LONDON The 17-country eurozone has bowed to the inevitable and fallen back into recession for the first time in three years as a sprawling debt crisis took its toll on the region's stronger economies.
And with surveys pointing to increasingly depressed conditions across the eurozone at a time of high unemployment in many countries, there are fears that the recession will deepen, and make the debt crisis even more difficult to handle.
Official figures Thursday showed that the eurozone contracted by 0.1 percent in the July to September period from the quarter before as economies including Germany and the Netherlands suffer from falling demand.
The decline reported by Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, was in line with market expectations and follows on from the 0.2 percent fall recorded in the second quarter. As a result, the eurozone is officially in recession, commonly defined as two straight quarters of falling output.
"We can dispense with the euphemisms and equivocation, and openly proclaim that the euro area economy is indeed in technical recession," said James Ashley, senior European economist at RBC Capital Markets.
Because of the eurozone's grueling three-year debt crisis, the region has the focus of concern for the world economy. The eurozone's economy is worth around 9.5 trillion euro, or $12.1 trillion, which puts it on a par with the U.S. economy. The region, with its 332 million population, is the U.S.'s largest export customer, and any fall-off in demand will hit order books.
While the U.S has managed to bounce back from its own savage recession in 2008-09, albeit inconsistently, and China continues to post still-strong growth, Europe's economies have been on a downward spiral -- and there is little sign of any improvement in the near-term.
The eurozone has managed to avoid returning to recession for the first time since the financial crisis following the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, mainly thanks to the strength of its largest single economy, Germany.
But even that country is struggling now as confidence wanes and exports drain in light of the debt problems afflicting large chunks of the eurozone.
Germany's economy grew a muted 0.2 percent in the third quarter, down from a 0.3 percent increase in the previous quarter. Over the past year, Germany's annual growth rate has more than halved to 0.9 percent from 1.9 percent.
Perhaps the most dramatic decline among the eurozone's members was seen in the Netherlands, whose economy shrank 1.1 percent on the previous quarter.
Five eurozone countries are in recession -- Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus. Those five are also at the center of Europe's debt crisis and are imposing austerity measures, such as cuts to pensions and increases to taxes, in an attempt to stay afloat.
As well as hitting workers' incomes and living standards, these measures have also led to a decline in economic output and a sharp increase in unemployment.
Spain and Greece have unemployment rates of over 25 percent. Their young people are faring even worse with every other person out of work. As well as being a cost to governments who have to pay out more for benefits, it carries a huge social and human cost.
Protests across Europe on Wednesday highlighted the scale of discontent and with economic surveys pointing to the downturn getting worse, the voices of anger may well get louder still.
"The likelihood is that this anger will continue to grow unless European leaders and policymakers start to act as if they have a clue as to how to resolve the crisis starting to unravel before their eyes," said Michael Hewson, markets analyst at CMC Markets.
The wider 27-nation EU, which includes non-euro countries, avoided the same fate. It saw output rise 0.1 percent during the quarter, largely on the back of an Olympics-related boost in Britain.
The EU's output as a whole is greater than the U.S. It is also a major source of sales for the world's leading companies. Forty percent of McDonald's global revenue comes from Europe -- more than it generates in the U.S. General Motors, meanwhile, sold 1.7 million vehicles in Europe last year, a fifth of its worldwide sales.