The precious and fragile norms of parliamentary questions

By Misch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

Be they a verbal slap in the face or a sober exchange: parliamentary questions are one of the few occasions when the government has to answer. Nevertheless, they are based above all on the goodwill of all parties to play by the rules. We talked to Chamber President Fernand Etgen and two opposition parties about this cornerstone of democracy.

Parliamentary questions are a comparatively civilised affair in Luxembourg: questions are asked by the representatives, answers are given by the ministers – often rather late – to be published and sent to the press. For the most part, everything is done according to the rules of good manners, says Chamber President Fernand Etgen (DP), to whom all questions are addressed before he forwards them to the ministers. Only occasionally do oddball questions or answers capture the public attention, for example when people ask what liquids water cannons spray or why Luxembourg has bought less vaccine than Germany.

But according to Myriam Cecchetti (déi Lénk) and Carole Weiler, Attachée Parlementaire of the Pirate Party, the indispensable tool of parliamentary control is not without its rough edges. For while the questions are checked for acceptability by the Chamber President, the content of the answers is subject to the whim of the ministers alone.

Good manners

It is worth taking a detour into the House of Commons of the United Kingdom to understand how far a system based on the goodwill can degrade when politicians suddenly decide to drop the facade of good manners.

Many readers will remember the turbulent Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) during Brexit, which were only barely kept on track by the charismatic Speaker of the House John Bercow. His role was more or less the same as that of the Luxembourg Chamber President: Questions were conveyed through him from parliament to government. Bercow's familiar battle cry of "Order!" may have faded since November 2019, when he was replaced by the more restrained Sir Lindsay Hoyle, but the uproar in the House of Commons has grown louder.

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