Saturday, December 31, 2005


Yesterday my ass froze off.

Okay, almost. Still, it was so god-dam-COLD that either W must be held responsible, or else I have become a pussy those Kyoto folks are completely nuts. We spent a couple of hours in Gent, the capital of the province of East Flanders, for some end-of-the-year-bookshopping. Gent, in Anglosaxon literature referred to as Ghent, is one of the core historical cities of Flanders. Archeological finds demonstrate that the place, at the confluence of the Schelde (Scheldt) and Leie (Lys) rivers, was already inhabited during the Stone Age. In Roman Times it was an important agricultural settlement. But its Golden Age really was in medieval times between 1100 and 1500. Ironically, its historical demise began with the birth within its walls of that pivotal political figure of the Renaissance, Charles V, the Habsburg Emperor, and indeed, the square where he was born is called to this day the Prinsenhof, or Prince's Court.

Peace Treaty of GhentGent, or Ghent if you like that better, has also an American link! Indeed, it was here that the Treaty of Ghent was signed, which concluded the 1812-1814 War between the young United States of America and Great Britain. The leader of the American delegation was the later President John Quincy Adams, who while on the spot seems to have had other interests beyond burying the battleaxe with the Brits. Unlike Jefferson in Paris however, Adams seems to have been a good boy. He was a great aficionado of plants and flowers and frequently visited the Plantentuin, the city’s botanic garden. Once or twice a week he accompanied the friends he had made here to theatre plays by the Rhetorica society. On mondays, the plays in the Hall at the Parnassusberg were performed in Flemish (keep in mind that the bourgeois language in Ghent was French, Flemish was for peasants - note by MFBB), and Adams somehow bungled in on one occasion. It was no success. He wrote to is wife: "I did not understand anything and fell asleep. Thereafter I withdrew." Sigh, us Flemings have always had a hard time finding appreciation for our mother tongue, fighting the Frogs since well before 1302 and the Krauts already prior to 1288 and so on. Well, at least Adams did not withdraw from the negotiations.

Old Carthusian MonasteryThe American delegation stayed at Hotel Lovendeghem in the Veldstraat, the British one in a Carthusian monastery on Meerghem. It was also in this monastery that on Christmas Eve 1814, after nearly four months of negotiations, the treaty was finally signed. There are identical commemoration plaques on the façades of both buildings. I will be glad to show them to you should you ever happen to be in Ghent for touristic purposes or for signing a treaty of your own. Anyway, the hotel is a shop now, the monastery a funny farm (Psychiatric Institution Sint Jan de Deo). It’s a mad, mad world.

Please allow me to ramble on before you fall asleep. Below you see some photos I had the occasion to shoot despite continued tugging from two females intent on spending money. Mine of course, Mu Ha Ha Ha.

The row of houses on the pic below is arguably Gent's most famous street: the Graslei. The slumped forward building in roman style, the third from the right, is called "Het Spijker", literally The Nail. It dates from 1200 and was used to stock grains which were transported through Ghent (via the Leie River, Lys in English). Its façade with the brick stairs is the oldest one of its kind in the world. For a very brief period the building was even a Calvinist University! The central building, seemingly just below the clock tower, is the Guild House of the Free Masons, mind you, the fellas who put bricks on each other, not the ones you first thought of. The building looks old but isn’t. It is a reconstruction from 1912 in Brabantine Gothic. Virtually every building along the Graslei is noteworthy, you will find a brief description here.

Graslei, Ghent

Another famous sight in Ghent: below, to the left, you see the old Postal Office(now a shopping mall), in the centre the Sint-Niklaaskerk (Saint Nicholas Church), built, from the beginning of the 13th century on, in so-called Scheldt Gothic. Interesting to note is that from the very beginning this church suffered from stability problems due to architectural or construction faults. Throughout its history it was the subject of renovations, a series of important ones starting in late 19th century when the situation had become critical, not to say dangerous. The current renovation effort was started in 1960 (!) and was only in full swing by the time yours truly in vain tried to impress hot females in Ghent student clubs. In the mid-eighties, that was. In 1992 transept and choir were made accessible to the public, right now the ship is being renovated. More pics and info here.

And another must-see when passing through Ghent: the Gravensteen, a medieval water castle smack in the middle of the Old City. Originally built by Philip from Alsace, Count of Flanders, in 1180. Residence of the Counts of Flanders until the fourteenth century, after which it was first used for making coins and then, more notorious, as a prison. Don’t miss the torture chamber!!! OK, I know the fancy tools on display there will be regarded by your average Gitmo Guard specialized in Eminem and Christina Aguilera tapes with some degree of disdain, but still it is worth a peek. Visit the armory too.

