Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

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?"

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

Human rights abusers to face EU blacklists

Human rights abusers worldwide will, in future, face EU asset freezes and travel bans under new-model sanctions agreed by foreign ministers in Brussels.

Guns blaze in Ukraine as leaders meet in Paris

Hundreds of explosions and bursts of small arms fire were reported on the contact line in east Ukraine, as France prepares to host the first peace summit on the war in three years.

Feature

Russia makes big promises to Arctic peoples on expansion

The Arctic future conference kicked off with optimistic presentations by ministers and officials of the Russian government — but also a burst of scepticism from representatives of those actually living in Russia's Arctic and Far East regions.

Macron spars with US and Turkey over Nato

French president Emmanuel Macron clashed with US president Donald Trump and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan over Nato, as the future of the alliance begins to fray following Ankara's invasion into north-east Syria in October.

Doubts over using EU 'peace fund' to supply arms to Africa

EU ambassadors met behind closed doors in Brussels to discuss the possibility of providing arms and ammunition to foreign armies in conflict areas like Mali. Not all were impressed by French-German support for a new EU 'peace fund'.

News in Brief

  1. Orban wants bill to tighten grip over theatres
  2. Dutch reduce terror threat level for first time since 2013
  3. Russia banned from Olympics over doping scandal
  4. EU agrees future human rights sanctions
  5. Greens demand Zahradil conflict of interest probe
  6. EU commission to 'correct mistake' on enlargement
  7. Luxembourg pushes EU to recognise Palestine
  8. Minister: 'All Brussels kids should be trilingual at 18'

Magazine

EU diplomacy 2.0

MEPs on the foreign affairs committee ought to be like second-tier EU diplomats on the Western Balkans and Russia, according to its German chairman, but foreign policy splits could bedevil its work.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us