The number of unemployed people in the 18 eurozone countries declined fractionally in May, not enough to bring down the jobless rate, which remained at 11.6 per cent compared with a month earlier.

The European Union's statistics office, Eurostat, said Tuesday the overall number of unemployed workers in the 18 countries that use the euro decreased by 28,000 from the previous month to 18.6 million.

The report continues a trend of very slight improvement in the number of unemployed this year as Europe's economy shows signs of recovering only slowly.

Divergence remains strong between the countries of northern and southern Europe: German unemployment was 5.1 per cent, while Italy's was 12.6 per cent and Spain's was 25.1 per cent.

By comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate was at 6.3 per cent in May and Canada's jobless rate at 7.0 per cent.

Youth unemployment - which stands at 23.3 per cent - remains a serious problem across the euro area, and is much worse in southern European countries such as Greece and Spain.

In Britain, which did not adopt the euro, unemployment is at 6.6 per cent.

Yesterday, the EU announced that its inflation rate was 0.5 per cent in May, with any level below one per cent considered a danger zone and  sign that the economy was not growing.

In June, the European Central Bank became the first in the world last month to introduce a negative lending rate in an effort to boost business growth.