By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS Public debt in Greece and Italy, the two most indebted countries in the euro zone, grew last year while the bloc as a whole saw its liabilities decrease, the European Union statistics office said on Tuesday.
Rome's growing debt, which is also higher than Brussels had predicted, is seen as further stretching EU fiscal rules that require countries with high debts to gradually bring them down.
Italy, whose eurosceptic government adopted free-spending policies last year that have so far had little impact on growth, had debt equivalent to 132.2 percent of national output in 2018, or 2.3 trillion euros ($2.5 trillion), up from 131.4 percent in the previous year, Eurostat said.
Up to 0.2 percent of the Italian debt was due to derivative contracts, which are usually used to hedge against risks but triggered losses for 4.7 billion euros in 2018, Eurostat data show. Other euro zone countries have reduced their debt thanks to derivatives.
Although Rome has decreased its losses on derivatives from the 5.4 billion euros posted in 2017, the negative impact over the country's debt has exceeded 25 billion since 2015, data show.
The European Commission, which monitors euro zone states' budgets, refrained in December from starting disciplinary steps against Italy over its growing debt.
It predicted then that Italian debt would be 131.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2018 -- lower than Tuesday's data showed.
The Commission has said it will reassess Rome's compliance with EU fiscal rules, including the requirement to cut debt, in June, taking into account the final debt data from Eurostat.
A spokeswoman for the EU executive declined to comment on the new figures released by Eurostat.
She said Brussels' new evaluation of Italy's position will also be based on new forecasts due in May of debt developments, and on Italy's report on its fiscal plans for the next three years which Rome had just submitted.
Italy's 10-year government bond yield jumped to its highest in seven weeks on Tuesday, pushed up mostly by unease over government infighting and an upcoming ratings review.
BUCKING THE TREND
Italy bucked the euro zone trend, as overall debt in the 19-country currency bloc fell to 85.1 percent of GDP last year from 87.1 percent in 2017, Eurostat said.
The bloc's aggregated budget deficit also dropped to 0.5 percent of GDP from 1.0 percent in 2017.
The fall coincided with Germany's reduction of its debt to 60.9 percent of GDP, from 64.5 percent in 2017. The bloc's largest economy also widened its public surplus to 1.7 percent of output from 1.0 percent in 2017.
In Greece, debt climbed to 181.1 percent of GDP in 2018, the largest ratio in the euro zone.
The increase from 176.2 percent in 2017 was mostly due to the last installment of euro zone creditors' loans as part of the country's third bailout program which ended last summer.
The recent exit from the bailout program exempts Greece from the normal application of EU rules that require countries with public debt above the 60 percent of GDP threshold allowed by EU law to cut the excess by 5 percent a year.
Cyprus, another of the bloc's most indebted countries, saw its debt rise to 102.5 percent of GDP from 95.8 percent.
Portugal, which was also bailed out during the euro zone's debt crisis, saw its debt fall to 121.5 percent of output from 124.8 percent, while Belgium's debt declined to 102.0 percent of GDP last year from 103.4 percent in 2017.
French public debt was stable at 98.4 percent of output, while the country's budget deficit dropped to 2.5 percent of GDP from 2.8 percent in 2017.