Mars Di Bartolomeo: “Parliamentary diplomacy is increasingly important.”
Photo: Christophe Olinger
Celebrating Luxembourg: Mars Di Bartolomeo
Mars Di Bartolomeo has been the president of Luxembourg’s parliament since 2013. The grandson of Italian immigrants grew up in Dudelange. He joined the LSAP and later became first mayor of Dudelange, then MP and minister of health and social security. Mars is nothing if not passionate about everything he does and he puts that energy into representing Luxembourg in international diplomacy. He is not yet tired of this post and wants to stand again in 2018.
Martine Huberty: If you could highlight three major dates in your life, what would they be?
Mars Di Bartolomeo: Apart from my private key dates, of which there are many, there are three which may have led to this interview. I have never had a career plan, so these things just came about. The first is when I got the job as journalist at the Tageblatt in 1972, when Jacques Poos employed me. I landed at the Tageblatt almost by accident, but the journalistic method has not left me for the rest of my life. I approach most things more like a journalist than a professional politician. It’s about understanding the context; if I don’t understand, I ask someone who can explain it to me; then I share and explain the information. For me personally, it was always also about convincing others. I would say I was a commentator, not someone who just relayed information. Journalism influenced me a lot.
The second was when Robert Goebbels recruited me to replace him as parliamentary secretary at the LSAP parliamentary group.
The third stage is where I went from local councillor, to mayor, to member of the government, to president of parliament, which I think is the cherry on the cake. In 2013, I had the choice of becoming a member of the government or do this. I chose this, because I had two stints in government behind me, and was in charge of difficult policy areas [health and social security]. I wanted to start something new.
What helped me immensely in this job was that I have been in opposition, in a majority, I have been an MP and government minister. I think I have a deeper understanding of the individual situations. The role of president of parliament is to mediate and moderate, rather than jump into the fray.
Last weekend, I inaugurated the “Hunnefeier” in Schengen, and then I participated in the spinning marathon for organ donation. Sometimes you can combine the necessary with the agreeable as president of parliament—less so as government minister. A government minister usually gets more of a beating than a president of parliament.
If you were not a politician, what would you be?
If I had not become a politician, I would have stayed a journalist, because I did that job with passion as well.
Did you ever want to live abroad?
No! I think it is good to live in Luxembourg. I love travelling and being away, but leaving the country entirely…no. I never had the urge to emigrate. Maybe that’s because my ancestors immigrated here. That’s funny, I never saw it like that: I never wanted to emigrate because my grandparents moved to Luxembourg. They chose for me as well. And I think they made a good choice (laughs).
When was the last time you were proud of being Luxembourgish?
I experienced it on a very emotional level when we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Rome declaration. We were constantly referred to as one of the founding members. I find that the European project is rather exceptional. It’s remarkable that Luxembourg played a very active role from the start in the construction and can claim the father- or motherhood of one of the nicest projects in European history. We can be proud of that, and of the European project, despite all the criticisms.
Another thing I am proud of is that Luxembourg is not just rich, but also capable of solidarity, and is, along with Norway, at the top of development cooperation.
What are Luxembourg’s strengths and weaknesses?
Weaknesses can be strengths and strengths can be weaknesses at the same time. Luxembourg is small, which can sometimes be a huge advantage. A small country is much easier to manage, and can be a laboratory for certain things. If one is very small, then in big policy areas one does not have automatically, immediately, the weight to push things through. That is why Luxembourg was lucky to have among its representatives a series of truly exceptional personalities, which contributed to the fact that Luxembourg could play a bigger role than its size.
One of Luxembourg’s biggest trump cards has been its openness, even though that was not automatic. This openness has been beneficial in economic and cultural terms as well. It’s one of the keys of Luxembourg’s success. If it closed in on itself, it would go downhill very fast. This openness has entered our DNA.
Multilingualism is certainly another of the biggest trump cards. Luxembourgish is a bridge between the different communities that live in Luxembourg and the multilingualism is our master key into the world. The two go well together. Everyone agrees the language should be promoted; not at the expense, but together with the other languages.
