Spain cannot say it has left behind its economic crisis until the country's sky-high unemployment rate returns to "normal levels", EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said in an interview published Wednesday.
His comments appeared to contradict Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who has repeatedly argued that Spain exited the 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 make a good showing.
Juncker told top-selling 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 said.
"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," Juncker said.
"Structural reforms take time," he added.
The Spanish economy, the eurozone's fourth-largest, has enjoyed modest but steady growth since emerging in mid-2013 from its second recession after the collapse of a property bubble which brought Spain to the verge of default and threw millions of people out of work.
The economy grew by 1.4 percent in 2014 due to a rise in private consumption, higher business investment and a recovery in the construction sector -- the first full-year economic growth since the bubble burst.
The government attributes the recovery to tough budget cuts that it said were necessary to strengthen the public finances and a labour law reform that makes it easier and less expensive to fire workers for the return to growth.
Last week Spain raised its growth forecast for 2015 to 2.4 percent from the previous 2.0 percent.
- 'Economy could approach potential'-
Economy Minister Luis de Guindos predicted Wednesday that the Spanish economy was poised to post five years of growth of up to 3.0 percent.
"The basis had been set for the Spanish economy to benefit from five good years, I am absolutely convinced. I think these are years when the Spanish economy could approach its potential," he said at an economic forum in Barcelona when asked about Juncker's statements.
"We can say that rates of growth of between 2.5 and 3.0 percent are perfectly conceivable," he said, before adding that he hoped this would "heal the wounds of the deepest, longest and most complex crisis in recent history".
"It is obvious that there is still a lot which we need to do."
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 Spain's jobless rate remaining above 20 percent until the end of the decade.
Spain's second-largest bank BBVA forecasts it will take 8-10 years for the country's jobless rate to return to the levels close to those that existed before the property crash.
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.