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Italian central bank says public debt has risen above 2 trillion euros to highest level ever

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MILAN - Italian public debt has swelled to its highest ever level, reaching €2.014 trillion ($2.64 trillion) in October, the Bank of Italy said Friday — highlighting the country's fragile financial state in spite of the raft of austerity measures imposed by Prime Minister Mario Monti.

The Italian economy, the third-largest among the 17 European Union countries that use the euro, is in recession as the government has enacted spending cuts and tax hikes to get a handle on its debts.

The latest figures show the debt pile has risen by 3.7 per cent since January 2012, when it was €1.94 trillion. With debts worth 126 per cent of the country's annual economic output, Italy has the second-highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the eurozone, behind only Greece. According to consumer group Codacons, Italy's debt load works out at €82,192 per household — up €4,400 on the beginning of the year.

"The Monti government would do well to consider that you don't bring down debt only with taxes, but through an increase in revenues due to the generation of more wealth," Codacons said in a statement.

The consumer group also criticized Monti for not doing more to cut waste, and specifically for dropping the battle to reduce the number of provinces during his mandate.

Monti was tapped by Italy's president to lead the country in late November 2011 after the then premier Silvio Berlusconi was forced to step down after international markets lost confidence in his ability to save the country from a Greek-style debt crisis. Monti, a respected economist and former European commissioner, and his government of unelected technocrats won back a degree of international credibility through a series of tax hikes and fiscal reforms that were deeply unpopular at home.

Thanks to a combination of the European Central Bank offering to buy up unlimited quantities of short-term bonds in countries struggling with their debt and Monti's reforms, Italy's borrowing costs have been kept down in recent months.

However, markets were shaken this week when Monti announced that he would resign earlier than expected — after Parliament passes its 2013 budget — saying it was impossible to carry on in government after Berlusconi's political party withdrew its support in two crucial votes last week.

Since then Berlusconi has wavered over whether he would lead his party into the next election, which has been brought forward from its scheduled April date. The former premier on Friday said he was awaiting Monti's decision on whether he will run.

"If I am running my party we can retake all the votes of 2008," his last election victory," Berlusconi said on RAI state TV. "The votes of those disillusioned who are still there and haven't gone to other parties."

Monti has not yet indicated if he will participate in elections, expected in February. But the fact that he has announced he is stepping down removes one obstacle to running a political campaign: Monti, who formally does not belong to any party, will no longer be bound to an apolitical role since his technocrat government will be disbanded.

The centre-left opposes a Monti campaign, which could cost them centrist votes. Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, who won the party's primary, is adamant that politicians return to running Italy.

Monti refused Friday to discuss his plans during a press conference at the end of an European Union summit in Brussels.

"It doesn't seem possible or opportune for me to discuss this topic," Monti said.

European leaders have been vocally voicing support for a continuation of Monti's leadership.

In response, Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, told diplomats posted to Rome on Friday that there was no cause for alarm due to the political tensions of recent days.

"This difficult passage will be overcome," Napolitano said, adding that the elections will bring "a renewed commitment" to stay the reform course.

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