European stock markets closed lower Thursday, extending losses after a brief respite on US economic data, with investors nervous over the outlook ahead of another EU finance ministers meeting.
Dealers said that after recent strong gains, the markets appear to have stalled and investors are taking profits while they can, with no fresh news lead around to give direction.
"After such a strong quarter, this rally is ending with a whimper rather than a bang, perhaps understandably given the run-up in global markets," IG Index analyst Chris Beauchamp said.
They said a fall in US new jobless benefit claims to their lowest point in four years confirmed the improving trend while fourth quarter US growth was left at 3.0 percent, after 1.8 percent in the third.
That was not enough, however, to dispel the negative mood and Wall Street weakened steadily, pushing Europe down further.
Eurozone and EU finance ministers meet Friday and Saturday in Copenhagen to thrash out differences over the size of the bloc's permanent debt rescue fund, with Germany holding out for much less than the 1.0 trillion euros others think necessary.
A general strike in Spain against government austerity measures and labour reforms highlighted continued strains within the debt-burdened eurozone and reminded the markets of the underlying problems.
In London, the benchmark FTSE 100 index of top companies closed down 1.15 percent at 5,742.03 points. In Frankfurt, the DAX 30 slumped 1.77 percent to 6,875.15 points and in Paris the CAC 40 lost 1.43 percent to 3,381.12 points.
Madrid lost 0.87 percent against the backdrop of a 24-hour general strike in protest at a new law facilitating lay-offs at a time of soaring unemployment, recession and state austerity cuts.
Milan slumped 3.30 percent, led down by the banks after having outperformed its peers in recent weeks.
In New York, the blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 0.60 percent at around 1545 GMT, with the Nasdaq Composite off 0.93 percent.
"A bearish blanket of fog hangs over Wall Street," said Karee Venema of Schaeffer's Investment Research.
In addition to finding no inspiration in the US data, she said "traders have also turned a wary eye back overseas, where concerns over Spain's unpopular austerity measures, as well as China's faltering growth, have resurfaced."
In foreign exchange deals, the European single currency slipped to $1.3259 from $1.3316 in New York late on Wednesday.
Eurozone governments are debating whether to combine the lending capacity of the temporary European Financial Stability Facility, used to rescue Portugal, Ireland and Greece, with the permanent European Stability Mechanism.
To do so would at least temporarily raise the size of the debt rescue mechanism to 940 billion euros before lowering it, two European sources close to the discussions said late Wednesday.
The proposal will be presented to finance ministers meeting on Friday and Saturday in Copenhagen amid growing concerns about Spain's finances, alongside its neighbour, bailed-out Portugal.
Asian markets slipped on Thursday after Wall Street fell Wednesday on the back of a subdued US consumer confidence survey. Tokyo shed 0.67 percent, Hong Kong dropped 1.32 percent and Shanghai lost 1.43 percent.