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Artillery Row

How NatCon was saved

An attempted cancellation flopped in Brussels — but the bad taste remains

Thanks to top-drawer legal work from ADF International, the Belgian justice system acted to protect freedom of speech and assembly with a decisive emergency late-night ruling in favour of the Conference on National Conservatism.

The ruling follows attempts by police officers in Brussels to shut down the conference, which featured various elected officials including former UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Catholic leader Cardinal Ludwig Müller from Germany while former UKIP-leader Nigel Farage was on stage addressing the audience.

On April 16th, officers entered the venue hosting National Conservatism (NatCon) to serve a court order that demanded the conference be ended “with immediate effect” due to the threat of “disturbance” of public order.

The Police Order, signed off by the mayor of Saint-Josse-ten-Noode in Brussels, Emir Kir, suggests that speeches by speakers including Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman could threaten “public safety, tranquillity and peace”.

Mayor Kir also cited the risk allegedly posed by participants articulating an “ethically conservative” vision, including “the defence of ‘national sovereignty’, which implies, among other things, an ‘Eurosceptic’ attitude”.

The police initially gave attendees 15 minutes to exit the venue, but a standoff then developed as organisers of the NatCon conference refused to sign the notice document on the grounds that they would launch a legal appeal.

Tim Black points out that this dramatic, authoritarian intervention on the part of the Brussels authorities “is the culmination of a weeks-long campaign to stop this conference – versions of which have taken place in America and across Europe – from ever taking place”. 

Claridge was in fact the third location of the National Conservative event, after its first space — Concert Noble — turned them away under pressure from the Socialist Mayor of Brussels Philippe Close, and the liberal mayor of Etterbeek successfully put pressure on the luxury Sofitel hotel to cancel the booking.

Mayor Emir Kir told local newspaper La Capitale that he would take “all possible measures” to close the event down. “The town hall has absolutely not given its agreement for this event to take place,” Kir said. “I was taken aback and only knew about this early last night.”

There were also reports that authorities had threatened to cut power, while the Tunisian owner of the venue was told by authorities that if he carried on with the conference, they would make sure he went out of business.

Speaking to reporters outside the venue, Nigel Farage said he was used to “deep intolerance” being shown towards him from his time as an MEP in the European Parliament.

But he said he had “never seen it acted out” on a broader public stage. He also suggested the attempt to shut down the NatCon conference in Brussels would look bad on the world stage. 

He told broadcasters in Brussels: “On an individual scale, yes, I was banned from restaurants, I was banned from pubs, I was even banned from coffee bars, refusing to serve me.

“So I am used to this deep intolerance of anybody with a different point of view. I have never seen it acted out, that was on a private stage, that was just me that they hate, fair enough.

“But this is on a public stage. How do you think this looks to the rest of the world?”

Perhaps having asked himself the same question, a few hours later the Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo took to X (formerly Twitter) to describe the events as “unacceptable”.

“Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy,” he wrote, “but can never overrule the Belgian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830. Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop.”

However, with the support of ADF International, NatCon successfully filed an emergency legal challenge regarding the decision to prohibit their conference, arguing it is contrary to the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly – the pillars of truly democratic societies.

In an emergency decision made during the early hours of April 17th, the court decided that “Article 26 of the Constitution [of Belgium] grants everyone the right to assemble peacefully,” and although the mayor has the authority to make police ordinances in case of “serious disturbance of the public peace or other unforeseen events,” in this case there was no sufficient threat of violence to justify this.

The Court reasoned that “it does not seem possible to infer from the contested decision that a peace-disrupting effect is attributed to the congress itself”. Rather, as the decision notes, “the threat to public order seems to be derived purely from the reactions that its organization might provoke among opponents”.

Paul Coleman, the Executive Director of ADF International, and a speaker at the National Conservatism Conference, said: “In allowing the National Conservatism Conference to continue, the Administrative Court has come down on the side of basic human rights. While common sense and justice have prevailed, what happened yesterday is a dark mark on European democracy.

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

Curiously, despite all their concerted efforts to no-platform NatCon, mayors Emir Kir and Phillipe Close aren’t always so anxious about the threat posed to “public safety, tranquility and peace” by the politicians they come into contact with.

Back in January 2020, Kir was removed from the Socialist Party in Belgium for a series of what he described as “pleasant” meetings with members of the pro-Islamic Turkish ultranationalist party MHP, which has close links to the Grey Wolves, a paramilitary group that embraces anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and is responsible for violence against ethnic and religious minorities across multiple countries.

Last year, Tehran’s mayor Alireza Zakani — an ultra-radical of the Iranian regime – was invited to attend the Brussels Urban Summit along with 14 other Iranian officials by Pascal Smet, foreign affairs minister of the region of Brussels. While there, he met with Phillipe Close, the mayor of Brussels. The accommodation costs for the Iranian officials were paid by the Brussels region.

Zakani is a member of the paramilitary force Basidji, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and has been sanctioned by the European Union for serious human rights violations. This organisation, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) notably cracked down on the student revolt at Tehran University in July 1999, where student protesters were killed.

Back in 2020, Zakani demanded that President Hassan Rouhani condemn a former Iranian official for “promoting homosexuality” by posting a UN “International Day of Families” posts on social media.

Last year, Zakani, in his capacity as the mayor of Tehran, introduced a “hijab and chastity plan” for the municipality, which relies on a special municipal security force to confront women and girls who do not wear headscarves in the metro.

Asked about the Mayor of Tehran’s all expenses paid visit to the city, Brussels Secretary of State Pascal Smet, in charge of International Relations, explained that the visa had been issued by Foreign Affairs. “The Brussels Urban Summit is a major international conference”, he said.

“Tehran is a member of this global network and was invited by Metropolis in this capacity. Brussels is a diplomatic capital. Just because certain people are present doesn’t mean we agree with them … I wasn’t in favour of him coming, and I didn’t speak to him,” he said.

However, the country’s Foreign Office has since confirmed that the Belgian Embassy in Iran issued a visa to Kazani at the insistence of the Brussels Region.

“State Secretary Pascal Smet decided to invite the Mayor of Tehran to the Brussels Urban Summit, despite the negative opinion of Foreign Affairs. He expressly asked our services not to object, stressing the importance for the Brussels Region of having Tehran represented at this event.”

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