Interview : Luxembourg Times (Paula Telo Alves, translated by Heledd Pritchard)
Luxembourg Times: Free transportation, legalising cannabis and two extra days off. Which of them are measures from the Greens?
Félix Braz: The Government's programme is obviously much more than that. We demanded that all the measures of this government be common, none of them are measures by only the Greens or the DP [Democratic Party] or the LSAP [Luxembourgish Socialist Workers' Party].
Issues of social justice are not only those of the LSAP. Issues to boost the economy are not just from the DP. Measures with the ambition of protecting the environment are not only those of the Greens.
The whole coalition agreement reflects a common intention from the three parties, and everything we are going to do in the next five years is only possible, not only because the Greens want it, but because the coalition partners want it.
We have an agreement that I think is better than the 2013 agreement, which is even more ambitious.
Luxembourg Times: When what is handed out is big and ambitious people start to get suspicious. A number of people have criticised measures which involve spending. Is there enough money for everything?
Félix Braz: The minister of finance [Pierre Gramegna], two or three days ago, explained in an interview that public finances are now better than they were in 2013.
Five years ago we had to start the legislature with measures that were obviously less popular, but that had to be taken. Today, public finances are in good health, and the finance minister says the coalition agreement can be financed, even if the economy isn't as it is today.
Luxembourg Times: Now you have more political responsibilities, as deputy prime minister along with Etienne Schneider of LSAP. What is your relationship with him and how are you going to organise this two-headed leadership?
Félix Braz: There is a long relationship of friendship between Etienne Schneider and myself, we have known each other since university. He studied in Belgium, but we met by chance, and he then, at the time when I was the parliamentary secretary of the Greens, was the secretary of the Socialist party, so we have known each other for a long time and we have a long relationship of friendship, which has also been with us during the last five years of government.
There will be no difficulty in assuming this responsibility, which has a certain visibility, of course, but there will not be the slightest problem between us.
Luxembourg Times: In practice, what does the deputy prime minister's role consist of?
Félix Braz: It is to be the number two behind the prime minister. If the prime minister, for some reason, cannot carry out a responsibility, the natural choice is to go to the deputy prime minister. It can be presiding over the Council of Government, which I have done in the last five years, even without being deputy prime minister.
Luxembourg Times: As the son of a Portuguese immigrant you have received a lot of messages from Portuguese people congratulating you. Many have said they were proud of your appointment. Do you feel proud?
Félix Braz: It is true that I have received many messages in Portuguese, from people who live here in Luxembourg, but also from people from Portugal, by email, by telephone - some I don't know how they found their mobile phone number, but they had it! A message that was particularly important to me was the one left to me by the president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who called me directly on my mobile phone. I met him in 2017 when he was here in Luxembourg. Of course these messages mean something to me. I also received messages from my family. Of course, for me that has an emotional importance.
It’s true that the example I give is to say that people of Portuguese origin or other origins who may be interested in political life in Luxembourg, it’s part of integration, and it’s a normal path for those who come to the country or are born here, which was my case. In this, I would like to be an example.
It does not mean that in order to integrate into public life you need to have positions. I made that choice, but I was also lucky that people elected me to those responsibilities. It doesn't mean that people's public life is meaningless if they cannot be elected. It’s important to sign up for the lists [to vote for] the local councils and the European ones, which will be on 26 May 26 2019.
Luxembourg Times: You have been constantly pushing for people to go to vote and once said immigrants had to stop being immigrants and become citizens.
Félix Braz: Exactly. Few people feel the desire to be candidates, but what matters first is to participate as a voter, to register [for the elections] where you can vote, local and European. Or by obtaining Luxembourg citizenship, without abandoning [your birth] citizenship. The law has allowed this for almost 10 years, and there are many Portuguese who today use Luxembourg citizenship to vote in legislative elections.
My appeal is always the same: people come here as immigrants, to work, later on they often become independent, they go from being employed to being bosses, and the next step, even for those who don't want to be bosses, is to be citizens. In Luxembourg, everyone can do that, regardless of their origin, even someone who comes from a country outside the European Union can be the mayor of the capital. Origins in our electoral system is of little importance.
On the legislative level, of course. But everyone can obtain Luxembourg citizenship and has no obligation to abandon their original citizenship. I'm not going to stop repeating that message, the importance of participating in elections, and the reality is that we still have a way to go, because only 20% of the people who could register to vote in local councils did so.
Luxembourg Times: What is an important measure for the next five years?
Félix Braz: In this Ministry, there is no doubt about it, the creation of the National Council of Justice and the constitutional revision that will formalise the independence of the judiciary and the judiciary in Luxembourg. This reform is undoubtedly the most fundamental reform, which I have been preparing in the last parliamentary term and which, I hope, can now be formalised in the context of the constitutional revision.
Luxembourg Times: One of the measures for 2019 is to increase fuel prices. It is a "green" measure, which in France was at the origin of the protests of the "yellow vests". Do you think it is possible that this measure will also be contested in Luxembourg?
Félix Braz: The social situation in Luxembourg and the social situation in France are not comparable. The measures that the Luxembourg government is going to take are all aimed at increasing purchasing power. In France, the situation is completely different: people have been suffering for a long time and more and more. It began not only, but to a large extent, with president Hollande, who raised many rates in a short time to consolidate the French budget.
And the criticism that president Macron is now receiving is that the measure he has taken is also more a measure of budgetary consolidation than one that would really have an impact on ecology. Many people in France have realised that trying to divide environmental concerns from social concerns makes no sense.
Environmental policy is social policy, and social policy is also necessarily environmental policy. They are two sides to the coin, and in France they are trying to cut the coin in two pieces.
Luxembourg Times: Isn't that the case in Luxembourg?
Félix Braz: That is not the case in Luxembourg. Almost all of the measures in the coalition agreement go in the direction of increasing purchasing power, particularly for the lowest paid. We will increase the minimum wage by 100Euro per month, with effect from 1 January. Free transportation is a social measure, because if you buy a pass every month, you also have an increase in what you have left over, and the expected increase in fuel is a very small amount. There is also the tax reform, and we have a number of measures, such as indexation of family allowances, announced for the end of the legislature.
Luxembourg Times: From the previous legislature, which measure was important to you?
Félix Braz: There are many where reforms have been made objectively that should have been made long ago, but there are two that I would like to highlight. One was the nationality law, because it was a reform that I has a certain emotion. And when the bill was voted on in Parliament, I allowed myself, at the end of the debate, to express a small emotion that was actually gaining me, because I think that, as a child of immigrants, being able to reform the nationality law, in the country that welcomed my parents and where I was born, is not very usual. That does not say much about me or my parents, but it does say a lot about Luxembourg.
Everything can be criticised and improved, but the fact is that Luxembourg has allowed a child of immigrants to reform the conditions for access to nationality.
The other reform was voted on at the end of the legislature, with the rights of LGBTI [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex] people. Few people are affected, but it is a vital reform. It also says a lot about Luxembourg: a society is really measured by how it treats minorities. We worked all night to get the law voted on before the end of the legislature, and it says a lot about tolerance in this country.