Getting the job done away from the cameras
Sometimes things turn out differently than expected. This truly applies to Etienne Schneider, the freshly appointed Minister of the Economy and Foreign Trade who will start his position on February 1, 2012. His predecessor, Jeannot Krecké, announced his retirement from office a couple of months ago. Mr Schneider is known to be a determined man with a very pragmatic approach. In an interview with LFF, he talked about projects he wants to realise, his open and straightforward attitude, and his fate linked to next General Elections.
How does it feel being Luxembourg’s youngest minister yet?
It makes you feel young. I was not aware of this fact until I heard it on the radio, but this ultimately doesn’t matter much to me. What is more remarkable is the fact that I returned to politics at all, after I had laid down my political mandate in May 2010 because it was too time-consuming. Until then, I had been the deputy mayor in the Southern municipality of Kayl. I was also involved in the Socialist Party, but I had to cut back on this commitment because of the workload I had at the ministry.
At the time, I found it hard to make this decision. But then I realised that there is life outside politics with no official duties after work. When Jeannot Krecké asked me if I could imagine to be his successor, I was not involved with politics anymore. Moreover, I have not been elected - and besides, I thought that there were enough elected people in my party who wouldn’t agree with my nomination. But there was a need for someone to take over this function, who was knowledgeable in the pertinent topics, had a good network and did not need to learn the ropes again.
After discussions by members of the party leadership, I received an official request. I took some time to think about it. What frightened me most was the loss of my own agenda and my personal freedom.
So did the challenge win over your private life?
I am convinced that it is an honour to serve one’s country as a minister. The challenge was the crucial point. I said to myself that at the age of 40 I would have the opportunity to take over one of the most important ministries. Of course, this would coincide with the most serious crisis of the last 80 years. The timing is certainly not optimal, but this makes the challenge even more thrilling.
How do you see your future media presence?
I have the impression that as a Minister you are invited to give a speech at many events in order to enhance the conference. My purpose will not be to hold a speech simply to make somebody’s invitation look better. If I see an interest in it for the Luxembourg economy, then I will be happy to do it. For the rest, I also need time for office work. I would rather focus on meetings with company managers away from cameras and media attention.
Are you afraid you might offend people with this kind of attitude?
I am certain I will. I have already cancelled some appointments, but that’s just the way it will be in the future.
What are your short- and mid-term goals?
There are some things going on that I want to wrap up. For starters, there are the infrastructure projects for which we have already developed the “Plan Directeur Sectoriel “zones d’activités économiques” (development of economic activity zones) to which I have been contributing as a civil servant for a long time. I definitely want to have this plan adopted in the first half of this year.
It is absolutely necessary to have a tool to create a space to domicile companies. We regularly have companies, which want to settle in Luxembourg, but we can’t offer them the adequate space. This new law would help us to be more efficient and reactive. This is one of the most important tools the ministry of the Economy and Foreign Trade has at its disposal.
The incubators, where we can place start-ups, will be another crucial projects. We want to turn them into a public limited company so they can work more proactively.
Another important point I’d like to emphasize are our electric transmission lines to our neighbouring countries. The power supply line to France is essential. This has nothing to do with buying electricity generated by nuclear power, but a lot with European electricity transport routes. The green energy that is produced in Northern Germany has to reach the South and vice versa, which means that an energy highway is needed. We cannot afford to stand aside. We also need a better power supply line to Belgium. So we would provide our three neighbouring countries France, Belgium and Germany a more robust security of supply of electricity through these connections.
Another point I absolutely want to achieve is a gas connection to France and a power production line to Luxembourg. But we need gas to achieve both these goals. If I want to place this production in the South of Luxembourg, we need a second gas connection to handle the quantities needed and guarantee supply security.
The last points related to infrastructure that I want to mention are the oil storage tanks. We have to create a stock agency and organise a call for tenders so that we can begin to manage our petrol supply ourselves. Every year, there are situations where we nearly run out of petrol. This is the case, for instance, when the Moselle River is so low that ships cannot cross.
Regarding the industry in general, I want to stand up for a labelling standard for industrial products that are imported into Europe. These products should get a special label. We have to be able to bring the European economy on a level playing field with the big production contracts that drift to Asia or elsewhere.
It’s obvious that you cannot simply set up import barriers. But you must be able to say: the European Union has a series of minimum standards, minimum criteria- be it ecologic or social such as banning child labour - that you have to respect if you want to import into Europe. This has to become a European idea. We have been overwhelmed by globalisation. In this context, we cannot accept the ongoing deindustrialisation. It is not enough to solely rely on the service industry in an economy where nothing is produced any more.
What niches does Luxembourg intend to develop next?
Green technology, health technology, logistics and ICT are the four main sectors that we are trying to promote and develop. Some successes have already been achieved. The government decided to develop these sectors, so we have to give ourselves the financial means to do so. But since procedures are sometimes long and complex, projects sometimes take years to fully develop.
We have a very advantageous law in the area of intellectual property that will help us attract a range of business activities to Luxembourg with an enormous added value for our country. These companies won’t create lots of jobs, for sure, but they will generate a lot of tax revenue. This is, in a way, a general problem we have: creating many opportunities. For instance the VAT the IT sector brings in, this is good news in the area of tax revenues, but we know that this is not sustainable and doesn’t help us reduce unemployment. I have another remark concerning energy: I intend to double the share of renewable energies, which are part of the primary energy consumption, until the end of my mandate.
Another aspect, which would have a big impact on small and medium-sized companies, is the investment in the energy efficiency of buildings. This would have a beneficial effect on both the job market and the traditional crafts industry.
The public sector spends a lot of money on subsidising the development of renewable energies, but the money mainly goes abroad. One example are solar panels, which are not built in Luxembourg even not in Europe anymore. I want to encourage the use of renewable energies, but consumers and industries should get their energy at the lowest possible price. If this were not the case, consumers’ purchasing power and companies’ competitiveness would both decline.
What role should Europe play?
Europe should play a greater role on the international stage because there is money to be made on « our » Continent. There are a lot of people with financial capital who are showing interest in investing in the Luxembourg economy. At the same time, other important regions of the world like Asia and Latin America remain on our radar. But our primary goal should be to strengthen the European economy.
You have joined the Government without having been elected. Will you stand for election in 2014?
There is a big handicap I am facing. My mandate only lasts two and a half years because I have been appointed in the middle of the current legislative period. My sense of honour compels me to run for office in the 2014 election. People need to get a chance to evaluate the work I have been doing. If I am not re-elected I don’t think I will become a civil servant again. Maybe, I will do something completely different. I need a new challenge from time to time.
So, do you foresee other endeavors besides politics in your future?
I don’t want to end up in a situation where I have to shake people’s hands for 25 years in order to get re-elected. I have already been told several times that my frankness could get me into trouble. I do not intend to change my personality.
Interview: EK & CW