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European Epicenter Deploys Riot Police To Stop Conservatives From Talking

It’s unthinkable that an emergency legal challenge had to be mounted to gather in peace in the political heart of Europe. 

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The effort to shut down a mainstream conservative conference in Brussels last week shows partisan censorship is a serious and mounting problem in the West. Although the attempted cancellation failed—thanks to a legal challenge supported by ADF International, the faith-based legal advocacy organization I lead—it is part of a broader, deeply concerning trend.

Take, for example, the news on Friday that the “hate speech” prosecution of former Finnish interior minister Dr. Päivi Räsänen for tweeting Bible verses will be appealed to the country’s Supreme Court. Räsänen has already been unanimously acquitted by two courts, but the ideologically driven effort to punish her for her Christian views continues into its fifth year. Her steadfast response of standing by her faith in the face of this ordeal is a lesson in how to respond to cancel culture: with fortitude.

Meet Tyranny With Courage

The NatCon episode last week is another example of the necessity of fortitude in the face of tyranny. When the mayor of a small district in Brussels attempted to shut down a major gathering of conservative leaders last Tuesday, the international outcry was immediate.

All eyes were on the European Union capital as the freedoms of speech and assembly hung in the balance. Twelve hours later, the conference was back on by court order, all because a brave group of people were willing to stand up and say, “No, we won’t accept that. It’s not right.” But it’s unthinkable that an emergency legal challenge had to be mounted to gather in peace in the political heart of Europe.  

I was pleased to have been invited to speak at the National Conservatism Conference, hosted in Brussels on April 16 and 17. Looking forward to delivering my talk the following day on “the crisis of faith and family in Europe,” I approached the venue on the morning of the 16th to see police blocking the entrance and a sign that read: “We are very sorry. The doors are shut.”   

Image courtesy Alliance Defending Freedom International.

Inside, the participants who had already entered got on with the program. But the rest of us, barred from entry by a police cordon, were later even met by riot police who had absurdly been deployed to this mainstream gathering of politicians, academics, and public figures on a rainy working day in Brussels. What unfolded over the day reveals with startling clarity the crisis of fundamental freedoms in Europe.  

Criminalizing Talking about Self-Defense

The National Conservatism Conference has been a recurrent fixture in the mainstream conservative world since its inception in 2019. It brings together different voices to discuss conservative renewal in the context of the nation-state. Ultimately, you can agree or disagree with the views of the speakers (many of whom disagree with each other on certain topics). 

Leading up to the event, the conference was canceled by two venues before securing a third location near Brussels’ European Quarter. Unwilling to let the meeting happen on his turf, Emir Kir, the municipal mayor—one of 19 in Brussels—of the district where the third venue is located, issued a last-minute order shutting the whole thing down, claiming a risk to “disturbing public peace.” Tyranny at its finest. 

U.K. Member of Parliament Miriam Cates and German Catholic Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller snuck into the conference venue through this door. Image courtesy Alliance Defending Freedom International.

The order cited participants’ pro-life views among the reasons to enact the draconian censorship measures. It left no room for confusion—the event was stopped because of nothing more than disagreement with the vision behind National Conservatism and the views of its attendees. The order states as a reason for the shut-down: “That this vision is not only ethically conservative (e.g. hostility to the legalization of abortion, same-sex unions, etc.) but also focused on the defense of ‘national sovereignty’, which implies, among other things, a ‘Eurosceptic’ attitude.”  

So when did the defense of the nation become a crime? While the idea of the sovereign nation-state has been a mainstay of the international order since at least the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, now, the mere mention of “national sovereignty,” and even worse, a whiff of a “Eurosceptic attitude,” is enough to trigger shut-down by dictatorial fiat. The same of course applies to pro-life convictions and any of the “ethically conservative” positions this mayor deemed unsavory enough to warrant this egregious overstep.  

The Tyrant’s Textbook

Here a local official clamped down on an entirely legitimate peaceful gathering solely because he doesn’t agree with the views espoused there. In doing so, he followed a tried-and-true strategy to justify his actions. First, smear speakers as being “disrespecters of human rights.” Second, issue vague warnings about looming “public disorder.” Third, swiftly shut it down. This is textbook abuse of power.  

The censorious order to cancel the event was issued despite the conference posing no threats of violence. I can attest to this, having been relegated to peacefully drinking a cup of tea on the street outside the barricaded event. Also, various high-profile speakers, including former U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Catholic Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller from Germany, in addition to others, had already arrived in the city. This downright inhospitable behavior was an embarrassment for Brussels on the world stage.   

The conference organizers responded immediately with a legal challenge, supported by ADF International, which is committed to defending fundamental human freedoms. ADF International supported the challenge on the grounds that the mayor acted outside his authority to suppress free and peaceful dialogue based on a politically motivated justification in violation of freedom of speech and assembly.   

Thankfully, in an emergency late-night ruling, the Conseil d’État, the highest court in Belgium relating to issues of public administration, upheld the right to peacefully assemble, allowing the conference to resume without police interference.    

Don’t Accept Cancellation

Notably, Kir, who complained that the conference hosted personalities from “the conservative, religious right,” was removed from the Socialist Party in Belgium in 2020 for meeting with members of a Turkish political party that has been described as “far-right” and “ultranationalist,” and which supports Turkey’s AKP government. So Kir ironically tried to shut down a peaceful gathering under the guise of preventing threats from what his order called the “European extreme right.”  

Open dialogue should be central to any democratic political discourse. But in Brussels, the political heart of the EU, I have seen firsthand an overt willingness to clamp down on the thoughtful exchange of ideas in violation of basic human rights.

While thankfully commonsense and justice have prevailed, the events of April 16 illuminated Europe’s censorship crisis in a way that we will not soon forget. They also showed the only way of defeating tyranny—by refusing to bow down.


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