Constitution reform

“We are strengthening national identity”

Charles Margue (Déi Gréng), Léon Gloden (CSV), Fernand Etgen (DP), Mars Di Bartolomeo (LSAP), Simone Beissel (DP) and the parliament’s secretary general Laurent Scheeck (l.t.r.) at a press conference on 14 January Photo: Paperjam

Charles Margue (Déi Gréng), Léon Gloden (CSV), Fernand Etgen (DP), Mars Di Bartolomeo (LSAP), Simone Beissel (DP) and the parliament’s secretary general Laurent Scheeck (l.t.r.) at a press conference on 14 January Photo: Paperjam

Members of parliament on 25 January are set to vote on the next chapter of the country’s constitutional reform, which enshrines Luxembourgish as the national language but has also faced criticism from groups representing foreigners in the country for being restrictive.

The draft law presented during a press conference on Friday marks the next chapter in a reform process that has been going on for more than a decade but is now nearing its final stages.

“A contemporary constitution is an important foundation for an open and pluralist society,” said Fernand Etgen (DP), president of the Chamber of Deputies, adding that the reform aims to “give the country a constitution of the 21st century.”

Deputies have already voted on a chapter dedicated to the justice system, for example establishing a supreme justice council--a watchdog to ensure the judiciary’s independence--while also strengthening the separation of powers between judges and the public prosecutor’s office.

The latest changes, which will be voted in parliament on 25 January, includes a raft of updates, notably establishing a dedicated chapter on the grand duke as head of state. Items in this chapter were previously scattered across the entire text, a panel of lawmakers explained.

It also adds new paragraphs on European integration. “We are a part of Europe and we are committed to this. European integration for us doesn’t mean a limitation of national sovereignty,” said Mars Di Bartolomeo (LSAP), one of four rapporteurs of the reform texts.

“Look across the channel. A big country that left the EU based on a narrow vote today has big problems to assert itself economically,” added Léon Gloden (CSV), also a rapporteur. “Europe belongs to our identity like Luxembourg belongs to Europe’s identity.”

National symbols and multilingualism

When it comes to Luxembourg’s identity, the constitution for the first time enshrines four symbols of the state. “The symbols of the state are the language--Luxembourgish; the flag--red, white, blue; the coat of arms; and the national anthem--‘Ons Heemecht’. This is new. They were never anchored in the constitution, but we felt that it’s important to put these symbols on the calling card of our country,” Di Bartolomeo said.

Foreign workers’ rights group Asti last year had criticised the move, saying that Luxembourg is a country of many more languages, not only including German and French--the other official administrative languages--but also Portuguese and English. “You’re saying that Luxembourg is a monolingual country,” Sérgio Ferreira, a spokesperson for Asti, told Delano in an interview.

“We are strengthening national identity,” said Gloden on Friday. A brochure explaining the changes to the constitution is being posted to all households. The document--in Luxembourgish, French and German--is planned to be published in Portuguese and English at a later stage.

Asti had also criticised that an article stating that all Luxembourgers are equal before the law (“Les Luxembourgeois sont égaux devant la loi” in the original French) had not been updated for a broader definition. In Germany, for example the constitution states that “All persons shall be equal before the law” (“Alle Menschen sind vor dem Gesetz gleich”).

Everyone--every resident, every human being on Luxembourg territory--enjoys exactly the same protections, rights and duties as Luxembourgers

Simone Beissel (DP)Member of the Luxembourg parliament

“From a point of view of international law this is completely outdated, the principle of equality based on nationality,” Ferreira said. “We’re a country of immigrants and to uphold a distinction between nationals and foreigners sends the wrong message.” 

But lawmakers on Friday pushed back. “This is one article that you have to read together with the other article that there can be no discrimination between the people who live here. If you read them together, it’s obvious that the one also applies to the other,” said Di Bartolomeo. “I don’t think there can be any doubt about how this is intended.”

The phrase dates back to the original constitution from 1868. “We had a lot of discussions, and we are in a constellation of four parties, and it was a point of political consensus when we took up this job that this would remain, but adding that everyone--every resident, every human being on Luxembourg territory--enjoys exactly the same protections, rights and duties as Luxembourgers. We just--a political decision--placed Luxembourgers above.”

Other changes to the constitution determine that the government is constituted of a prime minister, one or more deputy prime ministers as well as other ministers, minister delegates and secretaries of state. Up until now, it says that the grand duke regulates the composition of his government.

“The grand duke is no longer a king from the 19th century. The grand duke is a head of state from the 21st century and he represents this with dignity,” said Di Bartolomeo. “Our goal wasn’t a revolution,” he said, adding that the new text would make the country’s institutions more stable by providing a more solid legal framework.

The text will come to a first vote in parliament on 25 January and will need to undergo a second vote. In the interim period, citizens can push for a public referendum on the changes, but a first initiative last year failed to get the signatures needed.

Complete update before elections

The reform of the country’s highest laws hit an impasse in 2019 when a comprehensive new text--which was set to be put to a public vote--was shelved over party political squabbles.

Instead, the reform was divided into four chapters--justice, organisation of the state, rights and liberties, and Chamber of Deputies and Council of State. As a result, the government parties--the DP, LSAP and Déi Gréng--abandoned a referendum they had promised during the 2018 elections. 

But lawmakers rejected claims that citizens had not been able to provide their input. “The chamber not only informed but also included citizens,” said Etgen.

In 2015, voters rejected plans to open the vote in national elections to foreigners, for example. The same year, citizens were invited to submit reform proposals. “These proposals were discussed in public audiences and in many session and in the end led to several amendments. For example, the rights of the child, social dialogue, research and the ombudsman were included in the constitution.”

He called the changes, “the result of a very long process that everyone could participate in.”

The chapters on rights and liberties, and the Chamber of Deputies and Council of State are set to be presented in the coming months, the lawmakers said. These will, for example, add the right to start a family and will be added to a list of civil liberties as well as ensuring to uphold academic freedom and animal rights, access to culture, and a commitment to combat climate change and for the state to work towards climate neutrality.

The reform should conclude before the next elections.