When I started this post it was 2005. And I am finishing it now after watching Wedding Crashers with Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson on dvd, all the while quietly slipping into 2006. I'd say the first 3/4 were quite entertaining, but the last quarter sucked. I am talking about the movie, with the year it was rather the other way round. Oh well. I can imagine there are worse means to say a year goodbye. An especially vile year at that, imho.

Anyway, I'd like to wish the readers of DowneastBlog - those of good will, mind you - and their loved ones a HEARTFELT HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL 2006!!!


Monday, December 26, 2005


In Europe, there was quite some fuss the last two weeks concerning the planning of the EU Budget for the period 2007-2013. Basically, the debate got the UK pitted against, well, virtually against all the other 24 member states. To understand what was going on, understanding two buzzwords might be helpful: "EU Presidency" and "UK rebate".

A.) The EU Presidency.

UK EU Presidency 2005First, the EU Presidency. Currently, Britain holds it. What does that mean? Well, if you think of the EU as one country, does right now the UK, personified by Blair, fulfil the role of EU President then? Somewhat simplified, yes, but not completely. There is also the EU Commission, headed by Barroso. Now hold it, I realize it’s real tough for non-Europeans to grasp Euro leadership, but basically, EU Presidency and EU Commission combined, equal the EU’s "Executive Body". The two are supposed to act as the EU "government" so to say. One could liken the EU Commission to a company’s Board of Directors, responsible for the day-to-day business. And the EU Presidency – to be correct, we speak of a Council of Ministers of which the presidency rotates among the EU member states – would then be the Executive Committee, responsible for the strategic decisions.

Now, while Barroso serves a four-year term, EU Presidencies only last six months. In other words, EU Commission chiefs typically see eight EU Presidencies come and go. Luxembourg had it from January till July, after which Britain took over, and as we are rapidly approaching the end of the year, it soon will hand over the torch to Austria. But I said EU presidencies do the "strategic decisions", and indeed, the UK’s last important task was to establish a sound budget plan for the period spanning 2007 till 2013. To give you an idea of the kind of budget we are talking about, this year it was 106.3 billion EUR, or 1% of the combined gross national income of the 25. In US dollars, that's give and take a 128 billion US$ budget - roughly what the Danish government spends yearly! So for those of you who in the back of their minds nurture an atavistic fear that one day Uncle Sam will be challenged by, uh, Uncle Jean, fear not!!! That day is apparently still far off!

B.) The UK Rebate.

Most of you will recall Margaret Thatcher’s famous 1984 quote "I want my money back". What was that quote about? In the early eighties, 80% of the EU’s budget went to the CAP, or Common Agricultural Policy.

The CAP provided farmers throughout the EU – or EEC, as it was then known – with guaranteed minimum prices for their products. This was by means of subsidies, which were also paid for planting certain crops – or planting no crops at all! All EEC member countries contributed to a common pot, which was then essentially re-distributed with the more agricultural countries receiving the bulk of the subsidies. Now Britain paid disproportionately much, due to its relatively small agricultural sector. At the time, as the EEC was joined by precisely those countries with weak industry but strong agriculture – Portugal, Spain, Greece – the EU budget and thus the CAP subsidies – was set to expand further, thus likely to strain the UK’s precarious financial situation even more. Do not forget that Britain was then the third poorest EEC member, and that in 1982 it had fought an expensive war with Argentina over the Falklands! That is why, in 1984, Mrs. Thatcher negotiated a rebate, or a payback of funds, in order to redress the imbalance between what the UK put into the EEC and what it got back out from it. The method of calculating the rebate is complex, but as a rule of fist one can assume that it amounts to 2/3 of the amount by which the UK contribution exceeds EU expenditure returning to Britain.

UK Rebate financingSo Mrs. Thatcher got part of her money back in 1984 – a unique accomplishment, because the UK is the only EU member that got a discount on its Euro membership fee, so to say. That of course left the proposed EU budget with a gap, which subsequently had to filled up somehow. And here’s the angle: all other EU members are supposed to make good the lost British contribution, and France finances roughly 31 per cent plus of it. You understand why France is so eager to scrap the rebate, and from the French viewpoint a reduction is reasonable: after all, nowadays agricultural subsidies "only" account for some 42 % of the EU budget. Keep in mind that an EU budget consisting of not much more than agricultural subsidies was precisely the reason why Britain got its rebate. Plus, over the past two decades Britain has gotten rich - it can no longer claim it is the sick man of Europe as it was in 1984.

