Council President Michel tells African leaders a changed Europe wants new ties

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The issue of Europe’s colonization of Africa remains a highly sensitive subject | Kenzo Tribouillard/ AFP via Getty Images

In speech, Council president says 22 EU countries did not have colonies and new leaders ‘are not hampered by the burden of nostalgia.’

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Europe and Africa have changed and should forge a post-colonial relationship focused on the shared challenges of global warming and the digital revolution, European Council President Charles Michel told African leaders Sunday night.

Speaking at a state dinner organized by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for leaders attending the African Union’s annual summit, Michel said that most EU countries never even had colonies.

“This changing Europe is looking at Africa with fresh eyes — with respect, optimism and confidence,” Michel said, according to a transcript provided by his office.

Michel, a former PM of Belgium, is not participating in the formal summit, but is among several leaders, including prime ministers Erna Solberg of Norway and Justin Trudeau of Canada, who came to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital and home of the the African Union headquarters, to meet with their counterparts on the sidelines.

Abiy, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending Ethiopia’s long conflict with neighboring Eritrea, invited all the leaders to his dinner.

Michel, addressing the assembled crowd, congratulated Abiy on the peace prize, and expressed his “affection” for Africa.

“I am here today to bear witness to a metamorphosis of this continent but also that of Europe,” Michel said. “Your northern neighbor is changing. I am here tonight to speak for 27 European countries. Twenty-two of them never had any colonies. A new generation of leaders is coming to power. They are not hampered by the burden of nostalgia.”

Michel added, “We want to look towards the future, and to our neighbors. We want to tackle climate change and the digital revolution. The two major challenges we are all facing.”

It was unclear which five EU countries Michel was referring to as former colonizers, as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all had colonies in Africa, as did the U.K., which left the EU at the end of last month.

The event was not open to the press, and it was not immediately apparent how African leaders reacted to Michel’s remarks. Niger’s delegation to the EU tweeted out a part of the speech in which Michel said, “Europe reaches out to Africa to co-write the new pages of an optimistic and positive common future.”

The issue of Europe’s colonization of Africa remains a highly sensitive subject. Last year, when Michel was still the Belgian prime minister, a United Nations working group issued a report that found “endemic racism” in the country’s government institutions that it traced to its colonial past. The working group issued a long series of recommendations that included urging Belgium to “issue an apology for the atrocities committed during colonization.”

The Belgian government issued a response in which it acknowledged modern-day racism but disputed the direct link to colonialism, calling it “an oversimplification.” In its reply, the government wrote: “Belgium is coming to terms with its colonial past, which is a gradual and ongoing process.”

In his speech, Michel did not address specific issues related to Belgium, but spoke of Europe as a whole.

“Europe wants to speak up on the international stage, where its values inspire its actions,” he said. “This changing Europe is looking at Africa with fresh eyes — with respect, optimism and confidence. Africa is vibrant, full of the energy of youth and it is buzzing with new technology. A continent of opportunities: that is what Europe sees.”

Michel said both continents should be ready for a fresh start.

“For a long time, Europe remained trapped in an outdated view of this continent,” he said. “Africa, too, has at times cultivated a kind of ambiguity in its relationship with Europe.”

And he closed his remarks by looking to the future.

“We are at the dawn of a new decade,” he said. “We are ready to exchange, share and cooperate. Long live the alliance between Europe and Africa.”

This article was updated with additional information.

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