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Is Belgium searching new diplomatic relationships with Africa?

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Friday, 28 May 2021 10:38

lexander De Croo, now Belgium’s prime minister, visiting Kinshasa on 6 February 2020. BENOIT DOPPAGNE / Belga via AFP

After more than a year of waiting, Belgium has had a full government headed by Alexander De Croo since October 2020. Now is the perfect opportunity to relaunch a diplomatic policy that has been on the back burner for the past few months and that seems to focus on the past in order to establish its future relationship with the continent.

Ungovernable, Belgium? The country has, in fact, had a full government since 1 October 2020, one which has been led by the liberal prime minister Alexander De Croo. However, Belgium didn’t have a fully-fledged federal government until almost 500 days – 493 to be exact – after the results of the 26 May 2019 parliamentary elections were announced.

This is less than during the 2010-2011 crisis, when the country was without a prime minister for 541 days. However, the hardest part is yet to come for the first Flemish-born head of government in 10 years. This is because De Croo will have to deal with a coalition made up of seven parties, which perfectly represents how fractured the Belgian political landscape has become ever since the previous centre-right government broke up at the end of 2018.

The “Four Seasons” in action

Belgium’s traditional parties, which had been losing ground, managed to agree – under constant pressure from the royal palace – on a government made up of four political ideologies: liberal, socialist, ecologist as well as the Christian Democratic and Flemish party.

This was done in an attempt to counteract the rise of the far-right and reward the environmentalists who had done well in the last federal elections. Croo has had the difficult task of setting the actions of this mosaic, which the Belgian press has dubbed “Vivaldi”, to music. The finance minister of the previous government will be able to rely on support from his predecessor to accomplish this assignment.

Sophie Wilmès, who is also a liberal, is now deputy prime minister and has taken over the well-stocked portfolio of foreign and European affairs, foreign trade and federal cultural institutions. “This is in recognition of her much appreciated work during the year she spent at the head of the current affairs government,” says a Belgian insider. She has been praised, in particular, for her management of the Covid-19 crisis, which quickly became an important item on her successor’s agenda.

Evasive communication

Belgium has not been very active on the diplomatic front ever since the departure of Didier Reynders, who served as the country’s foreign affairs minister for eight years and is now the European Commissioner for Justice. Wilmès, who has taken over from the inexperienced Philippe Goffin, is both Belgium’s first female foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister. She is also the same age as her prime minister, who is 45 years old.

According to a European observer in Brussels, Wilmès “hasn’t been very active so far.” Nor have her services, which prefer to complain on social media about the embarrassment caused by “sofagate” to former prime minister Charles Michel, rather “than giving their thoughts on the latest events in the DRC or on the conclusions of the report published in France on Rwanda,” says a Belgian journalist.

In fact, the Africa of today is the result of its poor parents “considering what Belgium’s past involvement on the continent may have been,” says our observer. Faithful to its three-dimensional doctrine (diplomacy, defence, development) in terms of foreign relations, Belgium seems to have focused its attention mainly on the Sahel, where its army has been present alongside the French since Operation Serval in 2013.

In regards to the rest of the continent, “Brussels delegates a lot to Brussels,” says our European diplomat. This has especially been the case ever since Bernard Quintin, Goffin’s former cabinet director, was appointed deputy director-general for Africa at the European External Action Service.

“Making peace”

Even in the DRC, Belgium does not really seem to be taking advantage of the good relations it has regained with its former colony since Félix Tshisekedi was elected president in January 2019. The only important issue on Wilmès’ desk is to organise the repatriation of Patrice Lumumba’s remains to Kinshasa, which forms an integral part of the DRC’s 61st anniversary of independence day celebrations in June.

This is a highly sensitive subject that Belgium is trying to handle with care. According to ministry officials, King Philippe’s visit, which was to be the first by a Belgian sovereign since Albert II came in 2010 to mark the country’s 50th anniversary, has been canceled “so as not to risk overshadowing the event.”

Furthermore, the Commission Parlementaire Vérité et Réconciliation, which was tasked with “making peace with the country’s colonial past” back in July 2020, has still not delivered its conclusions, even though it was scheduled to do so on 3 March.

These conclusions will also help the Belgian government make informed decisions regarding the restitution of artworks. All of these measures have been undertaken with the aim of establishing Africa and Belgium’s future relationship, without forgetting their shared past.

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