Who is Xavier Bettel? (Maybe Luxembourg’s next prime minister.)


Xavier Bettel may not win this weekend’s parliamentary elections in Luxembourg, but he’s likely to lead his party to significant gains, putting him in line as the heir apparent to the small European country’s long-time prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker.luxembourgEuropean_Union

Sure, that may not be the most world-shattering event in world politics — with about 538,000 people, Luxembourg has about one-fourteenth the population of Hong Kong.  But given the chief role that Juncker has played in steering eurozone policy, it’s worth keeping an eye on the top up-and-coming Luxembourgish leaders — every Luxembourgish prime minister since 1953 has played a crucial role in the European integration process.

So as a new generation of Luxembourgish politicians come to the fore, it’s not difficult to envision that they could play a starring role in European-wide policymaking later this decade and in the 2020s.

Enter Bettel, exit Juncker?

No Luxembourgish politician has emerged quite as forcefully as Bettel (pictured above), who during the campaign has emerged as Juncker’s chief rival.

A 40-year-old openly gay attorney, Bettel joined parliament in 1999, when the Democrats governed as the junior partner of a coalition with Juncker’s CSV.  Bettel was also elected to Luxembourg City’s communial council in 1999 and subsequently as mayor in October 2011, becoming the youngest mayor of any European capital, rising quickly to prominence, with a favorability rating higher than Juncker’s.

Bettel and his liberal Demokratesch Partei (DP, Democratic Party) are expected to make gains in Sunday’s election, though perhaps not enough gains to take over government.

Juncker was somewhat tarnished earlier this year with the revelation of abuses committed by the Service de renseignement de l’Etat luxembourgeois (SREL), the secret service and intelligence agency of Luxembourg.  The abuses include illegal wiretapping, surveillance of domestic political groups and other crimes that stretch back to the 1980s.  Although Juncker isn’t directly implicated in any of the abuses, a parliamentary inquiry found that he shared ‘political responsibility’ for the SREL’s bad behavior by neglecting to oversee the SREL with adequate oversight.  Perhaps more damaging than the official scolding is the more unshakeable sense that Juncker is perceived to have spent too much time on eurozone policy and not enough time governing his own country.

Facing a vote of no confidence in Luxembourg’s unicameral parliament, D’Chamber (Chamber of Deputies), Juncker resigned and called early elections for October 20.

The Democrats’ campaign hasn’t been incredibly subtle — it’s running on the platform of a ‘new beginning’ for Luxembourg, with ‘new ideas and new leaders.’  Bettel himself has criticized the slow pace of the Juncker government’s approach to reform.

While there’s not an incredible amount of polling data for Luxembourg, it shows that Junker can expect losses for his dominant center-right Chrëschtlech Sozial Vollekspartei (CSV, Christian Social People’s Party), which has won the greatest share of votes in all but one (1964) postwar Luxembourgish general election.

Juncker’s CSV has governed in coalition for the past decade with the center-left Lëtzebuerger Sozialistesch Arbechterpartei (LSAP, Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party), but the LSAP’s refusal to support Juncker over the secret service scandal precipitated this weekend’s early elections.  

The CSV currently holds 26 of the 60 seats in the  Chamber of Deputies and the LSAP holds 13 more seats.  So even if they suffer moderate losses, the CSV-LSAP coalition will still likely return to power, and most voters expect that to be the most likely outcome.  If so, Bettel will happily bide his time as Luxembourg City mayor (he’s pledged to serve out his mandate as mayor), with an eye toward making the final leap to government within the next five years, when he’ll likely face a CSV opponent less dominant than Juncker.  After all, the European Council and European Commission presidencies will both be vacant next year — Juncker remains a potential candidate for either post, though he’s downplayed his interest throughout the election campaign.  Christine Lagarde’s term as managing director of the International Monetary Fund ends in 2016, and Juncker would be a natural fit to lead the IMF, given his experience setting eurozone policy.

But if the losses are more severe this weekend, the CSV may be forced to turn to Bettel’s Democrats to form a coalition (as Juncker’s CSV did between 1999 and 2004).  Though Bettel has indicated he’s open to a CSV-Democrat coalition, he’s cautioned that he would expect the CSV to take a more proactive approach to economic reform.

If the losses are truly severe for the CSV, Bettel may have a chance to become prime minister himself, given his close ties to Déi Gréng (the Greens), which are also expected to make gains.  Bettel has worked with Green leader Francois Bausch in governing Luxembourg City, so the Greens would be Bettel’s most natural ally.  But the Democrats holds just nine seats and the Greens hold just seven — they would have to nearly double their current representation in the Chamber of Deputies to have a shot at taking power.

It’s also possible that the LSAP could enter into a grand coalition with the Democrats and the Greens, though LSAP leader Etienne Schneider remains on good terms with Juncker and the CSV.

Luxembourg’s historically key role in European integration

Juncker served as the first president of the Eurogroup, the policy forum of European finance minister, from 2005 to earlier this year.  His predecessor, Jacques Santer, Luxembourgish prime minister from 1984 to 1995, served as president of the European Commission in the late 1990s.

Pierre Werner, Luxembourg’s prime minister from 1959 to 1974 and from 1979 to 1984, was a contemporary of EU founding fathers Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, and he attended the Bretton Woods conference that established the International Monetary Fund and, basically, the entire postwar financial system.  Werner played an important role in crafting the ‘Luxembourg Compromise’ that ended the ’empty chair crisis’ in the European Economic Community in 1966.  Moreover, Werner’s predecessor Joseph Bech was an early federalist at a time when European integration wasn’t particularly popular in Luxembourg or the Benelux countries.

Not to be left out is Gaston Thorn, prime minister from 1974 to 1979 and the only Democrat to have served as Luxembourg’s prime minister.  Thorn went on to become European Commission president in the early 1980s, when he laid the groundwork for the EEC’s expansion into three Mediterranean countries and the 1986 Single European Act that brought forth the European single market.

Why does Luxembourg so often punch above its weight as a player in European affairs?

It was one of the original six members of the European Steel and Coal Community that eventually transformed into the European Economic Community and today’s European Union.  Nestled conveniently between France and Germany, French and German both serve as official languages alongside Luxembourgish, so Luxembourg has always served as a natural go-between for its two larger neighbors.  Even today, after so much European enlargement, the Franco-German axis continues to drive much of the European agenda, with tiny Luxembourg acting as a kind of diplomatic lubricant between the two.

Moreover, as one of the wealthiest and most stable western European countries (long serving as one of Europe’s financial hubs), Luxembourg has avoided the worst of Europe’s political tumult and economic crisis, which has given its leaders more space to think about wider questions like European policy.

3 thoughts on “Who is Xavier Bettel? (Maybe Luxembourg’s next prime minister.)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *