Julien Carette: When looking at the mandates of your predecessors, it appears that this position of president of the Chamber of Commerce is usually held for a long time. At almost 63 years of age, are you here on an "interim" basis until the end of the mandate in April 2024 or are you here for a longer term?
Fernand Ernster: I must admit that I only had the opportunity to ask myself this question when I had doubts about the continuity of Luc Frieden's mandate. That is, very recently, when the co-president of the CSV, Claude Wiseler, stepped aside. I said to myself that this party must have another plan and I thought of Luc Frieden. I will ensure the continuity of this mandate, with the desire to complete a certain number of things put in place by him. As for the question of carrying out another mandate, I'm not ruling it out for the moment. Even though I must specify that my initial intention was to stop after 30 years with the Chamber of Commerce. Now I'm slowly completing my 29th year...
From the moment the rumour surrounding Luc Frieden's return to the CSV gained momentum, several people began to allude to it, wishing me good luck.
Were you a candidate for the position of president or were you approached?
From the moment the rumour surrounding Luc Frieden's return to the CSV gained momentum, several people began to allude to it, wishing me good luck. They felt that I would be asked to take over. Luc Frieden wanted to propose me as president. He went around to see if other members were interested in the position and if my application was what they were looking for. And it turned out that I was the only one in the running. Nevertheless, I asked for a secret ballot, so that everyone could express themselves freely. In the end, I was elected unanimously.
What are your objectives?
As I said, first of all to continue the good work that has been done. Then I will have to identify the next projects. It is still a bit early to talk about these. I need to test the ground, to gather my forces, and to get a clearer idea of a function whose mission I am just discovering. And I must admit that it goes far beyond the position of vice president that I held for 19 years... However, I think it is already important to work on the perception that people may have of the Chamber of Commerce and its usefulness to the entire ecosystem.
Today it is often perceived as a lobby, which takes it away from its primary function. Is that what you are talking about?
Yes, I am. It may be misunderstood, but lobbying is done at the level of the sectoral federations--Fedil, ABBL, Aca, CLC, Horeca, etc.--and not at the level of the Chamber of Commerce. I therefore consider that there is a real need for everyone to respect their role and for it to be clearly explained.
I would like to say that I am going to resign from the vice presidency of the Confédération luxembourgeoise du commerce.
Doesn't the concern come from the fact that the same people are often found in the various institutions?
This is indeed a concern. In fact, I would like to say that I am going to resign from the vice presidency of the Confédération luxembourgeoise du commerce (CLC). I consider that the president of the Chamber of Commerce must be neutral. However, I will certainly appoint a vice president to represent the trade sector from which I come. And I will ask the ABBL to do the same for the financial sector. So that we have a vice presidency with four members, with Alain Rix (hotel and catering) and Valérie Massin (industry) remaining in place.
What is Luc Frieden's legacy after almost four years as president?
Coming from another world, with a different background, he started from scratch. Which is often a good thing. He took the time to take an interest in what we were doing, while at the same time quickly sensing what needed to be put in place for the future. I can mention the working group on sustainability, which led to the creation of the House of Sustainability. But also the very important one on digital transformation. He also worked on what remains one of our greatest challenges: attracting talent. Finally, Luc Frieden has also been very involved internationally, notably by obtaining the presidency of Eurochambres, the European association of chambers of commerce. A position that offers great visibility and which made me think that he would not leave us…
The Chamber of Commerce is supposed to be politically neutral. But is it really when its president can leave overnight to run an election campaign?
That's a good question. I think a clear answer was given with the resignation of Luc Frieden the day after the CSV announced his nomination as head of the list. It was important to do this. For my part, I must confess that over the years there has been no shortage of political requests. I have always refused them because I think that when you represent a part of our economy, you have to maintain a certain neutrality. But also to remain credible with all the players. You can't be closer to one side than to the others.
Are you disappointed by Luc Frieden's decision?
No. It just confirmed one thing for me: no matter how far people have come, they always keep deep inside who they really are. Luc Frieden was a politician and remains a politician. I am an entrepreneur.
You come from the commercial sector, after a president from the financial sector and decades of industry. What will this change?
It seems to me that it changes a lot of people's perceptions. At least that's what I've heard from many people. People seem to be delighted to have a man who represents small and medium-sized enterprises at the head of this institution.
I am not a person who hides. But when I turn around, I like to see that there are people behind me.
For a long time, this position was held by the head of the country's largest employer. Luc Frieden represented a financial sector that is often referred to as the lifeblood of Luxembourg. Don't you risk suffering from a lack of legitimacy?
I don't think so. It was not for nothing that I insisted on a secret ballot for the presidency. I had the legitimacy of being the longest-serving vice president, but I needed to feel that all the elected members--there are representatives from ArcelorMittal, Goodyear, Enovos, the big banks, etc.--all the sectors, supported me. I am not a person who hides. But when I turn around, I like to see that there are people behind me.
2023 is an election year. What issues does the Chamber of Commerce intend to put forward?
At a press conference scheduled for Thursday 9 February, we will present our 30 priorities. But I think it is especially important to proceed cautiously in view of the elections. Because these elections are going to have special stakes. They are likely to bring about a lot of changes. I must admit that the challenges have never seemed so important and numerous…
We are an international financial centre, which has managed to create value locally thanks to external capital. But our equilibrium is fragile.
What do you mean?
The Luxembourg model is a special construction that is not only based on a local economy. We are an international financial centre, which has managed to create value locally thanks to external capital. But our equilibrium is fragile. And I wonder whether the international context we are experiencing will not lead to a certain erosion... Managing to maintain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed is therefore, in my view, a major challenge. The subject of value creation will be central. And this comes essentially from companies. And at this level, the Chamber of Commerce, which represents most of them, will have to be heard.
You mentioned the possibility of seeking a second mandate. However, when you talk about your succession in your company, Ernster-L'esprit livre, you often insist that you do not want to do one year too many. A further five-year term would take you to the age of 69...
I always thought that age is a matter of the mind. The limit for the Chamber of Commerce is 72 years old and I have always found that a bit high... I hope to see a rejuvenation of the membership at the next elections in April 2024. I will only think about this other mandate if I see that my commitment is useful, that there is a broad support behind me and that on a personal level my energy continues. But if I were to run for another mandate, I would do so with the next generation, with those who would want to ensure continuity. This is what I had already done at the CLC [where Carole Muller took over the presidency].”
This story was first published in French on Paperjam. It has been translated and edited for Delano.