LONDON - Europe's debt dynamics keep getting worse in spite of years of cost-cutting and tax hikes designed to return public finances to health.
Official figures showed Monday that the debt burden of the 17 European Union countries that use the euro hit all-time highs at the end of the first quarter even after austerity measures were introduced to rebalance the governments' books.
Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, said government debt as a proportion of the total annual gross domestic product of the eurozone rose to a record 92.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, from 90.6 per cent the previous quarter and 88.2 per cent in the same period a year ago.
Battered by a global recession, a banking crisis and in some cases lax financial management, a number of euro countries have been forced to take remedial action to deal with their debts, some in return for multibillion bailout loans.
Some progress has been made — many countries' annual budget deficits are falling. Greece, for example, is expected to start posting economic growth next year while recording a primary surplus — the annual budget excluding debt-related payments — after years of savage austerity that's contributed to a near six-year recession and unemployment of around 27 per cent.
One side-effect of the austerity measures has been to keep a lid on economic growth — government spending is a key component of the economy while tax rises can choke consumption and investment. Many euro countries are actually in recession — shrinking economies can make the debt-to-GDP ratio look less favourable. Coupled with the fact that countries continue to add to their debt mountains by ongoing, albeit smaller, budget deficits, the overall debt burden of the eurozone has continued to rise.
The hope of those who have advocated austerity as the main response to Europe's debt crisis is that economic growth will start to emerge as soon as countries get their borrowing levels down to manageable levels. Figures for the second quarter are expected next month, and there are hopes that the eurozone recession, which has lasted since the end of 2011, may come to an end, primarily through strength in Germany.
Greece, which in 2009 became the first euro country to suffer a loss of investor confidence over the state of its public finances, has the highest debt burden in the eurozone of 160.5 per cent. That's up from the previous quarter's 156.9 per cent and from the previous year's equivalent 136.5 per cent.
The second highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the eurozone is Italy's 130.3 per cent. Though Italy has not needed a financial rescue like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, its government has pursued a raft of measures to make sure its investors are happy to keep on lending money so it can service its 2 trillion euros debt on its own.
Across the eurozone, total debt stood at 8.75 trillion ($11.4 trillion) at the end of the first quarter, up from 8.6 trillion the previous quarter and 8.34 trillion the year before.
It's not just the euro countries that are suffering a debt overhang. Across what was then the 27-country EU, which includes non-euro countries such as Britain and Poland, the debt burden rose to 85.9 per cent at the end of the first quarter from 85.2 per cent the previous quarter and 83.3 per cent the year before. Total debt stood at 11.11 trillion euros, up from 11.01 trillion the previous quarter and 10.67 trillion the year before.