Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christmas Markets and the EU Crisis

Since our visit to Berlin we could feel Christmas times coming and the days in Europe getting colder and darker.

In the past months we've been listening to incessant debates about the European crisis. Lots of pointless discussions - the right blaming the left for the inflexibility and low productivity of European economies, irresponsible fiscal policies, huge public sectors and corruption; the left blaming the banking system for irresponsibility, poisonous tools, wild deregulation, asking to punish the credit agencies, calling for the creation a EU public credit agency and so on.

All these are part of a global discussion while the EU crisis has its special additional circumstances which seems that all the politicians are making their best to avoid.

Only in a lecture given by an economist and a political scientist things were said out loud. The EU is a political project (WW2 trauma, German re-unification and other processes) and the economic side was never tightly knitted. No one was ever really committed to the deficit and debt rules and everyone were always sure 'everything is going to be ok' (i.e. Germany will pay). On top of everything, when Germany tries to put order - everyone cries about the 'German take over' and when Germany doesn't want to hear anymore about the EU it is the 'German lack of commitment to the European project'.

The German indecision to help in any sum needed exacerbated the crisis, but most of the critics went tot he EU presidency who was absent from the public debate and the financial markets and to the European Central Bank which declared "we will buy Greek bonds, but in a limited amount and for a limited time'. To make the statement stronger, two directors of the bank resigned following this decision. The speakers compared it to a General going to war while declaring that he doesn't like this war, he will not use all his soldiers, will limit the ammunition used and will return home after some time regardless of the results. The speaker asked "would you follow such a general? can he possibly win any war?!"

Most of you have children, so you'll understand the following bottom line of the crisis.
The main reason the Germans are afraid of bailing out the Greek, Italians and Spaniards is because of what they call the 'Moral Hazard'. If they'll bail out everyone, it means no one will learn the lesson. However, if they don't, they maybe killing the European project.
The experts assumed Merkel will eventually go to the brink of disaster and pull up the hand-brake at the last moment, exactly like it happened this week.

Btw, because of the close relation betweek Merkel and Sarkozy, everyone here call them Merkozy.

The economist showed that Germany's and Austria's productivity went up in the past 10 years while that of the 'problematic' states went down, in Italy for an instance by 20%. We've also read lately that 18.9% of the Belgium employees are in the public sector. To be honest, we weren't diligent enough to check the numbers on our own, but we believe it given the numerous governments they have here, which just fits the fact that the EU sits here, also having countless sub organizations.

The above speakers cited a Greek finances minister who was asked why Greek did Greece overlook the deficit and debt criteria of the EU and he replied "Everyone did it..."

In Brussels we saw a road ad nearby a EU building saying "Parlamentarium." We wondered whether it is like Aquraium or Planetarium attraction for children. Do the EU parliament members do their job and jump to amuse the public and teach the children? Can they be trained like a dolphin or a seal?

Bottom line - cultural, structural and political issue are as much of issue as the financial ones.

So how are these two related - Christmas and the EU crisis? Well, it's not only b/c of the short and cold days.
They aren't really. But we were so happy on December 9 at the opening of the market in Leuven (our home town) and immediately compared to Berlin were some of the markets were opened already at November 13. Just to be fare, Brussels' markets opened at November 25.

That's also the moment to complain about the last horrible 2 weeks. The buses are constantly getting too late or too early. You can't plan anything properly. Can't stop thinking about the amazing Berlin underground, where you get off the train and the next train is awaiting you on the other side of the same platform.

One last word for this post. The Christmas markets are an amazing place to learn about people and local culture.
The food stands in the Belgium markets are very varied with international food. The German and Austrian markets have much more variety of local food - also much more food (for D mainly). They also had more stands of Christmas decorations than in Belgium and the markets looked better and more decorated.
The Belgium markets have numerous merry-go-rounds of really nice and unusual designs, mainly in Brussels. The hot wine in Belgium is served in small plastic/polystyrene cups which aren't ecological and aren't attractive as the ceramics painted cups of the Austrian-German markets. You pay the same money, get less wine and cannot buy you home a special souvenir from the market.

And now to the real final word. Leuven's market is cute and we found a huge stand of Krembo! or in Flemish Dutch Negerinnentetten (negress tits). In Leuven there is also a special 'House of Santa Klaus' exhibit which we haven't seen otherwise, and in general the market looks much well organized than in Brussels, though smaller of course.

The local market was inaugurated with a speech and a band playing Christmas songs.

Enjoy the pics!


  1. We call it "teta de nega" in Brazil too (read Santa Catarina, because in São Paulo is Dantop - antiracist reasons, maybe).
    Yesterday we missed you both a lot.
    And a last comment: we've looked for a belgium fries stand and it was impossible to find in Leuven. Quite awkward...

  2. Yes, for some reason they do not respect their own food a lot. There is a lot of international food. Also in Brussels and Antwerp, though in Brussels there were relatively lots of fries, but not much of other local food types I'd expect: cheese, beers, sausages, etc.