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Belgium welcomes Tshisekedi’s efforts to fight corruption – Sophie Wilmès

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Wednesday, 9 June 2021 10:59

New Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes is sworn in by Belgian King Philippe at the Royal Palace in Brussels, Belgium October 1, 2020. Danny Gys/Pool via REUTERS

Seven months after her appointment as Belgian minister for foreign affairs, European affairs, foreign trade and federal cultural institutions, Sophie Wilmès spoke to us about the country’s three-pronged ‘Diplomacy, Development, Defence’ approach towards the African continent.

Wilmès previously served as prime minister of Belgium for a period of one year under a caretaker government. The 46-year-old leader, who is also the deputy prime minister, is settling into her new role. In the interview below, she speaks about the agenda that Belgium has set to strengthen relations with Africa.

You were appointed foreign minister a few months ago. What roadmap have you developed for Africa?

Sophie Wilmès: We are committed to our neighbour’s peaceful development. Our coalition agreement has identified two priority areas of attention for Belgium’s Africa policy: the Great Lakes region and the Sahel.

We have a long-standing connection with the former, whereas our relations with the latter are more recent and related to the region’s growing instability, which has sparked concern in Europe. Belgium continues to assist international efforts undertaken in the Sahel after taking part in Operation Serval in 2013.

Expert discussions are underway to find the most appropriate solution. We are open to dialogue with our African partners.

We also plan to deepen our relations with North African states. Finally, it’s extremely important that we shore up our African-EU relations by establishing a strategic global partnership between the African Union and the EU.

Does the Belgian foreign ministry still use the 3D (Diplomacy, Development, Defence) approach, as has been the policy in recent years?

The 3D approach was reinforced in 2017 when Belgium decided to take a comprehensive approach to foreign policy, to effectively respond to the often complex situations that call for greater coordination and synchronisation.

This strategy is applicable outside the realm of foreign affairs, though our ministry continues to be the centre of gravity for its day-to-day implementation. We are using the 3D approach in the Sahel – perhaps there more than anywhere else – to address the multiple factors of instability in the region.

How has Belgium expanded its presence in Africa?

In recent years, Belgium has significantly enhanced its presence in West Africa where it opened new embassies, including one in Guinea. The Belgian army has increased its military involvement in the Sahel, that is now its largest centre of operations overseas.

Our economic ties have also strengthened. South Africa is still our top trade partner on the continent, but our trade with ECOWAS member countries is expanding, especially with:

Côte d’Ivoire – where we sent a large trade delegation in 2017 and Senegal – where a delegation is being organised for 2022, though Covid-19 may impact our plans.

With regards to development cooperation, all of Belgium’s partner countries (except for Palestine) are in Africa. We have an extensive presence in the DRC, of course, where I was fortunate to be part of the reopening of Belgium’s consulate general in Lubumbashi in 2020 while serving as prime minister. I was the first Belgian head of government to visit the country in 10 years.

How are Belgium’s relations with the DRC?

Belgium welcomes President Félix Tshisekedi’s efforts to enact reforms that benefit the people of the DRC. We agree with his analysis of the security situation in the eastern part of the country, the state of the economy and public finances and the steps that need to be taken to fight corruption and impunity. We are working very closely with the Congolese authorities to see how best to support them.

Since he took office, the DRC’s head of state has shown willingness to dialogue with the international community. His working visit in 2019 resulted in a series of agreements that revived cooperation in finance and defence. We hope that the bilateral investment treaty will be ratified soon, as it would send a positive signal to Belgian investors in the DRC.

What is Belgium’s position on the Duclert report that released findings from investigations into France’s involvement in the Rwandan genocide?

The report is a major effort to critically examine the past, but its scope is limited to France’s role. Belgium completed its own investigation into this tragic time in history.

After 18 months of work by a parliamentary commission of inquiry, Belgium’s senate produced an in-depth report in 1997 that reveals certain shortcomings on our part. In 2000, my predecessor, Guy Verhofstadt, issued a public apology to Rwanda.

Like France, Belgium is working on repatriating artworks to Africa. What progress is being made on that front?

Expert discussions are underway to find the most appropriate solution. We are open to dialogue with our African partners.

Various avenues are being explored, with a particular focus on the DRC’s 61st anniversary of the independence day celebration. I hope that some of the initiatives under assessment will pan out by 30 June.

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