Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
It’s not just public transit: The Grand Duchy’s progressive new government also raised the minimum wage and gave everyone two extra days off.
Luxembourg rarely gets much international attention. But last week, the government of the Rhode-Island-sized nation-state made some dramatic policy announcements. Last Thursday, a new ruling coalition announced that the landlocked Grand Duchy would be the first country in the world (just ahead of Estonia) to make its public transit entirely free at point of use.
If that groundbreaking announcement weren’t enough, the coalition also confirmed that it would boost Luxembourg’s monthly minimum wage by €100 ($114), give everyone two more days off a year, and legalize recreational cannabis by 2023.
(Let’s pause here to Google Luxembourgian immigration policy.)
That’s quite an alluring package of innovations to bring out in one go, especially if you hate driving and love weed. But Luxembourg, a nation of 600,000 that’s bordered by Belgium, Germany, and France, is not going to be transformed overnight into a stoner wonderland. On all these policy areas, it’s been quietly moving in these directions for some time.
Right now, for example, public transit is practically free: A two-hour ticket on the railways costs €2 (or €3 in first class), while an all-day pass costs €4. Young people and students, meanwhile, already travel free. These nominal charges only generate €30 million of revenue annually for a system that costs a little under €1 billion to run, so it’s no great leap to dispense with charging at point of use altogether. Dispensing with the need for tickets also cuts the costs incurred selling and checking them, and the revenue shortfall will be partly recouped by cancelling a commuter subsidy. The hope is that the law will ultimately pay off in other ways, by reducing direct costs for citizens and getting cars off the road when they travel.
The minimum-wage raise and extra holidays, meanwhile, might sound like populist pie in the sky to Americans. But in Luxembourg, it’s just an extra cherry on top of an already generous layer cake of progressive working conditions. Working weeks are already short (an average of 1,512 working hours per year in 2015, compared to 1,783 in the U.S. and 1,676 in the U.K.) and conditions especially flexible. Creating a new national holiday and adding a day to the country’s statutory minimum will bring the total number of days off employees must receive (excluding national holidays) up to 26. With the total national holidays now at 11 days, that means all Luxembourg workers can expect 37 paid days off a year. And the minimum wage in Luxembourg is already quite high. With different minimum categories depending on age and qualification, its current lowest rate for workers over 18 is €2,084.54 ($2,364) a month.
The government nonetheless has some pretty firm grounds for believing that more time off and money will not harm the economy, one in which banking, steel, and general manufacturing are the most significant sectors. That’s because, over the past decade, Luxembourg has twice been named as the country with the highest productivity rate in the world. Generous pay and long vacations seem to mean that, when Luxembourgers do get to work, they get a lot done.
As for cannabis, it is not necessarily the case that Luxembourg is a wildly permissive place. Instead, it’s a cosmopolitan, thoroughly multinationally integrated country. Only just over half the country’s residents are native-born Luxembourgers; the rest come mainly from other E.U. states (notably, at around 18 percent of the total population, Portugal). Overall, the impression the country gives is one of provincial moderation, a dependable kind of place of (often very beautiful) wooded hills and valleys interspersed with solidly built, workaday small towns and cities. A constitutional monarchy, the country’s motto is anything but radical: “We Want To Stay What We Are” (Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sinn in Luxembourgish, a Germanic language very close to the regional dialects spoken just across the German border).
Luxembourg’s small size (just under 1,000 square miles) probably enforces a certain degree of pragmatism. Squeezed on three sides by Belgium, Germany, and France, it has unmonitored, open borders. Indeed, some towns in western Belgium function to a degree as commuter suburbs for workers in Luxembourg City, and people travel to and fro across the border without really thinking about it. The Netherlands and its famous weed tolerance are only a few hours drive away—indeed, as CityLab reported back in 2012, residents in Dutch border cities such as Maastricht have at times resented the nuisance attached to their roles as cannabis distribution-points for Belgian, German, and Luxembourgish users.
So it makes a lot of sense to formally cease pumping national resources into policing users of this increasingly widely available substance. Luxembourg hasn’t yet pinned down the exact regime through which weed will be liberalized. But, given the place’s placid culture, drug use is unlikely to turn the wee state into some vaporous stew of hedonists. Having said that, if some Luxembourgers do decide to use their extra days off and raised wages to get baked, at least they will now have some entirely free views from the train to take in as they do so.