Belgian prime minister: 'We can't rewrite history on Africa'

Charles Michel, prime minister of Belgium. Photo by: Sarah Stacke / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s prime minister and former development chief, Charles Michel, has said Europe’s relationship with Africa must focus on the future, rather than dwelling on “feelings of guilt” about the past, during a public event in Brussels.

His comments, made in French, are likely to be controversial among those who claim that Europeans hold a special responsibility to improve the lives of people in places like the Congo, where Belgian colonial rule claimed millions of lives.

“We won’t be able to rewrite history,” Michel told a citizens’ forum in Europe’s de facto capital last week. “We can interpret history, we can analyze history, we can draw conclusions, but we won’t be able to rewrite history — fortunately, or unfortunately, with everything marvelous and tragic in the history of humanity.”

He added: “I want to see the relationship between Africa and the European Union turn to face the future, without nostalgia and without feelings of guilt. I think that African and European leaders must maturely create partnerships, so Africa succeeds in its development to have a bigger middle class, more prosperity, and stability. Some African countries are succeeding more than others at this. It’s in Europe’s interest that Africa does better in the economic and social spheres.”

The remarks were prompted by a question at a town hall-style meeting in the affluent suburb of Uccle, where Michel appeared with the local mayor to promote their liberal francophone party, Mouvement Réformateur, ahead of local elections in October. Before becoming prime minister in 2014, Michel was minister for development from Dec. 2007-Feb. 2011.

Belgium’s King Leopold II controlled Congo Free State — now the Democratic Republic of the Congo — from 1885 to 1908, using slave labor to plunder ivory, wild rubber, and palm oil, and seeing the deaths of millions during his rule through murder, starvation, exhaustion, and disease. The colony later became the Belgian Congo, under the governance of the Belgian state, until independence in 1960.

“We must consider history, specificities, cultural realities. We must have this understanding of Africa, which does not have the same history as the European continent.”

— Charles Michel, prime minister of Belgium

Asked for his opinion on Joseph Kabila — the incumbent president of DRC, who has drawn criticism from the international community for repeatedly postponing elections, which are now scheduled for December — Michel joked that he had deliberately avoided answering the question. Instead, he argued “that many African heads of state don’t feel that they are very supported by Belgium and Europe.”

“At the moment, there are diplomatic tensions between DRC and Belgium because we have taken positions through the ministry of foreign affairs, within the EU, in the framework of the United Nations, to really encourage, politically, the organization of elections in DRC to give legitimacy through the expression of universal suffrage,” Michel said.

What Africa lacks now is “strong engagement by all the African elites — not just political elites, but also economic and intellectual — to genuinely mobilize for governance, democracy, and the rule of law,” he added.

At the same time, there is no “one perfect model” of democracy, and “we must consider history, specificities, cultural realities,” he urged. “We must have this understanding of Africa, which does not have the same history as the European continent.”

The battle against corruption and the drive for good governance is shaping up as a prickly issue in the renegotiation of the official partnership agreement between the European Union and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific group of states. Talks are set to begin by the end of August after EU countries signed off on the bloc’s negotiating mandate last Friday.

Earlier this month, Louis Michel — Charles’ father and a former European commissioner for development and humanitarian aid, who once referred to King Leopold as a “visionary” whose actions in Congo should be understood in historical context — told a panel discussion in Brussels that governance issues are “already a big problem in the [EU-ACP] relationship and I think we have to be bold enough to say that.”

“Economic development and education also depend on governance,” Michel senior said. “So if the public powers in those states do not take on the role that they have then that will create a major problem.”

At the same event at the European Development Days conference, Stefano Manservisi, the director-general of the European Commission’s development department, cited the lack of progress in encouraging good governance as one of the “less positive” aspects of EU-ACP relations to date.

“There is a lot of truth” in criticism of the existing ACP partnership as outdated and reproducing an old, post-colonial reality, Manservisi added. But in an era where multilateralism is unfashionable, he said, “before giving up [on the ACP model] and saying ‘all this is useless,’ let’s think that this is the biggest group [of countries] in the world, that if we are able to structure it better ... it can change the world.”

But Patrick Gomes, ACP’s secretary general, said that good governance should be measured not only by the holding of elections, but also by the success of parliaments in making impactful laws. He cited the 2015 Mbeki report on illicit financial flows from Africa, which estimated the continent loses $50 billion each year through problems including commercial tax evasion, criminal activities, bribery, and theft by corrupt officials.

“Where does it end up?” Gomes said on the same EDD panel. “In European banks mainly, Swiss banks, so what are we doing together there? That’s why this partnership is strongly political, to address issues that are affecting the day-to-day lives of people.”

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.

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