Belgian police shut down a far-right conference as it rallies ahead of Europe’s June elections

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BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian police shut down a gathering of far-right politicians and supporters on Tuesday, citing concerns about public order, while attendees protested curbs on free speech and vowed to find another venue for the second day of their meeting.

The annual National Conservative conference, held this year in Brussels, comes ahead of Europe-wide elections. As campaigning for the June 6-9 event heats up, mainstream parties fear that disenchanted voters might turn to the people at NatCon 2024.

“This is what we’re up against. We’re up against a new form of evil ideology,” Nigel Farage, the man credited with taking Britain out of the European Union, told the gathering of a few hundred stridently nationalist and fundamentalist Christian politicians and think-tankers.

British and Belgian leaders expressed concern the event had been forced to close. A spokeswoman for Rishi Sunak said the British prime minister found reports police had shut down the National Conservatives conference “extremely disturbing.”

“The prime minister is a strong supporter and advocator for free speech, and he believes that should be fundamental to any democracy,” said spokeswoman Camilla Marshall. “Cancelling events or cancelling attendance and no-platforming speakers is damaging to free speech and democracy as a result.”

Taking to the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said that “what happened at the Claridge today is unacceptable.” The gathering was taking place at the Claridge event center in the Belgian capital

“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,” he wrote.

Belgian police shut down the conference by barring attendees from reentering the venue if they dared to leave. A dozen or so officers blocked the main entrance. It was the third venue selected for the gathering after the owners of two other locations shied away when anti-fascist protesters vowed to disrupt proceedings.

Around 50 protesters approached the Claridge late in the afternoon, after most of the conference-goers had left, and hours after police tried to close the meeting down.

Earlier at the event, anti-migrant sentiment featured in a number of speeches. Some targeted what they saw as the follies of climate policy, “narco-socialism” or “woke indoctrination,” often with sharp opposition to multinational organizations like the EU.

Lashing out at the bloc’s treaties, and the pledge in the preamble of the founding EU texts to an “ever-closer Union” among the 27 member countries, Polish lawmaker Ryszard Legutko said it all makes “medieval monks look almost like intellectual anarchists.”

Surveys suggest that mainstream political parties are likely to retain power after the June elections, but quite possibly with a reduced majority.

This year’s NatCon, organized by the conservative U.S. think tank the Edmund Burke Foundation, was held under the banner of “National Conservatism, Preserving the Nation-State in Europe.”

French far-right figurehead Eric Zemmour was scheduled to criticize the EU’s new migrant and asylum rules but was turned away by police. Suella Braverman, who served as U.K. home secretary for just over a month in 2022 before being fired, railed for 27 minutes against the European Court of Human Rights.

Politicians and former leaders from Spain, Poland and the Netherlands were also on the agenda. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was due to speak on Wednesday.

“I guess they couldn’t take free speech any longer,” Orban posted on X about the shutdown. “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!”

Speakers summoned the grand ideas of figures like the Pope, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Leo Strauss, Tocqueville and Gramsci. English was the common language, spattered with classical Latin. Modern liberal democracy was likened to a form of “neo-Marxist authoritarianism.”

Mostly though, those who could speak before the gathering was shut down for the day focused on their “enemies” among the mainstream political parties.

“We have to know our enemies are in panic and they show it every day,” said EU lawmaker Hermann Tertsch, from Spain’s far-right Vox party. “The enemy knows their time is running out.”

As Brussels police warned that the conference’s time was limited, too, Edmund Burke Foundation Chairman Yoram Hazony invited participants to stay as long as they dared.

“The new democracy works in mysterious ways. Your goal as someone in the new democracy is to prevent the other guy from speaking,” Hazony had said as the conference opened.

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Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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