updated 8/13/2009 7:06:25 AM ET 2009-08-13T11:06:25

The recession in the 16 countries that use the euro eased substantially between April and June after unexpected growth in Germany and France, the currency bloc's two largest economies, official figures showed Thursday.

Euro zone gross domestic product fell by only 0.1 percent in the second quarter from the previous three month period, the European Union's statistical agency Eurostat said.

That was the fifth straight quarterly decline, but the drop was much less than expected and provides the clearest evidence so far that the worst of the recession is over.

Better than expected
Still, the economy is consolidating itself at a far lower level than when the troubles began, and Europe still faces the prospect of rising unemployment and worries about what happens after the expiration of government spending programs to prop up auto sales. The economy shrank 4.6 percent from the same quarter a year ago.

"This much better than expected figure testifies that we are now very close to the bottom of the cycle, marking the end of the recession and the start of the recovery but the pace of the recovery would prove to be tepid as the fundamentals will remain frail for a while," said Isabelle Job, head of macro research at Calyon Credit Agricole.

The news that Germany and France pulled out of recession by growing 0.3 percent in the second quarter prompted many economists to hastily revise their forecasts ahead of the Eurostat release — before the French and German data, the expectation was for a 0.5 percent quarterly decline.

In fact, the figures will likely surprise policy-makers at the European Central Bank. As recently as last week, the central bank's president Jean-Claude Trichet said the recession would likely continue until next year at least.

The better than expected performance helped the euro bounce half a percentage point to $1.4270.

Marked improvement
The second-quarter easing represents a marked improvement on the record 2.5 percent contraction recorded in the first quarter and may stoke market hopes that the euro zone could actually start recovering in the second half of the year if global demand picks up.

It was also better than the 0.3 percent quarterly decline recorded in the United States, the world's single largest economy.

On an annual basis, though, Eurostat said the euro zone had shrank more than the U.S. Euro zone GDP was down 4.6 percent, better than the 4.9 percent drop recorded in the second quarter but worse than the 3.9 percent posted in the United States.

Much will depend on what happens in the currency markets over the coming months. Europe's manufacturers will not have been pleased that the euro has risen above $1.40 after having fallen toward $1.25 earlier in the year — a higher euro makes euro zone products more expensive in export markets.

The signs so far are that exporters in Germany, the euro zone's biggest single economy, have managed to offset the impact of the higher euro amid rising global demand. Government figures last week showed that German exports were up 7 percent on the month in June, their biggest rise in nearly three years.

However, Marc Touati of Global Equities in Paris, said the French economy will not be able to withstand a high euro for too long especially if the European Central Bank decides to raise borrowing costs too soon.

"We should definitely not cry victory too quickly and let down our guard in terms of support for economic activity," he said.

Unemployment still a problem
Economists also cautioned that the road to recovery will not be straightforward — especially as much of the improvement in Germany and France was due to very sharp falls in imports, which lessened the drag effect on the overall economy emanating from net trade.

In addition, they said rising unemployment will continue to rein in consumer demand.

"With output unlikely to return to pre-recession levels in the medium term, unemployment may become a serious drag on the euro area's economic performance," said Jorg Radeke, economist at the Centre for Economic and Business Research in London.

The contrasting economic performances among the euro member states are likely to cause headaches for the European Central Bank, said Radeke.

While Germany and France saw output rise in the second quarter, other euro zone countries remain mired in recession, including Italy, which saw GDP fall another 0.5 percent, and the Netherlands, where GDP dropped 0.9 percent. Figures Friday could well show Spain contracted a further 1 percent as its economy reels from a near 20 percent unemployment rate.

The EU as a whole, including countries that don't use the euro such as Britain and Sweden, saw output drop 0.3 percent in the second quarter from the previous three month period. On an annual basis, GDP fell 2.4 percent.

Once again, the Baltic countries were the big laggards, with output sliding a quarterly 3.7 percent in Estonia, 1.6 percent in Latvia and a massive 12.3 percent in Lithuania.

A more detailed breakdown of the GDP figures in the EU will be released on Sept. 2.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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