Politics can work only if it wants to by Marco Thomé, FGFC President, Luxembourg

A text about the fragility of our liberal system and our difficulties in maintaining the right social balance in a drastically changing world.


How suddenly the world can change in the blink of an eye. From one day to the next, we are all staying in and sitting at home. Nothing is the same. Prime Minister Bettel declares via video link a national state of emergency and the general slogan is now (including with modern hashtags): #stayhome.

But is everyone staying at home? No, far from it! Crises such as COVID-19 clearly reveal which actors are indispensable for the whole of society, as well as those that can be dispensed with, at least temporarily, if needs be. We would like to extend our gratitude and pay tribute to the frontline workers from the public and private sectors.

Now that the crisis is abating, we should not forget to give these people a round of applause, at least inwardly. This particularly applies when once again we, caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, rush past the supermarket cashier without paying much attention.

Debate on the new normal

Within our affluent society, with material security for many, we often succumb to the false conclusion that life is safe. COVID-19 has shown us quite the opposite; it has shown us rather brutally how vulnerable we are individually and, moreover, collectively. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis affecting us that is natural in origin; it is not the deliberate product of a particular policy. COVID-19 seems to be fortuitous, an accident that has stripped us of our ‘normality’.

Does this pandemic have the power to bring about sustainable change in our social and political world? Before the outbreak of COVID-19, many people agreed that ‘things cannot go on like this’. Environment and transport are just two key words here. And so, it would appear to be a question of avoiding the ‘old normal’ in the first place. Are we brave enough to conduct an open debate about a ‘new normal’ in society?

Goodbye to no political alternatives?

There is no denying that since March a great deal became possible within a few weeks: colossal state interventions worth billions; vocal criticism of the cuts made to health and social systems; corporate interests suddenly mattered less than the well-being of the population. This is rather unusual because it is at odds with the neo-liberal political ductus of ‘there is no alternative’ that has been preached since the 1980s. There is an alternative, it would appear. It is possible and even necessary to act differently from the way we have been doing over the last thirty years.

Paradoxically, according to Jacques Ranciére, the French political philosopher, what we are witnessing in the COVID-19 crisis is the return of politics. As he defines it, ‘politics’ is precisely what happens when we fundamentally question our present and the course of things.

Politics is often irrelevant

But is that really the case? Are we currently seeing a move away from the old logic of ‘faster, higher, further’? Are we ready to reflect on how we are living, or do we actually want to have no choice but to lose ourselves in endless consumer battles?

COVID-19 has shown clearly that politics can work if it wants to. Elected representatives of the people have, de facto, the power to shape all our lives for the benefit of all, preferably with the involvement of all minorities in this process. Political parties in particular like to put their light under this bushel and pretend to want to shape or be able to shape things. The political will to shape things may be great at times, but the truth is that the possibility of making a real difference is actually rather limited, especially against the backdrop of international political paradigms. We citizens therefore know that politics is often irrelevant, and that the representatives of the people spout hot air and do not deliver. Many of us no longer feel that we are being represented adequately. Not even because our politicians are useless, but rather because the fundamental things are decided elsewhere.

CETA ratification, an infamous example

In our country, the recent ratification of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union (EU) and Canada by the Luxembourg Parliament is a clear example of meaningless, powerless, i.e. ignorant political action.

Globalizing trade agreements have become a political system over the years and now form a global network of tentacles that primarily seeks to prevent collapses, such as the one we are now seeing with COVID-19. ‘The market will fix it’ is the motto here. Trade agreements are globalization in real time and, moreover, shamelessly expand the power of international corporations across the globe, where private interests often come before public interests. In Luxembourg, nearly all of civil society took to the streets on numerous occasions against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and CETA. Resistance is thus already on the streets.

But what really went on in Luxembourg politically? This topic of extreme complexity from a legal perspective was not given any real substantive consideration. The general approach applied here was: keep a low profile, shut your eyes and hope for the best! Increasingly, specific concerns of citizens are being decided within dubious international procedures, without any prior consultation in Parliament. Although, from a purely legal point of view, competence lies with the National Parliament, our parliamentarians are being downgraded to secondary roles.

Political action is powerless because, not least as a citizen, you are tilting at windmills. But even parliamentarians themselves, especially if they are on the side of the governing parties, are also subject to party discipline. A negative vote cannot and must not be reported to Brussels, otherwise the whole Treaty will collapse. In the long run, we citizens are therefore largely condemned to a future that we do not want. The national political parties feel this sense of powerlessness all too well. They are reluctant to admit this, seeing as though it is almost tantamount to filing for bankruptcy. In addition, there is a danger that fewer and fewer people will become involved in party politics because political activity, especially at the national level, will sooner or later be conducted ad absurdum.

What was particularly striking, however, was the overwhelming ignorance on the part of Luxembourg’s politicians to rush this controversial agreement through Parliament by any means whatsoever, despite the state of emergency and the significantly limited right to demonstrate.

If we voters are to take our political representatives even half-seriously, we need to have confidence in their willingness to stand up for our common good. If, as has now happened, the majority of politicians no longer even seem to care about our concerns, then we really have reached a new low. The unease, no, the sense of powerlessness stemming from the fact that as a citizen you are virtually defenceless in the face of the interests of large corporations, for example, is shaking, in my view, the very foundations of our liberal system.

#Neistart Lëtzebuerg[2]

Before we all have even had a chance to fully grasp the implications of the pandemic, the Government is already rebooting the country as if they were pressing a button on a computer (Ctrl + Alt + Delete). Reminiscent of Jeremy Rifkin: structural change and digitalization are now apparently being rolled out in one go along with COVID-19. But not everything is all that bad about a pandemic like this one. Everyone, if it somehow fits the cause, does what they can to ensure they do not lose their seat on the gravy train.

Even before COVID-19, many citizens already felt that we needed a different way of living together. In the meantime, many people have come to realize that it is actually possible to get through everyday life with less stress. People finally had time for the essential things in life, children, relationships, themselves. Some may even be wondering: ‘Why do I bother going along with it all?’

Collectively, we can all sense that we are living in a time in which real change is unfolding. The dynamic transformations of our time are occurring at a galloping pace, many people can no longer keep up. Anxiety disorders, burnout and depression have become common ailments. Change happens repeatedly and imperceptibly over the course of decades, but sometimes within hours. We now know what that feels like ever since COVID-19.

In our globalised world, we as a human race are facing tremendous challenges, all of which now seem to determine our daily lives even faster. Many areas of public and private life will continue to change fundamentally. This bodes well for extremists with quick fixes wishing to score points with the population.

All life matters! Inclusion is the key word of our time. Change, after all, also brings with it the opportunity to make many positive improvements. This is something that we should all have a share in as a society, there is still a lot that needs to be done after all. Will we succeed? Will we be asked? Only time will tell.

[1] Luxembourgish: #stayhome

[2] Luxembourgish: #NewstartLuxembourg