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Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban pauses before speaking during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

ANALYSIS: NatCon in Brussels Sprouts Outrage, Liberal Leaders Waffle on Free Speech

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Brussels bowing to law-breakers at the expense of law-abiders was an assault on free speech reminiscent of communist eras.

John Wesley Reid is a senior fellow with the Budapest Fellowship Program at the Hungary-based Mathias Corvinus Collegium School of Law. 


Free speech was indeed brusseling some feathers this week and liberal leaders are divided in their responses. But despite public outcry over NatCon's allegedly hateful messaging in Brussels, justice had the final say – and justice was righteous.

What Happened? 

The right-wing summit NatCon (National Conservatism) found its home on the international stage in the not-so-right-wing region of Brussels, Belgium, home to the also not-so-right-wing European Union. So, it's no surprise that this summit's ideological exoticism was met with public opposition from both citizen and bureaucrat.  

NatCon brings in a host of Christians and conservative influencers such as Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Rod Dreher, Nigel Farage, and others.

Shortly after the summit began, police barricaded the entrance to the Claridge, NatCon's host venue, at the order of Emir Kir, mayor of the Saint-Josse district of Brussels. Without much explanation, speakers and guests were prohibited from entering the building.

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NatCon, armed with global justice mogul Alliance Defending Freedom International, took swift legal action, with ADFI executive director Paul Coleman saying, "This is the definition of cancel culture. This is the state of free speech in Europe." 

Later that night, the Conseil d'État (effectively Belgium's Supreme Court) gave a win to NatCon, and the conference continued the following day as planned. 

Author Rod Dreher echoed Coleman's sentiments about the sad state of free speech, saying, "Though NatCon won in the Belgian high court, we should not forget that any group without the legal resources of NatCon, which had a bank of Alliance Defending Freedom lawyers ready to fight, would have been crushed."

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Coleman later said, "No official should have the power to shut down free and peaceful assembly merely because he disagrees with what is being said. How can Brussels claim to be the heart of Europe if its officials only allow one side of the European conversation to be heard?"

Thankfully, Several non-NatCon-ians Are Favoring Free Speech

The most interesting and encouraging aspect to this debacle is how many NatCon opposers still condemned the ban. Over 40 signatories made up of executives from universities, businesses, and political circles condemned the ban calling it an "anathema to a free and open society." The signatories openly disagree with NatCon as a movement, but support NatCon's freedom of speech.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, a proud liberal, also defended NatCon, decrying the ban as "unacceptable" and "unconstitutional." 

"What happened at the Claridge today is unacceptable. Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy but can never overrule the Belgian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830. Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop."

De Croo's statement collides with Mayor Kir's censoring opposition. 

An unsung hero that I'll sing about is the owner of the Claridge venue, Mohamed Nemri. A self-identified Muslim, Nemri said, "We don't reject any party…even if we don't have the same opinion. That's normal…I am Muslim and people have different opinion and that's it. We are living in a free country. I'd like people to talk freely."

NatCon is but a taste of the conservative forces pressuring Brussels and the European Union, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán describing his movement as the, "worst nightmare of the Brussels bureaucrats." Orbán's words bring a particular weight, considering that Orbán will assume the position of president of the EU Council this coming July for a six-month rotation. 

Orbán also posted on X, "The last time they wanted to silence me with the police was when the Communists set them on me in '88. We didn't give up then and we will not give up this time either!"

"That free speech would hang on a thread like this is a warning shot to everyone who cares about free speech. It shows that something is rotten in Brussels, the heart of the European Union," says John O'Brien, head of press at Mathias Corvinus Collegium Brussels. MCC was a notable sponsor of NatCon. 

The Ideological Poison of Mayor Emir Kir

The darkest part of this story is how swiftly Mayor Kir favored law-breakers at the expense of law-abiders – an assault on free speech reminiscent of the communist era Orbán alluded to. Orbán has been an outspoken ally of free speech

Kir's alleged reason for the ban was in the interest of public safety. Yet, the assessment he reportedly received showed a "medium-level" threat. To even begin to encroach on free speech, the state should have a compelling interest such as a fiercely high level of risk. Even then, free speech should still be defended by increasing security to deflect the law-breakers, not by censoring the law-abiders. 

His "public safety" scapegoat was a farce, and everyone knows it. Let's dissect his post on X: 

On April 16, Mayor Kir posted that he ordered to "ban the 'National Conservatism Conference' event to guarantee public safety. In Etterbeek, Brussels City and Saint-Josse, the far-right is not welcome."

The threat to public safety Kir is alluding to is the protest planned by NatCon opposition. So, those who pose such a threat that free speech must be censored don't get called out, but those who don't pose any threat, attendees/speakers of NatCon, are told they're not welcome. This is dangerously bad reasoning, especially from an elected official. 

But hours after that post, the ban was dismissed by Belgium's highest court. Kir responded to the dismissal: 

"Being a Mayor means being a guarantor of public safety. My order banning this demonstration was based on an analysis by Ocam. My lack of sympathy for those who preach hatred is assumed but it is the maintenance of public order which motivated the ban. We are in a state of law. Justice has ruled, the event is maintained today. I have taken my responsibilities to prevent any overflow and I will remain vigilant as to how things unfold."

Read this part again:

"The far right is not welcome…My lack of sympathy for those who preach hatred is assumed." 

One should not reasonably believe that such sentiment can be reconciled with an interest of "public safety." Perhaps if Kir left out his "you're hateful and unwelcome" sentiment, his concern for public safety would have been more believable, though still probably not. But the latter part of his statement, the part where he says he'll take responsibility to prevent overflow and remain vigilant…why wasn't this approach taken initially? "Prevent overflow" is rather unclear but paired with "remain vigilant" it seems as if he's saying he's going to ensure safety and order. Again, why wasn't this the original posture? 

The concern is real. How can Brussels, a region meant to represent the culture of Europe, be so opposed to free speech? To be fair, the order was given by a mayor and condemned by Brussels' highest court and prime minister. But the fact that someone of such influence is so out of touch with free speech, let alone Brussels' constitution, should be a crimson flag for voters. 

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About The Author

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John Wesley

John Wesley Reid is a senior fellow with the Hungary Foundation. Before moving to Budapest, John worked in Washington, D.C. for over six years covering politics, the Supreme Court, and church relations within the political sphere. John studied political science at Biola University and is an alumnus of Hillsdale College’s James Madison Fellowship. During his tenure in D.C., John was the editor-in-chief of Liberty University's Freedom Center, a producer with CBN News, digital media director for the Family Research Council, and he is a contributing author for various publications. John is a