Tuesday

28th Feb 2017

Ex-commissioner calls Congo's colonial master a 'visionary hero'

Louis Michel, the Belgian former EU development commissioner and current prominent Liberal MEP has shocked his home nation and its one-time central African subjects by calling King Leopold II, the Congo's colonial master responsible for between 3 million and 10 million deaths, a "visionary hero."

"Leopold II was a true visionary for his time, a hero," he told P-Magazine, a local publication, in an interview on Tuesday. "And even if there were horrible events in the Congo, should we now condemn them?"

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

In the late 19th Century, the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State, effectively the personal property of Leopold II, became infamous for the enslavement and brutal treatment of the Congolese people.

Estimates of the number killed while the region was plundered for its rich resources vary substantially, but researchers believe between 5 million and 20 million died.

"Leopold II does not deserve these accusations," continued Mr Michel, himself a descendent of the Belgian king and a "Knight, Officer and Commander" in the Order of Leopold, Belgium's highest honour.

"The Belgians built railways, schools and hospitals and boosted economic growth. Leopold turned the Congo into a vast labour camp? Really? In those days it was just the way things were done."

Admitting there were "irregularities," he said: "We can easily be tempted to exaggerate when it comes to the Congo ... I feel instinctively that he was a hero, a hero with ambitions for a small country like Belgium."

"To use the word 'genocide' in relation to the Congo is absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate. And yes, maybe colonisation was domineering and acquiring more power, but at a certain moment, it brought civilisation."

Having left the commission in 2009, the current executive washes its hands of what Mr Michel is now saying as a private individual and has refused to comment on his remarks.

The leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, also a Belgian, likewise did not want to comment on the issue.

Mr Michel himself was unavailable for comment.

Belgian politicians and commentators however were appalled at Mr Michel's words. Outgoing centre-right senator Pol Van Den Driessche of the Flemish Christian Democrats said Leopold's Congolese regime was "shameful"

"Of course there is the historical context in which all this happened," he told Het Nieuwsblad, a Belgian daily.. "But a great visionary? Absolutely not. What has happened then was shameful."

"If we measured him against 21st century standards, it is likely that Leopold would be hauled before the International Criminal Court in the Hague."

Looking at Mr Michel's legacy as an EU commissioner, one contact in the aid and development activist community said he: "tended to focus on the Congo and other regions with historic links to Belgium" and that "poverty eradication seemed to not always be at the heart of his work."

Another source noted that Mr Michel delivered an EU consensus on development co-operation in the mid-2,000s, "a very important achievement," but was "not very open to public debate and civil society."

Mr Michel is currently the vice-president of the EU's Joint Parliamentary Assembly with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the contemporary trade and political association linking Europe with most of its former colonies. Its next meeting will be held in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in December.

His controversial remarks come a week ahead of the visit of Belgium's current king, Albert II, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, celebrating 60 years of independence from the country. It will be the first such visit in 25 years.

Additionally this week, a group of legal activists has formally requested war-crimes charges be brought against 12 Belgian government officials allegedly responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, a left-winger which the CIA also attempted to murder, according to a US Senate investigation.

Feature

Armenia-Azerbaijan war: line of contact

“Front-line coffee is the best coffee in the world”, an Armenian soldier told EUobserver, with morale a key asset in the conflict.

Interview

The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: A refugee's story

The lynching of a woman in the Soviet Union in 1988 gives insight into why reconciliation remains so hard in the 30-year long war on Europe's eastern fringe.

News in Brief

  1. Le Pen party in new EU fraud allegations
  2. May to end rights of EU nationals after Article 50 triggered
  3. Nato warns against Armenia-Azerbaijan 'escalation'
  4. EU: No military solution to Nagorno-Karabakh war
  5. EU adopts visa-free brake mechanism
  6. Trump and Brexit drew on same resources
  7. Romanian protestors form EU flag at anti-government rally
  8. Over 3,500 attacks on refugees in Germany: report

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFA Deadly Journey for Children: The Migration Route From North Africa to Europe
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsFreedom of Association and Expression Under Threat in Kazakhstan
  3. QS World MBA TourMeet with Leading International Business Schools in Brussels on March 6th
  4. EURORDISJoin Rare Disease Day and Help Advocate for More Research on Rare Diseases
  5. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceStudents Who Are Considered Fit Get Better Grades in School
  6. QS World MBA TourMeet with Leading International Business Schools in Paris on March 4th
  7. Malta EU 2017Economic Governance: Agreement Reached on Structural Reform Support Programme for Member States
  8. Socialists & DemocratsWomen Have to Work Ten Years Longer to Match Lifetime Earnings of Men
  9. Counter BalanceTrans-Adriatic Pipeline Is a Major Risk for Banks, Warns New Analysis
  10. Martens CentreEU and US Migration Policies Compared: Join the Debate on February 28th
  11. Swedish EnterprisesTechnology and Data Flows - Shaping the Society of Tomorrow
  12. UNICEFNearly 1.4 Million Children at Risk of Death as Famine Looms Across Africa and Yemen