A new European “definition” for freedom of speech?

3 min read

The National Conservatism Conference, though it was labeled as “Farage’s and Orbán’s right wing jamboree” is not the meeting point for hardcore European Neo-Nazis.

It is organized by the Edmund Burke Foundation, based in Washington D.C. 

According to its manifest, it is a “public affairs institute founded in January 2019 to strengthen the principles of national conservatism in Western and other democratic countries”. The foundation is headed by Yoram Hazony, a former aide of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Executive Director of the Herzl Institute (Israel).

In the last few years, these “jamborees” were in organized in different prestigious locations such as London, Washington, and Rome. Subsequent conferences were held in Orlando (2021), Brussels (2022), Miami (2022) and London (2023). The speakers include well-known right-wing politicians or influencers, such as Tucker Carlson, Josh Hawley, Nigel Farage, Giorgia Meloni, Viktor Orbán, Marco Rubio, Janez Janša, Mateusz Morawiecki, Kevin Roberts or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. In 2023, when the National Conservatism Conference was held in London, British Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Conservative government ministers Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg (and many others) were present.

In 2024 Brussels was chosen to give home to the event.

Only, this time the organizers met unexpected challenges. 

The simple act of finding a suitable venue already turned into a quest.

The first two locations backed out due to immense political pressure. The first (Concert Noble), was bullied into the decision by the Belgian League of Human Rights (LDH) and the Belgian Antifascist Coordination (CAB) objection; while the second venue (Sofitel Hotel) followed suit when it came under attack by an overzealous mayor

The managers of Claridge Hall decided to host the conference in the very last moment, but the event was still in danger, as a third mayor, this time one Emir Kir, tried to take action against it. Among others, he threatened to cut off the electricity and sent the police to the location. Many visitors and guests, including MEPs and even the catering company, were not allowed to enter the building.

Interestingly enough, Kir cited “threat to public security” as a rationale behind his steps, in fear of anti-fascist protesters, who had vowed to target the event. (It just adds a little bit of irony to the story that a right-wing event had to be banned in fear of left-wing activists, doesn’t it?)

Surely, Antifa, a left-wing, decentralized political organization that claims to fight against racism and fascism, has been associated with violent protests all over Europe. In Germany, for example, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution recorded a rise in the number of “violence-oriented” left-wing extremists. Death threats issued by Antifa are on the rise, in fact, it was reported that Antifa had drawn up a ‘death list’ (e.g. with 53 politicians from the right-wing AfD party), together with instructions on how to make bombs. 

The most recent violent action involving Antifa happened in Budapest. A series of attacks were executed by foreign ‘antifas’ who brutally assaulted people, whom they selected based on their looks (understand: those people “looked like neo-nazis”, e.g. because they were bald). The attackers (mostly Germans and Italians), were armed with steel batons, rubber hammers, and gas sprays.

Yet, most National Conservativism Conferences came and went without any incidents at all, without Antifa. So, a complete ban on the event based on such grounds seems to be a little far-fetched. 

One shouldn’t be surprised that this wasn’t Emir Kir’s first controversial step as politician. Just to name one, he was ousted from the Belgian Socialist Party because of his meetings with Turkish right-wing extremist. Yet now, he declared that a right-wing event was “not welcome” in Brussels. 

The rest is already history.

The national and international outcry that followed from all sides of the political spectrum is a clear proof that for once, this went too far.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo slammed the ban as “unacceptable”, stating that “banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop”. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the reports of police action “extremely disturbing”. His spokesperson said he believed cancelling events or preventing attendance and no-platforming speakers was “damaging to free speech and to democracy as a result”.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned the “hateful oppression of freedom of expression”. French far-right politician Eric Zemmour, who was prevented from entering the venue on the first day, said with a great dose of sarcasm, that “thanks to God, thanks to the pressure we exerted, thanks to the scandal in all of Europe, Europe has shown that it was still the continent of liberal democracy and of the rule of law”.

Legal advocacy organization ADF, which backed the organizers of the conference, said that the events were “a dark mark on European democracy”. They added, “No official should have the power to shut down free and peaceful assembly merely because he disagrees with what is being said”. 

The huge and “frightening” protest against the conference involved a grand total of 100 people, including members of a group called the “Antifascist co-ordination of Belgium”, hardly an unmanageable crowd. 

Speeches against “cancel culture” and “wokism” are recurring themes on National Conservatism Conferences. 

If anything, the events in Brussels proved that “cancel culture” is not just an abstract idea or something reserved for university campuses. 

A ban on a political conference might have been a novelty to many politicians in Western Europe, but not to those coming from Eastern and Central Europe. Politicians there learned the lesson back in the times when the USSR still ruled those areas that the easiest way to silence political opposition is to ban events and use police force. 

It is a rather worrying development that the same can happen in Brussels in 2024, in “the name of defending the rule of law”. 

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