Another thing is that we dare to try out new things. The initiative to strengthen the financial sector, the courage to enter the satellite sector with SES Astra, more recently to launch into research, and maybe reach for the stars: sometimes things can go wrong, but if you don’t try, you have already lost.
What do you tell your visitors about Luxembourg?
I always start with the history: Luxembourg was a country of emigration, then became a country of immigration. It has a history where it was often invaded by other countries. Luxembourg used to be poor; it became rich through what was underneath its soil, its steel industry, and when that decreased, new sectors were developed. While the financial sector is certainly very important, it is reductive to see Luxembourg only as a financial centre. It is still an industrial country, it is strong in services and in high technology. I also tell them about the specificity in the composition of its population, with almost 50-50 Luxembourg citizens and non-Luxembourg citizens, and that this does not lead to great tensions. This is not least because we decided to organise our country in solidarity, where everyone has the same right to health care, decent pensions, or nursing care for the elderly. It is that inclusive approach to keep everyone in the boat, which may be expensive now, but in the long run is less expensive if rifts appear in society. The result is we have no extremist parties, neither left nor right. Maybe that is because we did not hollow out that solidarity, as others did, and who pay the price today. It is that inclusive approach to keep everyone in the boat, which may be expensive now, but in the long run is less expensive if rifts appear in society.
Your job is a lot about representing Luxembourg abroad, and showing it to important visitors from other countries. What is the role of parliament in this?
I’ve the experience that parliamentary diplomacy is increasingly important. This is partly due to the fact that national parliaments have received more influence in the European decision-making process through the Lisbon treaty. National parliaments cannot argue anymore that all the European decisions are taken in Brussels. That is poppycock! Parliaments can influence the decision-making process at an early stage. In order to do that well, the contacts to other parliaments are extremely important. If there is a majority of parliaments which have an issue or want to change something, they can. The second issue is the exchange of best practice. I care especially about the nurturing of our democratic system, and this is best achieved when we have informed and involved citizens. That is why political education is very important; unfortunately, it has been severely neglected over the past decades.
In 2017, what will you do to ensure that the slogan--Let’s make it happen--will happen?
In 2017, I will do what I’ve done in all the previous years: give 100%. Furthermore, I’d rather bank on what unites us, rather than what divides us. If one joins forces, one can achieve much and change things. Naturally, it’s also about staying optimistic!
What is your favourite Luxembourgish word?
Kaweechelchen and Gromperekichelechen! They sound very funny and are typical Luxembourgish.
Mars Di Bartolomeo at a glance
Born in Dudelange to Italian ancestors, Mars joined the LSAP in his early youth. He worked as a journalist at Tageblatt under Jacques Poos for 12 years. He was then recruited by Robert Goebbels as parliamentary secretary in the LSAP parliamentary group in 1984. In 1987, he was elected for the first time as local councilor in Dudelange. From 1994 to 2004, he was mayor of his hometown. In 1989, he became a member of parliament, and has been re-elected ever since. From 2004 to 2009, and 2009 to 2013, he was minister for health and for social security under the government Juncker-Asselborn I and II. Since December 2013, he has taken over the post of president of parliament.
In 2017 Maison Moderne and Nvision will celebrate Luxembourg by highlighting those who contribute positively to its international reputation.
The climax of the year will be a Celebrating Luxembourg event at Luxembourg Congrès on 13 December 2017. A fresh take on the national slogan – “Mir wëllen weisen wien mir sinn” (we want to show who we are) – will set the tone of the gala evening. Guests will include many of the "ambassadors" who enhance brand Luxembourg abroad – like the 24 luminaries Maison Moderne chose to celebrate in its 2017 calendar.
Help identify talent: Throughout 2017 Maison Moderne will showcase 100 personalities who illuminate Luxembourg’s brand image. If you know somebody who you think deserves to be on the 100 list and who could take to the stage at the Celebrating Luxembourg event, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected].