Modern Duchy Luxembourg Prime Minister Turns Tradition on Its Head

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel is trying to reshape the Grand Duchy into a country as liberal as he is himself. He has introduced gay marriage and curbed the Catholic Church's once powerful influence over the country.

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (right) poses with his partner, Gauthier Destenay, after their wedding ceremony on May 15, 2015.
REUTERS

Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (right) poses with his partner, Gauthier Destenay, after their wedding ceremony on May 15, 2015.

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Xavier Bettel wears a golden wedding ring on the ring finger of his left hand. In his case, that's something that is certainly worth mentioning. Just three weeks ago, the 42-year-old prime minister of Luxembourg married his long-term partner, Gauthier Destanay of Belgium. "It was an obvious step for me -- we've been together for years," says Bettel. "I am happy to live in a country in which a large majority in parliament voted for same-sex marriage."

Prime Minister Bettel was able to marry thanks to a law that his government passed as one of its first acts. Prior to his election, as a member of the opposition, Bettel himself had experienced firsthand how deeply rooted anti-gay sentiment remains, including in Luxembourg. A state secretary from former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker's government called him "miss" during a debate in parliament.

Today, he's the prime minister of the Grand Duchy and the first and only male leader of a European Union government to have married a man. A year and a half ago, he replaced Juncker, who had lost power because of a secret service scandal. Juncker has since become president of the European Commission, but he left behind a difficult legacy for the unusual government coalition that replaced him, comprised of the business-friendly liberals, Social Democrats and Greens.

The burden faced by the government are the massive tax advantages the preceding administration used to attract large corporations at the expense of other EU countries that were exposed by the Luxembourg Leaks revelations. It's likely the EU will now pass stricter laws and Bettel will have to prepare for the possibility of a strong decline in Luxembourg's revenues.

The changes taking place in the country are reflected in Bettel's office. Juncker's heavy bookshelves have been replaced by large, modern paintings and designer sofas now face the prime minister's desk. But Bettel is introducing more than merely cosmetic change -- he's planning to pursue a comprehensive reform agenda.

Curbing Church Influence

In addition to same-sex marriage, Bettel's government coalition has also liberalized Luxembourg's abortion law. To obtain an abortion, women now merely need to discuss their reasons with a doctor. It's a development that has upset the Catholic Church in a country in which 80 percent of the population are members.

Bettel actually wanted to achieve a full separation of church and state and even threatened the church with a referendum on the issue. But the church then chose to negotiate with the state and in January agreed to a compromise that entails it losing a large share of its privileges. Priests' salaries, for example, will no longer be paid by the government and the religion class in all schools across the country will be eliminated and replaced by an ethics course beginning in 2016. Public subsidies for the church are to be radically reduced, but the Muslim community will also be provided with financial support for the first time.

The new prime minister experienced the first setback to his reforms over the weekend. Some 46 percent of Luxembourg's residents are foreigners and do not possess citizenship. The government had considered providing voting rights to foreign residents, but when asked their opinion in a referendum on Sunday, around 80 percent of Luxembourg voters rejected the idea. Bettel had feared a democratic deficit if nearly half of the country's residents were shut out of voting. He had argued that if foreigners could serve in the country's army, why shouldn't they also be allowed to vote? But after Sunday's vote, he said he had "got the message."

A lawyer by training, Bettel himself comes from a family with international roots. "If I just take my four grandparents, then I find the following nationalities: Russian, Polish, French and Luxembourgers," he says. His mother is the great niece of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. But as Sunday's vote showed, not everyone in Luxembourg thinks as internationally as Bettel.

When asked what he thinks about neighboring Germany, which has neither voting rights for foreigners nor full-fledged same-sex marriage, Bettel says, ""I don't know of any country that has perished or suffered any economic disadvantages because it introduced same-sex marriage." Besides, he says, "regardless whether heterosexual or homosexual, I want everyone to be as happy as I am."

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