12.2 percent this year, up from 11.4 percent in 2012. In both Greece and Spain it is expected to peak at 27 percent.
Rehn said that "in view of the protracted recession, we must do whatever it takes to overcome the unemployment crisis."
There are currently 19.2 million people out of work in the eurozone, leaving EU leaders with an uphill battle to turn the economy around while making sure the population continues to back the austerity measures aimed at whipping public finances back in shape.
Rehn insisted that after the 2012 recession, GDP growth is expected to start picking up again in the second half of 2013. He added that, under the assumption of unchanged policies, GDP would even rise by 1.2 percent in 2014.
But overall, the news remained bleak as the report said that "the recovery of economic activity is expected to be too slow to reduce joblessness."
Not much improvement in unemployment is expected in 2014 and "differences across member states are expected to remain very large."