While unemployment remained at record levels in percentage terms, the actual number of jobless people in the eurozone fell slightly in July, according to data published over the weekend, offering fresh evidence that Europe's struggling economy was taking tentative steps towards a recovery.
The tiny improvement in employment - which came alongside declining inflation and a survey showing improved confidence among European consumers and business managers - was welcomed as additional evidence that the worst of the region's downturn was probably over. But officials and economists cautioned that the economic health of Europe remained fragile and the pace of recovery highly uneven within the region.
"The recent improvements are minimal," said Laszlo Andor, the European Union's commissioner for employment. "This is no time for celebration or complacency."
The jobless rate in the 17 countries that share the euro was 12.1 per cent in July, adjusting for seasonal effects, according to a report from Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency. That figure has remained unchanged for several months. A year earlier, it was 11.5 per cent. Eurostat estimated that 19.2 million people in the euro area were jobless in July, 15,000 fewer than in June.
For all 28 countries in the EU, the number of unemployed fell by 33,000, to 26.7 million, for a rate of 11 per cent. The European bloc expanded to 28 members on July 1, when Croatia joined.
Joblessness in the eurozone has been marching higher almost without interruption for more than five years, declining only briefly at the beginning of 2011. The July data showed the first back-to-back monthly decline in the number of jobless since April 2011.
But while some countries, such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, have managed to weather the crisis with relatively little human cost, their southern European neighbours - crippled by the eurozone's debt crisis - still confront devastating levels of joblessness, particularly among the young.
"Against the background of what we've seen over last 18 months, yes, this is good news," Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING Bank in Brussels, said of the employment figures. "But tell that to the people who are still unemployed in places like Spain."