Free Speech

Brussels Mayor Attempts To Shut Down National Conservatism Conference by Force

It's a good thing opponents of the move can appeal to the liberal values of free speech, free association, and equal treatment under law.


*UPDATE: "In a late-night emergency decision, the Belgian Court has struck down state censorship" and ruled that NatCon Brussels 2 may go on "without police interference," according to ADF International.

This is not how leaders of a free society behave.

At 7:29 Eastern time this morning, the @NatConTalk account on the website formerly known as Twitter reported that police in Brussels, Belgium, had arrived at the site of the second Brussels-based National Conservatism Conference "with an order to shut NatCon down for creating a public disturbance." An English translation of the order shared by a lawyer cites the fact that participants are from the "conservative and religious right" and that they express a "'Eurosceptic' attitude" as reasons for prohibiting the two-day event.

The document also claims that "it cannot be ruled out that…extremist groups are associating themselves with this event" and that the conference "could undeniably lead to violent reactions." It is signed by Emir Kir, mayor of the Saint-Josse-ten-Nood municipality and a member of Belgium's Socialist Party.

Police didn't, in the end, break up Day 1 of the NatCon Brussels 2 program, but they did prevent anyone not already inside, including scheduled speakers, from entering the venue, according to subsequent posts from organizers and attendees. They also attempted to halt all food and beverage deliveries, according to reports from people on the ground. 

Organizers have initiated a legal challenge to the shut-down order, according to @NatConTalk. "There is no public disturbance and no grounds to shut down a gathering of politicians, intellectuals, journalists, students, civic leaders, and concerned citizens," the account added. The Alliance Defending Freedom's international arm has announced it will back the effort. 

This afternoon, a group of right-of-center figures that includes several Reason contributors released an open letter "condemn[ing] in the strongest possible terms the Belgian authorities' attempts to shut down, without due process, the National Conservatism Conference underway in Brussels." It notes that the signatories object to the attempt despite fundamental disagreements with the natcon worldview. "We say this as critics of national conservatism, not allies," the document reads. "Indeed, we believe that national conservatism as a political and ideological movement is profoundly mistaken, both empirically and normatively, on most fronts."

The signatories rightly observe that "the use of public authority and police force to shut down peaceful conferences and public meetings is anathema to a free and open society." Ironically, the shut-down attempt is an excellent example of the error-has-no-rights ethos sometimes voiced on the New Right, which includes figures with connections to the natcon movement. It is a political approach that runs directly contrary to the liberal ideal of equal rights under law (to say nothing of the liberal commitments to free speech and free association).

A long post from conference organizer Yoram Hazony yesterday evening explained that NatCon Brussels 2 had already been relocated twice following pressure from local officials.

"Last Friday, the Concert Noble venue which had hosted the 2022 NatCon conference cancelled this year's event following an intervention by the Socialist Party mayor of Brussels, Philippe Close," the post reads. "Yesterday (Monday) the replacement venue, the Sofitel Brussels…broke its written contract citing objections from people involved in the European Union Council who would be staying at the hotel. The Mayor of Etterbeek Vincent de Wolf (MR) yesterday boasted to The Brussels Times that he was responsible for the Sofitel cancellation." 

After issuing today's order, Kir declared explicitly that "in Etterbeek, Brussels City and Saint-Josse, the far right is not welcome." Controversial European right-wingers, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, French politician Éric Zemmour, and British politician Nigel Farage, were on the lineup for the confab. 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has since weighed in with a post calling today's shut-down attempt unacceptable. "Banning political meetings is unconstitutional," he wrote. "Full stop."

NatCon Brussels 2 is affiliated with the U.S.-based National Conservatism Conference (which I wrote about critically in 2019) and NatCon 3 (which I wrote about critically in 2022). One hopes the experience will give national conservatives a new appreciation for the liberal values that will necessarily undergird their legal and rhetorical challenges to today's events.