Blondes v Brunettes: how property developers divided up Luxembourg’s European School

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This week the European School Non-Discrimination Campaign (ESNDC), a group of parents at Luxembourg’s new ‘Lux II’ school built outside of the city’s limits, have lodged and administrative appeal with the Chambre de Recours, a court specifically created to deal with disputes concerning the European School system.

The parents allege discrimination on grounds of language, nationality, ethnic origin, property status and sex. They and their children face much longer commutes and are therefore more tired and have less leisure time and family life. Because of the distance between work and school, the parents find it much harder to participate in extra-curricular activities, and so their children can’t do them. Unlike their European School I peers, daytime school concerts and parent-teacher meetings are also a thing of the past.

To try to make up for some of the lost time, many parents have changed their working conditions, reducing their hours (and their salaries) to 80% or 90%. Others have converted some of their working day to tele-working to provide some flexibility. For many who use the bus services and for everyone who uses their car, no compensation has been offered for the additional transport costs. The new school is heavily policed, partly because of a drug-dealing problem at the nearby secondary school. Large numbers of security and surveillance staff have been recruited to reduce the risks caused to young children by the transport issues and by the structure of the new school which, because of its lack of enclosure and the presence of multiple flights of steps, is inherently unsuitable for young children.

Many parents assigned to the new school have already withdrawn their children. If they can afford it they have transferred to private schools: if they can’t, to national schools, which only works if the children speak good French, but is too tough a change otherwise.

Against the wishes of the parents, the children at the original Kirchberg site of the European School have been segregated ‘vertically’, according to language and residential status. Those from a less-favoured set of south-eastern European Member States have been sent to the new out-of-town school. Those who speak a set of favoured languages remain at the site where most of their parents work at the EU institutions. As of this September, if you are blond you are more likely to attend the ‘Lux I’ school in Kirchberg – it has been reserved essentially for children who speak Finnish and its neighbouring languages – Swedish, the Baltic languages, Polish, Dutch and Flemish. Curiously, the deputy headmaster of the school at the time of the favoured-less favoured division, and who is currently the General Secretary of the European Schools, is Finnish.

On the other hand, if you are brunette you are more likely to be assigned to the ‘Lux II’ site – i.e. if you are from Italy, Greece, Hungary, Romania or from the post-Yugoslav states.

To soften this fair-dark complexion divide, a group of so-called ‘vehicular languages’ (English, French and German) is based at both sites. The criterion for dividing these ‘vehicular’ children is whether you happen to live in the expensive proximities of Kirchberg or in more distant locations where lower paid workers seek affordable accommodation. The ‘vehicular’ children of those lower-paid workers now face daily commutes of up to 3 hours in order to get to the Lux II site.

A further blurring of the hair-colour divide has been achieved by allowing Iberians to stay at Kirchberg: the enormous Portuguese population in Luxembourg means they have a lot of clout in local politics. In a gesture of balance and fairness, one Nordic language had to be sacrificed to the out-of-town site, so the fair Danes paid the price of having no political clout.

How could this have happened, given that the EU is supposed to promote equality and solidarity?

For many years the EU institutions put pressure on the Luxembourg government to build a second European School to cater for the growing number of EU workers in the city. The natural site for that second school was opposite the original school, where there is nothing but rolling fields. Instead, the Luxembourg government, and property developers close to it, saw the need for a new school as a huge development opportunity. It proposed a site in Mamer, a neighbouring town.

The parents protested but were ignored. The new site was accepted by the EU institutions, even though this contravened the Decision of the Member States of 8 April 1965, confirmed in Edinburgh in 1992, according to which Luxembourg EU institutions (the Commission provides the after-school care services) have to be located within the city limits. To make matters worse, the Luxembourg government insisted on a vertical split of the school children, because the property developers needed young children at the site: by locating crèche, pre-school, primary school and after-school care facilities there, they knew that this would force those families who could afford it to move into the area, driving up property prices and facilitating the financing of new apartment blocks.

In 2004 parents at the school brought an action against these decisions and argued that, if the site could not be changed, it should be reserved for secondary school children, to prevent discrimination and minimise the impact on the quality of life of EU workers. They argued for a ‘horizontal’ split of the school, so that all EU staff and their children could enjoy the benefits of a junior school in Kirchberg while sharing the manageable problems posed by a senior school far from their place of work. There would be no need to move to Mamer because older children did not need to be accompanied to school. In other words, they wanted all EU workers and their children to be treated equally, regardless of nationality, language… or hair colour.

That action was rejected by Chambre de Recours on grounds of inadmissibility. The court said that it could not second-guess the wisdom of the European institutions that had agreed to the site and the ethnic division of the children. Believing that there was nothing to be done, the children were then split according to a set of obscure ‘criteria’ that resulted in the current north-south segregation.

Since then, parents assigned to Lux I have grown comfortable with the ‘acquired rights’ of their favoured status. The more affluent parents assigned to Lux II, who tend to hold higher-grade positions because they have been around for longer, bought property near Mamer, confident that its value would soar as more and more people need to move there. Because of their seniority, they also tend to hold representative positions in the parents’ association and staff committees. This has given rise to a bizarre situation where they pay lip service to the discrimination problem but resolutely refuse to assist those recently-arrived parents who are trying to doing something about it. Instead of confronting the discrimination, those senior representatives prefer to focus solely on transport solutions, effectively ‘transporting’ the problem of Mamer onto the backs of parents who have young children there. The unspoken, undisclosed reality is that they are more concerned about the value of their Mamer properties, where land is currently valued at around EUR 100,000/are. If the campaigning parents are successful, they fear that this could halt the property boom and possibly even send it into a deflationary cycle, particularly as Luxembourg technically entered into recession last week.

The net result is that if you have a young family and are thinking of moving to Luxembourg to take up a job with the EU, this prospect is much more attractive if you speak one of the ‘blond’ languages. If you are a single parent from the south east of Europe, forget about it. You will never be able to afford to live near the site and a sustainable work-life balance cannot be achieved.

The situation is not hopeless, however. The main trade unions at the institutions, which are not as affected conflicts of interest issue caused by property, all support the campaigning parents. Recent case-law at the Chambre de Recours suggests that a discrimination claim may now be admissible: equal rights provisions set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union have become enforceable, positive law and, in theory, all EU citizens must have access to an effective means to enforce those rights.

The parents hope that someday, and sooner rather than later, the Luxembourg European School will again be able to live up to its founding principles, expressed 60 years ago in the words of Marcel Decombis, the first headmaster of Luxembourg I:

‘Educated side by side, untroubled from infancy by divisive prejudices, acquainted with all that is great and good in the different cultures, it will be borne in upon them as they mature that they belong together. Without ceasing to look to their own lands with love and pride, they will become in mind Europeans, schooled and ready to complete and consolidate the work of their fathers before them, to bring into being a united and thriving Europe.