Madrid: Spain can not say it has left behind its economic crisis until the sky-high unemployment rate returns to "normal levels", EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview published Wednesday.
His comments appeared to contradict Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who has repeatedly argued Spain has exited a crisis sparked by the collapse of a real estate boom in 2008 with a return to growth last year.
Rajoy`s conservative Popular Party faces a year-end general election in which polls show it could lose its majority in parliament while new anti-austerity party Podemos is poised to do well.
Juncker told top-selling daily Spanish newspaper El Pais that Spain`s "biggest problem is unemployment".
"With high levels of unemployment, and of youth unemployment in Spain, even if things improve we can`t tell people, or ourselves, that the crisis is over," he added.
"What is honest, is to say that we will continue to face serious difficulties as long as unemployment does not return to normal levels. We are in the middle of a crisis. It is not over," he said.
"Structural reforms take time," Juncker said.
The Spanish economy, the eurozone`s fourth-largest, grew by 1.4 percent in 2014 due to a rise in private consumption, higher business investment and a recovery in the construction sector.
It was the first full-year economic growth since Spain`s decade-long property bubble burst in 2008, throwing millions of people out of work and forcing the government to bail out the financial system and enforce austerity measures.
The government last week raised its growth forecast for 2015 to 2.4 percent from the previous 2.0 percent.
While the unemployment rate has started to fall, it stood at 23.7 percent at the end of 2014, the second highest rate in the eurozone after Greece.
The International Labour Organization sees the country`s jobless rate remaining above 20 percent until the end of the decade.
Spanish second-largest bank BBVA forecasts it will take 8-10 years for Spain`s jobless rate to return to the levels close to those that existed before the property bubble burst.
Spain`s unemployment rate stood at 8.57 percent in 2007 at the height of the property boom, its lowest annual level since the country returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.