In a section of the integration ministry website dedicated to Luxembourg’s Conseil national des étrangers (CNE) is a photo of people in a stairwell. Taken after their first meeting* on 28 February 2018, it shows them crammed into a tight space, an apt analogy for the pressure they have been under since the start.
Created as an organ to give opinions on laws impacting the international community, the CNE counts 22 members elected by the 68 international not-for-profits (ASBLs) registered with the integration ministry**, plus 12 appointed members from unions, employers and civic life.
Since foreign nationals are not permitted to vote in national elections, yet make up 47% of the resident population, the CNE is one of a small number of channel for migrants to have an influence on political decisions. Yet it has a history of struggling to get off the ground.
“We’ve an important mission, all the more so because the CNE had difficulties before,” vice president Christine Hugon, a French national, explains. “Why will Luxembourgers listen to us if we cannot create a body that works?”.
The willingness to bring change is there. The handful of members I spoke to stood for election because they saw a pressing need for foreigners’ concerns to be raised at parliamentary level. Hugon previously served on the integration committee of her local communal council and sees pressing needs for change to help integrate foreigners, particularly in relation to education. Mario Lobo, a Portuguese IT trainer, said he stood for the CNE out of concern for the role and treatment of Portuguese people in Luxembourg. While Egyptian academic Haythem Kamel joined to give voice to non-EU citizens’ issues and try to improve the integration of international students.
Photo shows the CNE information stand at the migration festival in 2019. Photo: CNE/Facebook
With such a diverse group, and sometimes diverging expectations, finding common ground was never going to be easy. But according to Lobo, issues largely emerged because of a lack of discipline and organisation in the meetings. “The CNE is managed like a darts club. A group of friends that gather in the corner of a café to play darts,” Lobo said. He described meetings where topics that had previously been voted on were repeatedly raised. “We decide today we’ll only have coffee with brown sugar. The next meeting we discuss again the colour of the sugar we should have for coffee.”
Here, a dedicated, permanent secretary could have set the record straight and steered the council on. A secretary and legal assistance could also help keep track of laws being drafted to help the committee better plan its work. A secretary appointed by the integration ministry currently takes notes during plenary meetings only. “Having a real permanent secretary in the commissions,” Hugon says, would change everything. “It’s very hard for an elected member to manage and report and do everything: the minutes, organise meetings, contact people, writing up opinions, seeking experts. It’s not far off burn-out,” the vice president says.
Another complaint is the lack of compensation. Members receive a token payment of €18 for attending a plenary meeting that achieves a quorum. There is no remuneration for preparatory work or meetings of commissions. And then there is the meeting space--a room at the former welcome and integration ministry offices in Kirchberg, which members say is available up to 8pm and places time pressure on meetings to reach an outcome.
To reach quorum in a plenary, 18 people out of the total 34 must attend. According to CNE figures, the threshold was reached in just five out of ten plenaries in 2019. Lobo says that year five members did not attend a single meeting, in addition to three members who resigned and have yet to be replaced. He said: “If you consider we’re foreigners, we all have our lives abroad, family, whatever, there’s always someone travelling.”
Some members have left since the last elections in 2017, some because they have acquired Luxembourg nationality and are no longer eligible. Others have struggled to balance the role with work and family life. “Under the law, there is an employer compensation [if you have to leave work for the CNE] but it’s complicated to ask your employer to go through these steps,” Hugon said.
The system provides for a replacement, or suppléant, in the event an elected member cannot attend a plenary. This is normally the person who achieved the next-highest number of votes by nationality or group. Kamel said he does not even know who his replacement is. “Maybe they’re no longer in Luxembourg, maybe they’re not interested because they attended the vote three years ago and left Luxembourg,” he said.
Belgian national Isabelle Piton was a suppléant until the elected member left and she succeded them. Now she is one of several members to have no replacement. Responding to a question from Delano, integration minister Corinne Cahen (DP) said on Tuesday that steps are being taken to audit the electing ASBLs who will vote to fill these spaces. She did not, however, give a timeframe.
Luxembourg integration minister Corinne Cahen, pictured, says it is clear the CNE needs to be reformed. Photo: Anthony Dehez
Another challenge has been a loss of interest on the side of the 12 appointed representatives of trade unions, civil society and employers’ organisations. “The fact there is no substance decided doesn’t help. Some people just lost interest and stopped going,” Lobo said.
Nicolas Henckes, who represented the Union des Entreprises Luxembourgeoise at the CNE until last year, said in the beginning meetings “weren’t very fruitful or productive. The reflex among employers was ‘why should we send our team members there and make them lose time?’” Henckes explained. One issue was the fact that as a Luxembourger, he felt he should not be voting on matters impacting the foreign community. A second was the scale of the work programme planned, which he considered unrealistic. “We tried to make them focus to collect the low-hanging fruits to have the first step build on a solid basis and build on that,” he said.
The initial mission of the CNE, as set out by the integration ministry, was to give opinions on legal texts and publish an annual report outlining the integration of foreign nationals in Luxembourg. If it was a struggle to publish an annual report with a limited budget, the new council far exceeded this remit, establishing five commissions, building a website, organising roundtables and having public stands.
Lacking support & resources
In 2019, the council issued four opinions to the government: on Brexit, teleworking for cross-border workers, on translating parliamentary questions written in Luxembourgish and on its own function.
“If the CNE does one proposal every two months, it’s already very good, I think,” Lobo said. Hugon, however, was disheartened by the fact the government so rarely seeks their opinion on matters. Cahen clarified that individual ministries were free to choose which draft laws to submit to the CNE. But Hugon also lamented the lack of acknowledgement given to these recommendations in the form of support and resources.
“We will eventually need some experts to give a hand and we’ve a lot of experience, we’ve volunteers, people ready to get involved but the government doesn’t recognise it,” she said.
The integration ministry is currently conducting a consultation to reform the CNE, as part of the 2008 law on integration. The CNE has submitted a proposal for changes, including the appointment of a legal expert, an increased budget to seek external expertise and the equivalent of one and a half people working on the secretarial side of things.
Ideas for change
The people interviewed by Delano had additional ideas covering, among other things, the criteria and mandates for elected members and how to be better integrated into parliamentary processes. “We will reform the law and implement an upper council for integration,” Cahen said during a debate at the migration festival on 29 February. She added that she did not foresee the future CNE as a second parliament, but wanted greater involvement from local integration commissions in communes.
Speaking to Delano on Tuesday, she said: “it has become clear that CNE needs to be reformed so that they have a clearer role to play.”
The question now is will the reform be sufficiently far-reaching and can it come soon enough to stem the growing scepticism? A sceptical Lobo suggested that the CNE was “barely kept alive” intentionally so the government can say it involves the large international community in political matters. Whether he is far off the mark or not, the reality is that if the reform falls short, the democratic gap between the international and Luxembourg populations will only widen.
*28 February 2018 was the first meeting of the current CNE after the election of the president on 23 January.
**This figure was provided by the integration ministry. Mario Lobo said the figure is 55 asbls.