Rwanda and the European Union: A Stalemate Over the Appointment of a Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region

President Kagame and Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief

In June 2024, Rwanda successfully blocked the appointment of Bernard Quintin, a Belgian diplomat, as the European Union’s special representative for the Great Lakes region. This obstruction is part of a broader context of strained relations between Kigali and Brussels, heightened by Belgian criticism of Rwandan interference in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was initially set to appoint the special representative in mid-June. However, due to opposition from Rwandan President Paul Kagame, expressed as early as April during a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, the recruitment process has been extended until July 5th. An email notifying member states of this extension was sent on June 14th, and the issue is expected to be discussed at the EU foreign ministers’ council on June 23rd in Luxembourg.

Kigali’s opposition is largely rooted in the historical tensions between Belgium and Rwanda, particularly regarding Belgian involvement in the DRC, where Rwanda is militarily engaged with M23 rebels. In 2023, Belgium had refused accreditation for Vincent Karega, chosen by Kigali as ambassador to Brussels, further straining relations between the two countries.

The selection process for the special representative has been criticized for its lack of transparency and effectiveness. Several diplomatic sources in Brussels have expressed frustration over Rwanda’s ability to influence an internal EU decision, seeing it as an affront to the Union’s diplomatic sovereignty. A European diplomat stated, “Allowing a third country to dictate our conduct sends a very bad message.”

This situation highlights the EU’s difficulties in maintaining a unified and effective stance amidst the complex diplomatic challenges of the Great Lakes region. The failure to appoint this special envoy is perceived as a humiliation and a sign of weakness, prompting a need to reassess the selection procedures and the EU’s management of relations with influential regional actors like Rwanda.

Relations between the EU and Rwanda, although marked by cooperation in various areas such as regional security and economic development, remain fragile and prone to recurring tensions. Blocking this appointment illustrates the ongoing challenges and contradictions inherent in the EU’s relations with authoritarian regimes.