Bankers Fleeing Brexit Can Help Make Luxembourgish Great Again

(Bloomberg) -- None of the candidates vowed to build a wall around Luxembourg to keep out British bankers fleeing Brexit.

But unless they’ve already learned Luxembourgish, hundreds of immigrant financiers will be clueless about party manifestos as the Grand Duchy goes to the polls on Sunday.

That’s because a subtle change has virtually cast aside other languages in the country’s election campaigning, as well as much of public life, traditionally dominated by French. It’s what passes for populism in a country whose people tend to be relatively satisfied with life.

Bankers Fleeing Brexit Can Help Make Luxembourgish Great Again

“Luxembourgish helps people who want to live here long-term,” said Roy Reding, a member of the right-of-center ADR party, which is seeking to add to its three seats in the 60-seat parliament. “It’s totally normal, if I move to a different city I have to understand and somehow speak that language to integrate.”

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Nestled between Belgium, France and Germany, the tiny nation of just over 600,000 citizens has become the world’s second biggest fund market and an attractive hub for multinationals such Amazon.com Inc. Its multilingualism and multiculturalism are part of its attraction, with locals being able to switch with ease between French, German and English and their native Luxembourgish.

Citizens, including more than 900 new British dual nationals, vote on Sunday after five years of a government that didn’t just bring about a tram, a construction boom and free-of-charge international schools, but also presided over an upsurge in pride in the local language -- as well as a fear for its survival.

Bankers Fleeing Brexit Can Help Make Luxembourgish Great Again

The nation’s dalliance with identity politics surfaced in 2015 when Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s new coalition of Liberals, Socialists and Greens organized a referendum asking whether non-Luxembourgers who have resided in the country for at least 10 years should be allowed to vote in parliamentary elections.

The result was a resounding “No” from almost 80 percent of the population.

“I felt really kind of rejected because it was a massive statement that said, we tolerate you, but...” said Jillian Cook, a Luxembourgish-speaker who moved from the U.K. in 1990. She is voting in her adopted nation for the first time since acquiring dual nationality last year.

The following year came a petition asking for Luxembourgish to be made the main national language -- a policy of the ADR. It got a record-breaking 15,000 signatures.

The ADR would like to abolish the “Francophonization” of the country and also wants to create a ministry for Luxembourgish and raise the bar for nationality language tests, which the party says are too easy.

“What does it mean to have Luxembourg nationality?” asks Reding. “It means having the right to vote. And how can I vote if I can’t follow the debates in parliament, which are and will be in Luxembourgish? If that ever changes, I will move to the U.K.”

The ripples have lasted and the mainstream parties this year opted for an almost entirely Luxembourgish election campaign, at least when it comes to the hundreds of campaign posters emblazoned on walls, lamp posts and roadsides.

Even the government’s main parties chose slogans that are a play on words of the local language. Bettel’s liberals DP want to have a “Zukunft op Letzebuergesch,” meaning a future in Luxembourgish or in the Luxembourg way. The socialist LSAP chose “Letz speak about politics.”

The language is spoken by two thirds of the population and more than 90 percent of young people, according to statistics by the Education Ministry in June.

With 48 percent of the resident population being foreign, language is “one of the ways to help with integration, but it shouldn’t be exclusive,” said Michael Chamier, another Brit who applied for the Luxembourg nationality post-Brexit, after living and working there since decades. “It’s a small country and one of its biggest assets is its multilingualism.”

While voting is mandatory in Luxembourg, those foreigners aren’t allowed to participate in national elections unless they sign up for citizenship.

A change in law a decade ago allowed for dual nationality, and yet another reform by Bettel’s government last year trimmed the years to five from seven when foreign residents can apply.

Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, the number of Britons seeking Luxembourg dual nationality has risen rapidly. That year, 128 British people acquired the nationality, compared to 75 the year before. The number grew to 384 in 2017 and between January and August this year, 264 Brits became dual citizens, according to the Ministry of Justice.

Still, the obligatory language test remains a key condition. While making it easier to qualify for a local passport, Bettel’s updated nationality law created such a rush that the main language learning institute has been overwhelmed.

“We were overrun last year,” said Karin Pundel, director of the Institut National des Langues. “The number of demands to get into the tests exploded.”

Ahead of the elections, parliament voted unanimously for a commissioner and language center solely to promote the importance of Luxembourgish.

The government also created hundreds of smartphone emojis, with the red, white and blue colors of the national flag as background.

They may not help to pass the nationality test or understand future election campaigns. But for newcomers who can barely muster a “moien” or “good morning” they provide a basic initiation to vital vocabulary such as “Gromperekichelcher,” a potato pancake, and ways to express delight at finally getting into a language class such as “mega” or “tipp topp.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.