Now, the EU budget 2007-2013. In short, the following were the main bargaining positions at the opening of the budget talks, now some two weeks ago:

* Most if not all EU members with France up front wanted the UK rebate to be reduced, if not scrapped, and changes to the CAP postponed till 2014.

* Britain wanted the CAP – the agricultural subsidies – toned down by 2010 and, you guess it, keep its rebate. In fact Britain, never suspected of Europhilism, also wanted a smaller and poorer EU, and proposed an EU budget of only 1.03% of the combined gross national income of the member states.

This was the UK’s last important task before handing over the torch to Austria come January 1st, and its last occasion to rescue what is generally regarded as a very weak and uninspired EU Presidency. Indeed: putting African debt relief on the G8 agenda, establishing new emission targets for when Kyoto expires, a failed Hampton Court Summit on economic reform, a moderate success in organizing Europes first cohesive antiterror strategy, and starting EU membership talks with Turkey… it reads like a lame list of non-issues, and while Blair and Straw regard the Turkey admission talks as a "success", fewer and fewer across the Channel think in their adjectives. Anyway, reaching a solid budget deal was the only way to "sex up" the UK EU Presidency.

Well, my take is that most Brits are none too fond of Blairs deal, while the rest of Europe is. The deal is:

*During the period 2007-2013, the UK agrees to a cutback of 10.5bn euros (£7bn) of its rebate, some 20%, while the EU budget grows to 862.4bn euros, helping to fund the development of new member states. The budget is scheduled to be 1.045% of the composed gross national income of the member states.

*In return, Britain obtained an agreement that in 2008-2009 there will be a wide-ranging budget review, and not only on the CAP. From the beginning Blair stressed that reviewing European spending was of major concern to him.

*There were a lot of sweeteners for the new member states, paid for with the cutbacks on the rebate - a.o. 100 million EUR for Poland (a Merkel feat, Angela Merkel was also the one who apprently got the budget talks moving again)

These are really the most important headlines. To most observers, it looks like the UK yielded a lot and France very little. Blair took quite some heat at home, The Daily Telegraph even labelling the Brussels Summit a "surrender" and William Hague, foreign affairs spokesman for the Tories (the British Conservatives) smartly paraphrizing Winston Churchill with "Seldom in the course of European negotiations has so much been surrendered for so little". To be honest, France did not get all it wanted either. E.g., it opposed giving Macedonia EU candidate status next year - Macedonia got it. It wanted the EU to impose lower VAT rules for its restaurants - it did not get it. And while the promise to review the CAP in 2008-2009 is a thing that blows in the wind, Romania and Bulgaria, set to join the EU in 2007 and 2008 respectively, were told they can expect no agricultural subsidies. Which means that the same CAP pie by that time will have to be divided over more countries, thus effectively reducing CAP subsidies at least proportionately. But all in all, to me too it looks like the UK indeed yielded the most. Paul Beliën over at The Brussels Journal thinks so too, although he puts it in starker terms:

How the French are gloating, to be able to present themselves as the champions of the "poorer member states" while not contributing a single extra cent, and lecture Britain on its duties to the new member states while France has always opposed enlargement.

Some fleshing out yet tomorrow, God willing. Europe here, over and out.


Sunday, December 25, 2005


Alas, again no white Christmas in BelgoSmurfLandTM this year. Prospects for it had been better though ever since I was a kid, for we had our first snowfall halfway November, an absolute rarity ever since Bush screwed the climate.

Nevertheless, I'd like to share these pics with you, taken yesterday, December 24, at around 9pm on or around my hometown's market square. I really love this place. Although I live now in Wallonia, I can nor will ever forget I'm a (censured) at heart. Every year a beautiful Christmas Tree adorns the square, as well as a large Christmas stable right in front of the Saint-Bartholomew Church.

Market SquareThe photo to the left shows the same market square taken from the opposite side. The beautifully lit building between the Tree and the church is the old Town Hall, now used for touristic purposes only. My hometown was officially declared a town in 1068 by Boudewijn VI, Count of Flanders, and IIRC the building in the photo is built on the same location where the original townhouse, built in the twelfth century, stood. Time and again it was destroyed and rebuilt, the last time, roughly one hundred years ago, in neogothic style.

Anyway, White Christmas or not, I'd like to wish the readers of DowneastBlog - those of good will - a heartfelt MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!