EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Louis Michel i, the Belgian former EU development commissioner and current prominent Liberal MEP has shocked his home nation and its one-time central African subjects by calling King Leopold II, the Congo's colonial master responsible for between 3 million and 10 million deaths, a "visionary hero."
"Leopold II was a true visionary for his time, a hero," he told P-Magazine, a local publication, in an interview on Tuesday. "And even if there were horrible events in the Congo, should we now condemn them?"
In the late 19th Century, the Belgian colony of the Congo Free State, effectively the personal property of Leopold II, became infamous for the enslavement and brutal treatment of the Congolese people.
Estimates of the number killed while the region was plundered for its rich resources vary substantially, but researchers believe between 5 million and 20 million died.
"Leopold II does not deserve these accusations," continued Mr Michel, himself a descendent of the Belgian king and a "Knight, Officer and Commander" in the Order of Leopold, Belgium's highest honour.
"The Belgians built railways, schools and hospitals and boosted economic growth. Leopold turned the Congo into a vast labour camp? Really? In those days it was just the way things were done."
Admitting there were "irregularities," he said: "We can easily be tempted to exaggerate when it comes to the Congo ... I feel instinctively that he was a hero, a hero with ambitions for a small country like Belgium."
"To use the word 'genocide' in relation to the Congo is absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate. And yes, maybe colonisation was domineering and acquiring more power, but at a certain moment, it brought civilisation."
Having left the commission in 2009, the current executive washes its hands of what Mr Michel is now saying as a private individual and has refused to comment on his remarks.
The leader of the Liberals in the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt i, also a Belgian, likewise did not want to comment on the issue.
Mr Michel himself was unavailable for comment.
Belgian politicians and commentators however were appalled at Mr Michel's words. Outgoing centre-right senator Pol Van Den Driessche of the Flemish Christian Democrats said Leopold's Congolese regime was "shameful"
"Of course there is the historical context in which all this happened," he told Het Nieuwsblad, a Belgian daily.. "But a great visionary? Absolutely not. What has happened then was shameful."
"If we measured him against 21st century standards, it is likely that Leopold would be hauled before the International Criminal Court in the Hague."
Looking at Mr Michel's legacy as an EU commissioner, one contact in the aid and development activist community said he: "tended to focus on the Congo and other regions with historic links to Belgium" and that "poverty eradication seemed to not always be at the heart of his work."
Another source noted that Mr Michel delivered an EU consensus on development co-operation in the mid-2,000s, "a very important achievement," but was "not very open to public debate and civil society."
Mr Michel is currently the vice-presiident of the EU's Joint Parliamentary Assemby with African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, the contemporary trade and political association linking Europe with most of its former colonies. Its next meeting will be held in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in December.
His controversial remarks come a week ahead of the visit of Belgium's current king, Albert II, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, celebrating 60 years of independence from the country. It will be the first such visit in 25 years.
Additionally this week, a group of legal activists has formally requested war-crimes charges be brought against 12 Belgian government officials allegedly responsible for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, a left-winger which the CIA also attempted to murder, according to a US Senate investigation.