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Brussels police shut down hard-right, nationalist gathering featuring Orbán, Farage and Braverman

Brussels police moved in to gradually shut down the conference.
Brussels police moved in to gradually shut down the conference. Copyright Euronews
Copyright Euronews
By Mared Gwyn JonesVincenzo Genovese
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A Brussels gathering of hard-right, nationalist European politicians was disrupted on Tuesday after police moved in to try to force its shutdown.

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Officers were acting upon an order issued by the mayor of the Saint-Josse Ten Noode region of the Belgian capital on public safety grounds.

The move has been criticised by Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who described the police's intervention as "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," De Croo said.

"Banning political meetings is unconstitutional, full stop," the Prime Minister added.

The likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, French far-right candidate Eric Zemmour and former Polish Prime Minsiter Mateusz Morawiecki were all due to speak at the two-day National Conservatism (NatCon) conference in Brussels, which had struggled to secure a venue willing to host them in the Belgian capital.

Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage was addressing the crowds at the Claridge venue in the Saint-Josse Ten Noode neighbourhood when police arrived with an order to close down the event around 12.30 CET on Tuesday.

A Euronews reporter was on the ground as a police officer told the event organisers that "the authorities have decided to shut down the event," and that he was present on-site to enforce that decision.

The officer added that he had a three-page document outlining the grounds for the closure, which had been requested by the local mayor. 

The National Conservatives are an alliance of politicians, public figures and scholars typically associated with the populist right that espouse both conservative and nationalist values, known for their strong Eurosceptic and anti-immigration stance.

Speaking to journalists outside the event venue, organiser Tony Gilland - who is chief of staff for MCC Brussels, an Orbán-funded think tank that sponsored the event - said the public order also referred to a "counter-protest" expected later in the day.

But the organisers did not immediately agree to sign the order or bring the event to a close. The UK's former Home Secretary Suella Braverman addressed the audience after police arrived at the scene.

Emir Kir, the mayor of the Saint-Josse Ten Noode neighbourhood of Brussels, confirmed on social media platform X that he had ordered a halt to the event to "guarantee public safety."

"The far right is not welcome," Kir said.

Two other Brussels venues, including the famous Sofitel Hotel near the EU institutions, had in recent days refused to host the NatCon conference, raising doubts over whether the event could go ahead as originally planned.

The mayor of the Etterbeek neighbourhood, Vincent de Wolf, had alerted the Sofitel Hotel hours before the event was meant to take place at the venue about the speakers and nature of the gathering, sparking a last-minute decision to break the contract.

Nigel Farage told the crowds that the decisions to cancel were "absolutely outrageous." According to the organisers, some 600 attendees were expected to attend the occasion.

Former MEP and Honorary President of the Reform UK party Nigel Farage speaks during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Former MEP and Honorary President of the Reform UK party Nigel Farage speaks during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

The debacle comes less than two months ahead of the European elections, with polls predicting a sharp rise in support for hard-right and Eurosceptic parties. 

Organisers censure decision

Responding to the police's intervention on Tuesday, National Conservatism said that the conference was "extremely peaceful" with "absolutely no public disturbance."

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They also extended an invitation to Saint Josse's mayor Emir Kir to join the discussions. 

Kir represented Belgium's Socialist Party (PS) before he was expelled in 2020 following a controversial meeting with a delegation of Turkish mayors which included representatives from the ultra-nationalist, far-right MHP party.

Belgian Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Tom Vandendriessche - who was due to take part in the NatCon conference and represents the far-right, Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang party - said he was unsurprised by the Belgian authorities' attempt to disperse the gathering.

"Since the left is a minority in Flanders, everywhere they have power (in Belgium), they try to use their power to intimidate the right," Vandendriessche said

"We have seen this over decades happening here in Belgium," he added.

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His party, which supports an independent Flemish state, is topping the polls ahead of the double European and federal elections taking place in Belgium in early June.

Police walk out the front entrance during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Police walk out the front entrance during the National Conservatism conference in Brussels, Tuesday, April 16, 2024.Virginia Mayo/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved

Vandendriessche also took a jab at Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo for "lecturing" other EU countries on the respect of the rule of law while in the European capital, people are not allowed to "safely organise a conference."

"It's a totalitarian system," Vandendriessche said. "People in power cannot mis-use this power to shut events down."

Viktor Orbán, one of the keynote speakers due to appear at the event, weighed in with criticism: "I guess they couldn’t take free speech any longer," he said about the police's intervention.

Organisers have vowed to try to secure an alternative venue for the second day of the conference to take place on Wednesday.

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This article has been updated with more information.

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