POLITICS & INSTITUTIONS - INSTITUTIONS

Fernand Etgen, president of the Chamber of Deputies

Parliament needs in-house experts, pandemic has shown



"I believe that managing a crisis like covid-19 always requires finding the right balance between individual freedoms on the one hand and the right measures to protect everyone's health, and I think we have managed to strike that balance." Library photo / Maison Moderne

"I believe that managing a crisis like covid-19 always requires finding the right balance between individual freedoms on the one hand and the right measures to protect everyone's health, and I think we have managed to strike that balance." Library photo / Maison Moderne

The covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for experts to support the work of lawmakers, says Fernand Etgen (DP), president of the chamber of deputies. 

Looking back on the 2020-2021 parliamentary session, Etgen says that Luxembourg’s democratic process worked throughout the pandemic, even if big projects, like the reform of the constitution, were slow to progress. 

What is your assessment of this second parliamentary year under the pandemic?

Fernand Etgen: Compared to the previous session, this year has been more like a normal session, although the pandemic is still present in all areas, even on subjects that do not concern it at first glance. As far as the pandemic is concerned, we are adapting the covid law every three weeks, and unlike other parliaments in the world, the Chamber of Deputies has been fully involved in the debates concerning the management of the crisis.

I welcome this democratic dynamic; it is of course also a responsibility for parliament. In order to rise to the political challenge for MPs, and also for the house as an institution, we have continued to perform our legislative and government oversight functions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the covid-19 law has been adapted fifteen times, and I believe that more than fifty pieces of legislation have been passed that relate more or less directly to the pandemic. So the year has been marked by covid-related issues.

What impact has the health crisis had on the work of MPs?

The pandemic has had an impact on the house at all levels, as we have had to install video-conferencing systems, reorganise plenary sessions, etc. This is a very good way of ensuring that the work of the chamber is carried out in an efficient manner. It is a completely different way of working.

But we have managed to maintain a strong dialogue with the government, with almost weekly meetings at the level of the bureau of the Chamber of Deputies and the conference of presidents with the prime minister, the minister of health and the representatives of the ministry, in particular the director of health. I believe that this has worked well, and this is thanks to the democratic reflex of the government, which involved the Chamber of Deputies from the beginning of the state of emergency, and even before that was decided.

The lack of in-house expertise on this type of scientific subject has been clearly felt.
Fernand Etgen

Fernand EtgenPresident of the Chamber of DeputiesDP

Are you and your deputies advised by scientists on the subject of covid-19?

The Chamber of Deputies has had access to information and advice from government scientists; we receive reports on a weekly basis. However, there are different opinions among the MPs, as some think that we should have even more information. But the lack of in-house expertise on this type of scientific subject has been clearly felt. We have excellent constitutional expertise, but I proposed to the bureau of the Chamber of Deputies that we create a scientific cell within parliament.

Since then, we have already recruited a biologist, a veterinarian specialised in virology and a lawyer. This cell will be further expanded in the coming months. It is important to have our own expertise, not only in times of crisis, but also because politics is becoming more and more complex. For example, in matters relating to climate change, or in European issues that are of great importance to the Chamber of Deputies, it is necessary to have this internal expertise. The idea is to have specialists in several fields within this unit. This has been discussed for several years, and covid has shown that it is absolutely necessary.

Is working in times of pandemic more demanding?

I think the last few months have been hard on everyone. We must not forget that the pandemic affects all generations, everyone suffers in their own way, and I have a special thought for the victims of covid-19 and their families, and all those who have been ill, or are still struggling with the after-effects.

As far as the Chamber of Deputies is concerned, the workload was and still is heavy, given the number of meetings, parliamentary questions, public sittings, which even took place during parliamentary holidays, on Saturdays, etc. This shows that parliament has been operational at all times and I believe that the fact that parliament has been so intensively involved in this process has contributed to a better acceptance by the citizens of the different measures that have been taken, because we represent the people.

Do you have any regrets, especially in the management of the nursing homes?

I think that managing a crisis like covid-19 always requires finding the right balance between individual freedoms on the one hand and the right measures to protect everyone's health on the other, and I think we managed to find that balance. At one point, all schools were closed for long months in our neighbouring countries, whereas we managed to close them only for a short period of time. All generations have been affected by this crisis.

Apart from Covid-19, what issues have stood out for you during this parliamentary year?

I think that the Chamber of Deputies has continued to do its work, there have been many important issues. One issue that particularly stood out for me was the vote on the climate law in December. This is a decisive step with regard to the challenges of climate change. We are one of the first countries in Europe to have fulfilled our duties in this area; we have managed to put together a law that is very ambitious and that will serve as a model.

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during her recent visit to Luxembourg, explained that the country had set a good example with regard to the Green Deal and the automotive challenge. We also had a lot of questions on different topics. We fully involved the chamber in what the priorities of the country will be in the near future.

The democratic process is always slow, especially on a subject as important as the revision of the constitution. It was very important to have a consensus, to take time to create groups, to involve people.
Fernand Etgen

Fernand EtgenPresident of the Chamber of DeputiesDP

Is this a specificity of Luxembourg?

I think it is very important that the Chamber of Deputies is involved in these discussions, because in some countries, such as France, voter turnout has been very low, and therefore the democratic spirit is lacking. I believe that in Luxembourg we have always been able to make the vast majority of citizens aware of the political debate.

This also shows that the Chamber of Deputies is open to everyone, which is why we give a great deal of importance to the Youth Parliament, and we involve citizens in the political debate, notably with the participation instrument of public petitions, which is a huge success in the country.

How do you explain this success?

The introduction of public petitions was a success from the beginning, seven years ago, but in recent times the number of petitions has increased again. Many of the petitions were related to the pandemic, and I believe that the success of petitions is based on the fact that citizens can raise issues that are important to them, and that would never have been raised in the Chamber of Deputies if the instrument did not exist. If the petition reaches the required 4,500 signatures, there is a public debate, and even if it does not reach this threshold, it is still important to have a response from the government.

We should also see, before the end of this mandate, the vote on the reform of the constitution?

The work on the new constitution has progressed at a very high rate, the fourth part has been tabled, and as soon as the parliamentary session resumes, the public plenary debate can take place. I believe that during the year 2022, we will finalise this dossier, and it is important, after 18 years of discussions on a new constitution, that we manage to finally agree on a text that meets the requirements of the 21st century.

You say "finally"?

The democratic process is always slow, especially on a subject as important as the revision of the constitution. It was very important to have consensus, to take the time to create groups, to involve people. We invested a lot of time to listen to what citizens want, how the constitution should change. But since consensus was reached, we have managed to make progress over the last few months.

Why has it taken so long to get to this point?

I think it's in the DNA of how a democracy works. You have to take the revision of a constitution seriously, and it takes time. And I think that it is also in the DNA of the Luxembourg people to think at all levels, and that is how we were able to put together a text that is understandable.

When people think of the constitution, they think it is a complicated law, but in fact the constitution is a law with a very simple text, which must be understandable to everyone, and I think we have succeeded in this challenge.

Other major issues will also take precedence next year?

The housing problem remains a challenge for Luxembourg and must remain an absolute priority. On this subject, the expectations of citizens are enormous, because inequalities are becoming greater and greater.