Citizen participation in Luxembourg Citizen engagement, a vital tool to strengthen democracy and build communities

Playing an active role in democratic life is a key part of living together in community. Citizen participation can be an individual activity, when we exercise our right to vote or submit public petitions, or a collective process, when we get involved in civic associations. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly institutionalised, with institutions calling on citizens to participate in public decision-making. Citizenship education is therefore an essential tool in improving democracy.

What is citizen participation?

Citizen participation is a process of engagement whereby citizens, acting either on their own or collectively, aim to influence community life. Being a citizen goes far beyond a mere legal status involving rights and duties: people have the opportunity to play an active part in democratic life as a means of improving the way in which we live together as members of a community.

Individual citizen participation

As individuals, citizens can take action by exercising their right to vote and stand for election. In Luxembourg, anyone with Luxembourgish citizenship who enjoys civil and political rights, is aged 18 or over and lives in Luxembourg is eligible to vote or stand as a candidate in the country's legislative elections. Non-Luxembourg nationals may vote or stand as a candidate in municipal elections as long as they have been resident in Luxembourg for at least five years. Other elections also take place every five years: European elections, to elect Members of the European Parliament, and social elections, to elect staff representatives in companies.

Another way for citizens to be involved in political life on an individual basis is by submitting a public petition to the Parliament. The aim of this initiative is to launch a debate among elected representatives on the matter in question. Note that this is a forum not for defending individual interests – petitions of this nature are not accepted – but rather for raising a cause in the general and national interest that serves all citizens.

Public petitions at a glance

The Committee on Petitions examines all petition requests. If it delivers a favourable opinion, the Conference of Presidents gives its agreement for the petition to be published on the website of the Parliament. Citizens then have 42 days to sign the petition online. If 4,500 signatures are collected, a public debate is launched and may lead to a legislative procedure.

Citizens can also submit ordinary petitions individually: these raise issues on which ministers are required to provide a response.

Referendums, although less frequent, are also a means of individual citizen participation. This form of electoral consultation calls on the electorate to vote for or against a proposal that is put to them.

Collective citizen participation

The rights to peaceful assembly and association are the pillars of collective citizen participation, and they are guaranteed by the Constitution.

Freedom of association in particular enables citizens to join civic action groups, whether at local level – neighbourhood associations, for example – or at national or transnational level – such as major non-governmental organisations. This network of civic associations forms what is known as civil society – the glue that holds all democracies together.

Citizen participation – a two-way street

Citizen participation is often seen as a bottom-up initiative, from citizens to institutions. The many public and ordinary petitions and the wealth of civic associations reflect this reality. But citizen participation is also becoming increasingly rooted in an institutional framework. Institutions seek the participation of civil society in public decision-making as a means of promoting transparency and addressing the limitations of representative democracy.

The Luxembourg City placemaking initiative

'Public spaces are supposed to be for all to use. Therefore, everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to discussions on the development of these spaces,' affirms Luxembourg City Council in its introduction to the placemaking procedure. Luxembourg's capital city regularly calls for civic engagement when it comes to the development of public spaces: anyone with an interest – local residents, users, etc. – can submit ideas and make proposals. The City Council then draws up a draft plan and submits it as a basis for discussion in citizen participation meetings, with the aim of reaching agreement on a final plan.

Citizens' Council on Climate

In the 2021 State of the Nation address, the Luxembourg Government announced that a Citizens' Council on Climate would be convened, composed of a hundred representative members of the country's population in all its diversity. This initiative will give citizens a seat at the negotiating table and an opportunity to discuss climate issues with the support of experts. The starting point for discussions will be the Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan, which already contains a series of targets and measures.

It is planned that the KlimaBiergerRot will start its work towards the end of January and conclude it before the summer holidays of 2022. The work will be implemented through information, exchange and work sessions, and feedback sessions.

Citizenship needs to be built

'Democracy needs democrats' – that is the message promoted by the Zentrum fir politesch Bildung (ZpB – Centre for Political Education). The aim of this foundation is to promote citizenship by improving our understanding of democracy and the current challenges facing society. To this end, the ZpB runs training courses for teachers and the general public, puts on exhibitions and publishes resources which can be downloaded via its website.

Three questions for Michèle Schilt, Deputy Director of the ZpB

The ZpB focuses on citizenship education. What exactly is citizenship education and why is it important?

Citizenship education refers to all the processes that help people understand the workings and challenges of a democratic society. It takes place in schools, of course, but also in other contexts such as youth centres and childcare centres, civic associations, sports and music clubs, etc. Democracy is something that needs to be learned and practised. It is not an entirely 'natural' way of life. But we are convinced that democracy is the best way of guaranteeing that we respect as many different opinions and views as possible, in a peaceful way.

What role do social media platforms play in building or undermining citizenship? What is the ZpB's approach in this area?

Social media platforms are a highly effective tool for disseminating information and creating links between people all around the globe. But they also come with dangers, such as the dissemination of fake news and theories that are marginal or even dangerous for minorities or for the very existence of democratic society. The ZpB provides two online tools to help counter these threats: www.propaganda.guide can be used to identify propaganda, and www.filterbubble.lu shows the extent to which we are trapped in our own bubble and often fail to take into account the diversity of opinions around us. To 'build' a citizenship that is dynamic and constantly developing, we need to recognise the value of real human contact. Humans need direct, live contact. This is what the ZpB is trying to encourage by developing various networks of people in positions of influence, especially within participatory structures, such as the network of teachers who are using the method Léieren duerch Engagement ('Learning through engagement') or the tutors involved in supervising pupils' committees, for example.

The foundation was established in September 2016. Can you give us your thoughts on these first five years or share a particular success story with us?

In five years, the ZpB has grown considerably. Although our initial focus was on schools and on providing them with publications like duerchbléck! Politik verstoen ('In a nutshell! Understanding politics'), our work in the field of non-formal education and with adults has increased over time. One of our major projects, carried out with the University of Luxembourg, was smartwielen, a platform for the legislative and European elections where users could compare their opinions with the positions of the candidates. Another project which began in March this year is DemokratieLabo, an interactive exhibition in three languages for anyone from 12 to 99 years old. ​ The feedback has been positive and we are pleased to have created something that enables visitors to discuss both democratic principles, such as freedom, security and justice, and social challenges that are particularly topical in Luxembourg, such as housing, poverty and job insecurity, and inequality. We would love to see you there – head to www.demokratielabo.lu to find out more!