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Leopold II: Quick decision needed over whether to remove statues to Belgium's ex-king, says minister

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By Jack Parrock & Alice Tidey
A statue of Belgium's King Leopold II is defaced with the words 'shame' prior to a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Brussels, Sunday, June 7, 2020.
A statue of Belgium's King Leopold II is defaced with the words 'shame' prior to a Black Lives Matter protest rally in Brussels, Sunday, June 7, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photos

A very rapid decision is needed over whether to remove statues of Belgium's colonial-era king, Leopold II, Brussels' heritage minister has told Euronews.

Pascal Smet made the comments after tens of thousands signed a petition calling for monuments of King Leopold II to be withdrawn.

Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, is accused of exploiting what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo for his personal gain. The focus turned on him after protests over the death of George Floyd in the US spread to Europe.

"I'm going to put a note to the government tomorrow," Smet told Euronews. "You know that the Brussels parliament has asked the Brussels government and since I have heritage, I'm going to propose to the government tomorrow, next week at the latest, a working procedure in order to have this debate very quickly.

"I think we need a debate about it. You know it's a double debate. If you take the statue away, you will forget it, if you leave the statue, you have to contextualise it at the minimum.

"But, on the other hand, we don't place statues of other people who did not good things so that's the debate we do have to have and we will have it because I'm going to propose to the Brussels government a working group about it very soon.

"It has to come very rapidly with conclusions. What are we going to do with the statues of Leopold II in our city? What are we going to do with the street names that we still have on it and how are we going to remember the colonialism in what we did and the errors that have been done by Belgium in the past? How are we going to make that visible in our city? And, for example, I think a kind of memorial of a statue for the decolonisation is something that this city needs."

Smet's comments came after the Brussels city hall told Euronews that debate over the issue "should take place at the regional level" and not the municipal one because the statues belong to the Regie des Batiments, an independent public body tasked with managing state property.

But contacted by Euronews, the Regie des Batiments for the Brussels region said it only had two statues of King Leopold II in its portfolio and that "the issue of removing them or to make them more inclusive is first of all subject of a political discussion".

The Belgian capital is not the only city to be concerned.

Authorities in Antwerp, some 45 km north of Brussels, removed a statue of the controversial monarch on Tuesday after it was vandalised. A police investigation has been launched.

Johan Vermant, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, told Euronews that the statue was transferred to the Middelheim Open Air Museum to be restored.

"Because of the severity of the damage, it is difficult to say how long the restoration process will take," he said, adding that the statue was to be removed in 2023 "because of the renovation of the surrounding square".

He also highlighted that a new plaque had been added to the statue last year "explaining the historical context of the figure of Leopold II. The same has been done with several other relics from the colonial past."

The text of the plaque had been revised by experts from the Africa Museum of Brussels.

In Wallonia, a region just south of Brussels, Heritage Minister Valérie de Bue has indicated she's against removing statues of King Leopold II, with a spokesperson telling Euronews it would "be a way of denying history".

Instead, the minister is in favour of adding plaques to statues and other monuments that explain why they're controversial and for the country's colonial past to be better taught in school.

"It's important for this part of our history to be shared," the spokesperson told Euronews.