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.
It 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.
“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.”
Entourage is key
So when Philippe ascended to the throne in 2013, Belgium braced for the worst, especially with the country headed for another election in 2014. But his first speech as king proved to be a turning point, earning him praise for speaking with confidence and respect about the sensitivities of both Flanders and Wallonia, the country’s fractious Flemish-speaking and French-speaking regions.
After the 2014 elections, Philippe succeeded fairly quickly in forming a government, though the coalition he helped build was so unprecedented — it had no majority in the French-speaking part of Belgium — that it was at first called the “kamikaze government.”
That success has been mostly attributed to Philippe’s entourage, most notably to his first chief of staff, Frans van Daele. One of Belgium’s most eminent diplomats and the former right-hand-man of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, van Daele’s experience wrangling EU leaders seemed to prove useful in Belgian politics.
The palace spokesperson, Rafike Yilmaz, makes sure reporters are told how to interpret the subtle political messages the king gives in speeches, while at the same time providing details on the queen’s outfits.
Van Daele declined to take credit. “For years, King Philippe has been underestimated,” he told POLITICO. “His own input was crucial for his successful start. And don’t forget he’s the one who carefully selected his own entourage.”
Philippe’s experience leading economic missions and state visits had allowed him to build an “up-to-date” and wide-ranging network of people to pick from, said Vincent Dujardin, professor of contemporary history at UCLouvain. “Creating a Cabinet is one of the few remaining powers our king has — and he has been very careful to keep a strict balance in terms of political plurality.”
It’s this new team that has burnished Philippe’s once tarnished image. Belgians now see him as a king who is (literally) close to his people, as he cycles the streets of Brussels or flies to Brazil to cheer Belgium’s football team. The media often portrays him as a devoted father, who takes his children to school and calls when he’s abroad. His handlers are also keen to show him as a man of flesh and blood, sweating when he runs a half-marathon in Brussels or breaking the waves as he kitesurfs on the North Sea.
The palace has also tried to shrug off its reputation as a fortified building full of mysteries. Political meetings have been moved from the palace in Laeken in outer Brussels to the palace in the city center, where it’s easier to film handshakes and where citizens can catch a glimpse of the royals.
The palace spokesperson, Rafike Yilmaz — crowned spokesperson of the year by Belgian journalists in the category “behind the scenes” — makes sure reporters are told how to interpret the subtle political messages the king gives in speeches, while at the same time providing details on the queen’s outfits.
The queen, Mathilde, has been crucial for the rising popularity of the royal family. Whereas Philippe can be a little stiff, Mathilde comes across as more accessible, an easy conversationalist capable of making visitors feel welcome and at ease.
“A king is not just head of state, but also head of nation,” van Daele said. “A part of a king’s role is to sympathize with your nation and to gain a sense of trust. His marriage with Queen Mathilde has played a tangible part in that.”
That second part of his job — king of a nation — is proving to be the trickiest.
After all, he’s head of state of a country that has been in a political deadlock since elections in May 2019. The future of his country — and, to a limited extent, his own job — depends on the country’s politicians finding a way out of the stalemate. It might not be Philippe’s job to govern, but it is his job to ensure proper governance.
As in the United Kingdom, there’s a strong consensus in Belgium that the monarch should stay out of politics. But the prohibition does not apply when there’s no government. Whereas the British queen does not get involved in coalition building and only ceremoniously appoints the prime minister, the Belgian king has a key role in the forming of a new government.
It’s at that time when his political power is at its height — and at the same time, at its most vulnerable. The palace is well aware that the Netherlands in 2012 chose to limit the head of state’s role in government formation.
In cases where political parties struggle to come to an agreement (an increasingly common occurrence in Belgium), it is the king’s job to try to forge an agreement. As part of the process, the king invites political leaders for colloque singulier, private meetings held under conditions of strict secrecy.
“It’s not an easy job,” said a Belgian political leader, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He manages to ask the right questions, gets a sense of all our sensitivities and tries to make a decision that is best for the stability of the country.”
Philippe has taken a different approach from that of his father, who was often criticized for not giving the Flemish nationalists a fair chance. Philippe even invited the far-right Vlaams Belang for consultations at the palace after they became the second biggest party in Flanders last May. The invitation caused uproar in the French-speaking part of Belgium, but the palace defended the move by saying that ignoring them would have been met with incomprehension in Flanders.
In contrast to his father, who always kept his chief of staff next to him during audiences, Philippe speaks to politicians alone, “I felt him concerned, a little worried, committed and constructive. These interviews are well prepared — he has background information about you before you arrive,” said François De Smet, leader of the French-speaking nationalist party Défi, after his audience with the king.
So far, more than a year after the 2019 election, Philippe has yet to find a stable coalition — Prime Minister Wilmès heads an emergency government given provisional powers during the coronavirus crisis. But few blame him for the impasse.
The end of Belgium
The reaction to Phillippe’s letter to the Congo highlights the challenge facing the monarch: What if Belgium’s needs are too big to solve?
While the move was broadly welcomed by most Belgian politicians, among Flemish far-right nationalists it served as yet another reason to complain about the Walloons.
“The Flemish people had nothing to do with Belgium’s colonial history,” said Wouter Vermeersch, a member of the Belgian parliament for Vlaams Belang. “It was the royal family and the French-speaking haute finance who were responsible. If someone has to pay for mistakes in the past, it’s them.”
Flemish nationalists recognize the monarch’s role as a factor of stability and the king’s importance in promoting economic interests abroad.
The political impasse — one of the most complicated in the country’s complicated history — has revived questions about the future of Belgium. The country’s quarreling regions aren’t just linguistic rivals, they’re moving quickly apart politically.
Flanders votes more to the right, and Wallonia further to the left. The country was already sinking into debt before the crisis, and the coronavirus will lead to a deficit of €42 to €50 billion, or 10 to 12 percent of the country’s GDP. This doesn’t make it easier to get parties around the table, said Dujardin, the UCLouvain professor.
Flemish nationalists advocate for a deep overhaul of the country’s governing structure, which would gut national authority and give more power to the regions. The coronavirus was for them yet another sign that the relationship with the Walloons has run its course.
Philippe’s fans can console themselves with the fact that his crown does not necessarily depend on his success in keeping the country together. Greater Flemish autonomy wouldn’t necessarily make him the last king of the Belgians.
Flemish nationalists recognize the monarch’s role as a factor of stability and the king’s importance in promoting economic interests abroad. Few in the country are eager to brave the disruption splitting the country would entail.
Separating Belgium would be like 10,000 Brexits, said De Smet, the leader of Défi. “It would reverberate an awful message across Europe if we can’t hold together a small country with three languages and 11 million inhabitants!”
The situation might look hopeless now, but Philippe is not yet out of options to end the political deadlock. New elections are still a possibility, as is another emergency government. As former Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens said: “Belgium is tougher than one thinks.”
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