By speaking out about Belgium’s brutal colonial past, the country’s King Philippe took a gamble — and might have opened up a Pandora’s box.
On Tuesday, on the 60th anniversary of the Congo’s independence from Belgium, the monarch sent a letter to the Congolese president expressing his “deepest regret” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” that were committed in the Congo under Belgian occupation.
t was a surprising rupture with the royal tradition of silence on the country’s colonial history. Even though the Black Lives Matter protests had led to mounting pressure on the royal family to speak up, most expected the palace would wait at least until fall, when a new truth and reconciliation commission in the Belgian parliament is expected to start working on a report about the country’s colonial history.
But in the days leading up to the anniversary, the 60-year-old king realized he needed to acknowledge the suffering of the colonial period and so help to introduce a sort of calmness into the debate, people close to him told POLITICO, especially as this is one of the traditional roles of the king in Belgian society.
Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès confirmed to reporters at a celebration of the anniversary in Brussels that it was the king himself who initiated the idea of a personal letter expressing his regret, as an indirect descendent of Leopold II, the Belgian king who used the Congo as his personal fiefdom for several decades starting in the 1880s.
“Expressing regrets eludes the real issues at stake” — Gia Abrassart, founder of the Café Congo project
“This will surely be remembered as a milestone in his reign,” said Kalvin Soiresse Njall, a member of the Brussels parliament of African descent who applauded the move. “He’s creating a historic profile for himself.”
While Philippe’s letter was commended by most politicians and activists, the wider reaction reflects the sensitivity of the issue. Some have argued the king should have stayed out of the debate, while others say the regrets he conveyed this week are too little, too late.
Having crossed a line, Philippe is finding it’s not so easy to stop. He has already come under pressure to do more, putting him at risk of being drawn deeper into the highly charged political discussion.
“Expressing regrets eludes the real issues at stake,” said Gia Abrassart, founder of the Café Congo project. “These are not apologies. Without apologies, it will be very difficult to claim for memorial and financial compensations,” she said.
“It’s a very important first step,” said Wouter De Vriendt, a member of the Belgian parliament for the Greens. “But this can’t be a one-shot move. We have to move beyond this letter and engage in a discussion about formal apologies as a nation.”
‘He can’t do it’
Speaking out about the Congo was a bold move — but it was one the Belgian king could make because he has spent the past several years building political capital and popular support in the linguistically divided country.
That his advisers felt he was in a position to act is a reflection of how far he has exceeded expectations since ascending to the throne in 2013 — especially because so many feared he was not up to the job.
Two decades ago, Herman Liebaers, then the “grand marshal” in charge of the royal court, said in an interview about Philippe that “he just can’t do it.”
In the years before his father’s abdication handed him the crown, Philippe’s rigid public appearances were roundly mocked. After he criticized the far-right Vlaams Belang party in 2004, fears mounted over a “king with a mission.” Philippe said in an interview that Vlaams Belang wanted to destroy Belgium, but that he would make sure this didn’t happen. The interview was controversial, as Belgian royals are not supposed to state political preferences.
As recently as the beginning of the decade, when the 2010 parliamentary election left Belgium without a government for what was then a record-setting 589 days, some politicians admitted privately they were happy Philippe had not ascended to the throne, as they weren’t sure whether he could have handled the situation.
It wasn’t just politicians who had their doubts about the then-crown prince. Belgian media questioned his fitness to govern, and royal observers pointed to his difficult childhood; he was the oldest son of a difficult marriage, and by dint of his position was not permitted to take decisions on his future. King Boudewijn and Queen Fabiola, his uncle and aunt who have no children, took charge of his education after it became clear that Philippe would inherit the throne. He was required to finish high school at a boarding school in Flanders, where he found it difficult to make friends.
King Philippe has long struggled with coming off as awkward and stiff | Eric Lalmand/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images
“The childless couple Boudewijn and Fabiola have made Philippe into a caricature: the prince without character,” Barend Leyts, now spokesperson for European Council President Charles Michel, wrote in his biography of Philippe.
The Belgian royal family is just like any other family: It has its issues. Philippe’s father, Albert II, made headlines earlier this year when a DNA test confirmed he had fathered the artist Delphine Boël during an extramarital affair, which he had long denied.
The family’s relationship with Philippe’s youngest brother Prince Laurent has also been difficult, especially after the younger royal became embroiled in a controversy over Muammar Gaddafi’s unpaid debts. Earlier this month, Laurent reacted to the toppling of Leopold II’s statues during Black Lives Matter protests by defending his ancestor and claiming the monarch could not be held responsible, as he “never went to Congo.”