FRANKFURT, Germany — Inflation eased only slightly in the 20 countries that use the euro currency as the pain from higher costs for food and fuel persists and gives the European Central Bank no reason to slow interest rate increases aimed at getting prices back under control.
The consumer price index reached 8.5 percent in February compared with a year earlier, a drop from 8.6 percent in January, the European Union’s statistics agency Eurostat said Thursday. The figure was higher than analysts’ expectations of 8.3 percent.
Inflation is down from its peak of 10.6 percent in October but its persistence has surprised economists, with figures from Germany, France and Spain coming in higher than expected this week.
Prices for food, alcohol and tobacco rose 15 percent, up from an already painful 14.1 percent in January, outpacing even energy costs amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Energy prices grew 13.7 percent from a year ago but were lower than the 18.9 percent boost in January.
High prices for natural gas, used to heat homes, run industrial processes and generate electricity, have been a key factor pushing inflation higher across the economy. Russia cut off most supplies to Europe last year as it pressured governments over their support for Ukraine.
While natural gas prices have fallen as a mild winter reduces demand for heating, it will take months for that drop to work its way through to lower household bills. Meanwhile, higher prices have led to workers demanding higher pay in wage negotiations, often through strikes and protests that have swept Europe.
More alarming than the headline figure was core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices and can give a better sense of whether inflation is being baked into the economy over the longer term. That core figure rose to 5.6 percent from 5.3 percent.
European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde has indicated the bank will raise interest rates by another large half-percentage point at its March 16 meeting, and analysts expect more rate rises after that. The bank is trying to bring down inflation to its target of 2 percent.
Interest rates influence the cost of borrowing across the economy, making it more expensive to get loans and spend and thus cooling off demand for goods.
“As long as core inflation remains stubbornly high in the eurozone, the ECB will continue hiking rates and will not consider future rate cuts,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief eurozone economist at ING bank.
The eurozone economy, which expanded a bare 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2022 over the previous quarter, has shown recent signs of somewhat stronger growth, in part due to government spending on support for hard-hit consumers and businesses.
That is likely to be a green light for more interest rate increases by indicating the economy is strong enough to bear higher borrowing costs, Brzeski said.
“The downside of government support schemes and the fact that the eurozone has avoided falling into a severe recession is that what started as supply-driven inflation could morph into demand-driven inflation,” he said.