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Cancel culture comes to Brussels

by editor

Frank Füredi is the executive director of MCC Brussels and emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent. MCC has been the recipient of Hungarian government funds. The mayors of Brussels and Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode were asked for op-eds, but didn’t respond to POLITICO’s invitations.

Over the years, I’ve learned that when someone says, “I believe in freedom of speech, but …,” what really matters is what they say next.

So, when I was negotiating with the director of the Concert Noble venue in Brussels about whether the National Conservatism (NatCon) conference could go ahead there, I knew bad news was imminent.

The director was adamant that he believed in tolerance and loved free speech — then came the “but.” And I knew our booking would be canceled.

When I asked why, the director replied that he was scared for his staff, who felt intimidated by the news that left-wing AntiFa activists were going to attack the venue. And when I suggested that surely the police would protect the site, he informed me that the mayor of Brussels had decided not to provide any police protection for our conference. He also indicated that as far as he was concerned, he didn’t want the NatCon conference to take place.

I observed that obviously the issue of security served as a pretext for canceling our event, with the language of safety masking what was ultimately a political decision. The director smiled and nodded in agreement.

Unfortunately, the Brussels mayor wasn’t the only city official taking the view that those invited to speak at NatCon shouldn’t be heard.

The next day, we found an alternate venue — the premier Hotel Sofitel. But just one day after the contract was signed with Sofitel, as conference organizers were setting up the stage, hotel management informed us the meeting couldn’t go ahead. They mentioned a threat to people’s security, but this time there was no real pretense to try and cover up the political reason behind the decision. The mayor of the Etterbeek municipality simply boasted he’d made sure the conference wouldn’t not take place on his patch.

“I was warned by the press about the nature of the event and the people who were coming. I informed the local police authorities, who contacted Sofitel and the management decided to cancel the event,” Mayor Vincent De Wolf said. “[The organizers] weren’t happy, they didn’t want to leave. The police arrived to explain that the Sofitel wasn’t the one to cancel and that this was the right thing to do. They then left peacefully,” he added.

In other words, the mayor shamelessly boasted that a meeting attended by elected MEPs, prime ministers and leading officials who held “the wrong views” could be casually cancelled.

However, we did find a third venue — the Claridge Event Hall — and managed to get our conference off the ground. But wait for it! This time, a third mayor, Emir Kir of Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode, issued an order to shut us down.

The police were sent to the venue armed with a court order, threatening everyone in attendance with dire consequences. Suddenly, as police entered the premises, it felt as if we were in an Orwellian nightmare. They only left because news cameras were rolling, and it was evident to anyone watching that the conference was a civilized and serious intellectual event.

Thankfully, the owner of the Claridge took free speech seriously and told the mayor, despite all the threats, that the conference would go ahead.

However, we did find a third venue — the Claridge Event Hall — and managed to get our conference off the ground. | Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images

After this past week, it’s evident that Brussels’ political establishment stands foursquare behind the illiberal behavior of its city’s three mayors. My experience shows that Brussels has become a tolerance-free zone, with local politicians are behaving like tin-pot dictators despite the fact that the Belgian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.

I have no doubt that the local mayors overplayed their hands. Regardless of cancel culture growing ubiquity, it’s unimaginable that this campaign of official vilification directed at the NatCon movement could have occurred in any other West European capital.

The flagrant manner with which freedom of assembly was ignored in the supposed capital city of Europe embarrassed even some of our opponents: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak felt obliged to condemn the attempts to cancel the conference, after which Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo posted a statement denouncing efforts to shut down the discussion at Claridge.

However, some conference attendees told me they were delighted by the censorious behavior of our political opponents. They felt the outrageous action publicly confirmed the argument they’ve long made that the Brussels Bubble has become illiberal and intolerant.

I take a different view. The campaign to cancel the NatCon wasn’t simply directed against this organization but against the foundational values of democracy. Those behind the campaign believe public life must be subjected to the policing of speech. That’s bad news for all of us, regardless of ideological affiliation.

All who love liberty, all who believe in freedom of assembly and free speech, stand up to be counted.

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