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King Leopold II statue in Brussels
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Welcome to This Week in Europe, a new series on All Abroad. Every Friday brings you a rundown of the biggest or most interesting stories in Europe from the week.

Belgium sends regrets to the Congo

July 1 was the 60th anniversary of independence for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The ruling monarch of Belgium, King Philipe, sent a letter to DRC president Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo expressing regrets for Belgium’s colonial legacy in the country.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have sparked similar demonstrations across Europe and Belgium. Belgium’s colonialism and commemorative statues have come under fire. While King Philippe stopped short of a full apology, he did express his “deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is now revived by the discrimination still too present in our societies.”

King Philippe speaking at the ILO
King Philippe of Belgium speaking at the International Labour Organization in 2019.
Attribution: photo by International Labour Organization shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Protestors like 14-year-old Noah think more should be done. Noah has thousands of signatures on his petition to take down statues of Leopold II. In Antwerp earlier this month, protestors vandalized a statue of Leopold II. The city then took it down. Leopold II owned the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 and committed heinous atrocities against millions of Congolese people.

Many have criticized Belgium for racism in the past, for having been tone-deaf to its imperialist history. Teaching Belgium’s history in the Congo isn’t compulsory in Belgian schools’ curricula. Additionally, a UN human rights expert who toured Belgium last year saw “clear evidence that racial discrimination is endemic in institutions in Belgium.”

Some see King Phillippe’s letter to the DRC as a good step forward, others think it’s not enough. Either way, it still signifies a shift in the Belgian state’s attitude toward its past – especially from the apolitical monarchy. Many are asking what comes next for Belgium and its colonial reckoning.

The EU releases its external travel list

On June 30, the EU agreed to start lifting travel restrictions on countries outside of the Union. Previously, only EU residents were allowed to enter and move about the Schengen Area. Fifteen countries made the first list, including Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay. The list includes China as well but only if China agrees to let EU residents across its borders.

The recommendation is non-binding; member-states can still determine their own travel policies. However, the Council and the Commission strongly suggest that member-states adopt the same measures, to ensure better organization and public safety.

The list caused controversy by leaving the United States off. The EU institutions used specific criteria to evaluate third countries and the U.S. didn’t make the cut. Turkey also expressed dismay at its exclusion from the list, thinking the EU made an error. The EU has stressed that it will revise the list every two weeks to account for changes in countries’ public health situations.

Related: The 12 Best European Affairs Podcasts

‘Green wave’ sweeps France

Environmental and green parties saw some success in Europe this week, thanks to large victories in France. The country held the second round of its municipal elections on Sunday, June 28. The environmentalist greens and their left-wing allies won in major cities like Strasbourg, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon. Some are heralding the green wave as a sign that French voters are ready for more serious action on climate change. But the results are more nuanced than that. There’s a divide between rural and urban areas, with large cities going more in favor of the green party than small towns. There’s also the matter of voter turnout, which was notably smaller for France this time around. Nearly 60 percent of voters stayed home for this round of elections.

The election results were also disappointing for French president Emmanuel Macron. His La République en Marche (LREM) party failed to capture any big cities. As a result, Macron could feel pressure to shift his agenda toward environmental policies for the rest of his term.

France felt another political shakeup this week as prime minister Eduoard Philippe resigned, Coronavirus point man Jean Castex replaced him. Analysts expected a reshuffling after the results of the municipal elections and rumors spread of a special court launching an investigation into top French officials over the handling of the coronavirus. Macron will look to reorient his administration’s focus over the remaining two years of his presidency, hoping to regain popular domestic support lost after the yellow vest movement and other labor reform protests.

Same-sex partnership legalized in Montenegro

Europe also had a victory for LGBT rights this week. Montenegro passed a bill on July 1, allowing same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples, except for child adoption. The new law makes Montenegro the first country in the Balkans to allow same-sex partnership. After the bill was first rejected in August 2019, LGBT groups and progressive policymakers worked to have it passed the second time around.

Montenegro has traditionally been a socially conservative country, where LGBT people have faced harassment. The country’s largest and influential religious groups were key in putting down the bill last August. Progressive politicians in Montenegro are pleased with the new bill. They see it as another step closer to joining the European Union. The protection of human rights is a critical requirement for EU integration.

Will the Hagia Sophia become a mosque again?

Another story making headlines in Europe this week comes from Turkey. The Hagia Sophia, the 1500-year-old architectural wonder in Istanbul, currently serves as a museum and not a place of worship. But that could change soon. This week, a legal challenge sits before Turkey’s highest administrative court to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The plans have the support of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has stood down calls from other countries, like Greece and the U.S., to keep the landmark secular.

Haga Sophia in Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Attribution: photo by Sauvageone shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Many experts speculate that President Erdoğan is politicizing the Hagia Sophia in an attempt to distract the public from the poor handling of the coronavirus in Turkey. Others point to the president’s ambitions to assert Turkish authority in the Arab world. The move will likely stoke the debate over cultural heritage. Should the Hagia Sophia remain a secular, universal treasure to be admired by everyone? Or does Turkey have the right to assert its religious nationalism over the monument? The Turkish court will decide in the next few weeks.

Featured image: The statue of Leopold II in Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Attribution: photo by Teddy Sipaseuth shared under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.