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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Luxembourg voted...

Luxembourg missed a big chance. Not the Luxembourgers, but their government, parties and NGOs (the least these latter, but still).
The referendum held Sunday (7th June) contained three questions:
The decrease of the voting age to 16 years
The right of foreign citizens who have been living ten years in Luxembourg and had voted already once on a local or European election (which is a right of every European citizen who lives in another EU country than of which he/she is citizen) to vote also in the Luxembourg national elections.
The limitation of the mandate of members of government to two cycles (ten years).
The result was a triple "no".
After the vote, commentators emphasised that the surveys before the vote already predicted the result but not such an overwhelming majority of negative votes. It took a day for the comments by those to appear, who regretted the result.
Before, apart from some newspaper articles and very few posters (mainly from the liberal Democratic Party), the campaign was just simmering on low heat.
Of course the first and the third questions were less important, but not totally unimportant.
Some background: Luxembourg has been governed for some twenty years, till the snap elections in autumn 2013 by a government presided by Jean-Claude Juncker. The economic success, quality of life and European prestige of the country show that not without results. However, the Juncker-government showed signs of fatigue in the last period and more than 50% of the citizens surveyed before the elections wanted change (and still most voters voted for Juncker's Christian Socialist Party, but not enough to give it a majority and so a three-party coalition took over the wheel). So limiting the mandate of ministers clearly had no real supporting experience.
I had an interesting discussion with a Luxembourger (affiliated to one of the opposition parties at that time) who regretted that in spite of the support of the government, only a little above 60% of Luxembourgers voted in favour of the European Constitution (which then lost out in France and the Netherlands). When I tried to joke with my eastern European mind that the government support was probably counter-productive, she vehemently denied that possibility. Some commentators actually also ascribed the failure to the late start of the government's campaign.
The "no" to decreasing the voting age will certainly be a negative message to youngsters interested in the public affairs (or politics) of their country. The society being maybe even more aged than elsewhere in Europe (a bigger part of the younger working population not being a citizen), this can also be explained-
The real failure, however, was on the question of the voting right for "foreigners".
Almost half of the people living in Luxembourg are "foreigners", i.e. living in Luxembourg but not Luxembourgish citizens. Add to this (although they were not affected by the referendum question) about 150 thousand (more than 40% of the workforce) people coming over across the boarder every day to work in the country. This gave the main argument of the partisans of the "yes": almost half of the inhabitants affected by Luxembourg politics have no right to influence it.
Luxembourg society is actually not xenophobe (therefore the surprise and disappointment of many about the result). I have to tell also that friendliness towards foreigners stops at a certain level – to me this is a natural compensation for good relationship on the surface but I have no proof for it. And the language question taints the picture. This is maybe the first factor in explaining the result: to become a citizen is not very difficult – residence of 7 years which is less than the 10 in the proposal for voting rights, participation in three courses (no exam, just participation) and a not too high level of knowledge of the local language, a franco-german dialect. So the real difference in conditions is the knowledge of the language. The official languages in the country, however, are three, they include German and French, and still most of the official correspondence is in French.
But in my opinion, the one of the real problems was that until recently, the direction favoured by the political actors to integrate foreigners was to ease the acquisition of citizenship (decreasing required time of residence to 5 years, there were even voices that a lower level of language exam could be accepted, maybe under additional conditions) and a proposal for a law was also submitted to the parliament (the Chamber of deputies, as it is called). So the change in direction left probably many wondering why to give vote to those who are not eligible or do not want to acquire citizenship. My two-element sample (which is not much, I know), two people from totally distinct backgrounds) says, though that they would be interested to influence Luxembourg politics but not take up citizenship and they have valid reasons for that.
The other problem is that it is never easy to move people – in particular conservatively minded people; and the Luxembourgers are conservative – to accept radical changes. And that’s what I missed most, was the explanation of the basics. "Democratic deficit" was the slogan. But apparently people who are "inside the fence" will not let others in just because they are told they should. And no one explained why the voting right could benefit them, and in particular not what is at stake concerning the relationship between Luxembourgers (again: a lot of retired people; and a lot of them working for the administration) and the "foreigners" who actually produce a big chunk of their pension and the resources for government expenditures, including a well-developed social system and the salaries of administration staff. There is a "country branding" campaign going on – no one thought about the impact on the country brand of the result? But this can be considered as blackmail: no other country ever asked this question and these are not considered not foreigner-friendly just because they didn’t ask, while Luxembourg created itself a problem by asking, as the “no” answer can be interpreted in a way that they do not want to give this right to foreigners who live and produce in – and for - their country.
The dominant opposition party, the Christian Socialists were campaigning in favour of a "no". No arguments were heard, my suspicion is that they simply wanted to hit the government – as revenge that after the last elections they were left out of government in spite that they sent the most deputies to the Chamber and in the hope that this speeds up their return to power as the popularity of the government is fading. What is interesting is that practically the biggest group of people who would gain voting rights are the Portuguese workers, most of whom, coming from a rural area, would vote Christian.
The Christian Socialists exploited their "victory" at least in a positive way: they submitted a proposal for a law easing the conditions to gain citizenship. So far, so good, let's see what follows. But a lot of soul-searching and discussion cannot be saved – as the Association for Migration and Integration put it: the discussion is not finished, it is just launched by the result.

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