BRUSSELS (AP) — Europe's leaders travel to Brussels Thursday, hoping to chart the continent's way back to growth as figures showing unemployment in the 17-country eurozone spiking to its highest level since the euro was established in 1999.
While the two-day summit is for once taking place amid relative calm on financial markets, Europe's population is only starting to feel the full impact of the massive budget cuts and economic uncertainty of the past three years.
New figures showed that unemployment in the 17-country eurozone hit 10.7 percent in January — the highest level since the currency union launched 1999. The situation in the 27-country European Union is not looking much better, with unemployment reaching 10.1 percent in the first month of the year.
Policymakers across Europe have made spurring growth and jobs their new mantra, but so far their proclamations have yielded few results. Many economists want governments to stop slashing budgets as the continent heads into another recession, warning that more cuts will further destabilize the economy and make the debt situation even worse.
"This crisis and some remedies puts social cohesion at stake. It can also damage the European idea itself," said EU President Herman Van Rompuy. "That is why we have to tackle inequalities and poverty."
Anti-austerity protests have moved out of the crisis hotspots like Greece or Spain and unions across Europe staged demonstrations across Europe the day before the summit. Many feel that recent efforts by the EU and the European Central Bank have only benefited banks and investors, while ordinary people continue to suffer.
But political leaders say that large-scale spending won't kick-start growth and are betting instead on reforms to modernize Europe's economy, by cutting red tape, making it easier to hire and fire people, and investing in better broadband networks.
Yet even the EU acknowledges that such economic reforms will take time to show results and has warned that governments often don't follow up on the commitments leaders make at their regular Brussels get-togethers.
Separate from the summit of EU leaders, the finance ministers of the eurozone are meeting to check on Greece's progress in implementing promised spending cuts and economic reforms.
Those measures are a precondition for the country receiving a first batch on money from a €130 billion ($173 billion) bailout Athens needs to avoid bankruptcy.