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Spanish king urges unity in fight against unemployment

King Juan Carlos urged Spaniards to press ahead with needed reforms to revive the economy, fight unemployment and cut the public deficit in his annual Christmas Eve message on Friday.

“We are reaching the end of a difficult and complicated year, marked by an economic crisis in Spain and other countries that has been longer and more intense than expected,” the 72-year-old said.

“In our case it has highlighted imbalances and structural deficiencies which we have to solve together effectively and promptly. What is most painful is that it has hit so many men and women …”

Spain’s unemployment rate has soared to around 20 percent, the highest in the European Union, following the collapse of a labour-intensive property bubble at the end of 2008 that had fueled growth for over a decade.

The economic downturn caused Spain’s public deficit to balloon to 11.1 percent of out last year, leading financial markets to fear the country may need a costly bailout like the ones granted Greece and Ireland this year.

The king said the unemployed were an “inescapable priority”, adding that “without adequate growth we will not create jobs”.

“And to grow as we need to, we must continue and tackle together the necessary reforms, as well as meet our budget and deficit commitments,” he said.

The Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has pushed through unpopular reforms intended to slash the deficit and boost growth which have caused its support among voters to plummet.

Among the reforms it has passed this year are changes to the labour code which cut the cost of firing workers and gave companies more flexibility to reduce working hours and staff levels in economic downturns in an effort to boost employment.

The government has also increased the sales tax, frozen old age pensions and slashed civil servant salaries by an average of five percent to reduce the deficit to an EU limit of 3.0 percent of gross domestic product in 2013.

In May King Juan Carlos underwent surgery to to remove a benign growth from his right lung, sparking speculation that he may soon abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Felipe.

But in his Christmas message he said he wanted to “once again, assure you that I always look forward to fulfilling my constitutional duties in the service to Spain. It is certainly my duty, but it is also my passion.”

King Juan Carlos acts as Spain’s head of state, a largely ceremonial role. He is considered a pillar of democratic Spain, having mediated between the country’s fledgling institutions and political factions in the transition to democracy following the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975.