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‘Ridiculous own goal’: Brussels mayor gives Europe’s hard-right a free hit before EU election

by editor

BRUSSELS — Europe’s nationalists came to Brussels to pick a fight with the EU superstate only to end up fighting a local mayor. 

In all likelihood, a meeting of Europe’s hard-right featuring Nigel Farage and Viktor Orbán as its keynote speakers wouldn’t have garnered much global attention.

But attempts by three local politicians to shut down the National Conservatism Conference triggered international outcry, handing the European Union arch-critics more ammunition than they could have dreamed of two months before the European election.

Local mayor Emir Kir’s attempt to stop the conference by arguing it represented a danger to the public — a move ultimately quashed by a Belgian court — backfired. Rather, it emboldened a growing right-wing caucus that stands to gain seats and influence in coming months, not least of which in Belgium, where Flemish nationalist separatists Vlaams Belang are projected to become the largest Belgian party in the European Parliament and win the country’s national election in June.

Right-wing bloggers such as Matt Goodwin filmed themselves declaring they had been trapped in a “Brussels bunker.” 

Leaders around Europe, some of them right-wing, seized on the events as the ultimate proof of what they’ve been arguing all along: That Brussels is biased against them and overreaching into their spheres of power at home.

(Even if, in this case, the Brussels that caused problems was not a faceless EU superstate governing 400 million people but, rather, a mayor with jurisdiction over some 27,000.) 

Right-wing leaders around Europe seized on the events as the ultimate proof of what they’ve been arguing all along: That Brussels is biased against them and overreaching into their spheres of power at home. | Omar Havana/Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his nationalist counterpart in Italy, Giorgia Meloni, also spoke out against the attempted shutdown of the conference. 

Liberal Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, who has said his government’s task was to fight the far-right taking power, described the mayor’s move as unconstitutional. Belgian Liberal Member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt, who clashed with Farage frequently over Brexit, called the move a “ridiculous own goal.”

Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Amichai Chikli, from the hard-right governing Likud party, compared what he described as the tyrannical woke agenda as another kind of totalitarianism, sitting alongside jihadist terror.

“They are hiding behind so-called liberal values but the nature of this movement is anti-liberal,” he told POLITICO. 

Captive audience

Over two days, the conference buzzed with phrases such as “nihilistic atheism,” the “globalist socialist agenda,” “gender ideology,” “Bolshewokeism,” and “activist judges in Strasbourg,” which flew from the stage around the cramped space.

Farage, closely tailed by a security detail, raged against the U.K.’s new smoking ban, performed a few Donald Trump impressions, and on Wednesday stood in the wings chuckling along admiringly as Orbán explained why Central Europe is historically suspicious of supranational political structures. 

“Mr. Orbán got a new subject for his campaign: Freedom. The city here was very stupid,” Attila K. Molnar, the director of the National University of Public Service in Budapest, said.

On social media, Farage also blasted the mayor on Wednesday afternoon. 

“Who are you? I’ve never heard of you. No one in Brussels has ever heard of you!” Farage, who has 1.8 million followers on X, wrote to Kir, who has under 5,000. 

Viktor Orbán spoke through a patchy microphone in a Q&A with Hazony, mournfully reflecting that it was increasingly difficult to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ these days because temptation in the modern world is higher than ever. | Omar Havana/Getty Images

Molnar was in the audience for Orbán’s speech on Wednesday, which the Hungarian leader used to speak about the danger that Muslim “civilization” poses to Europe’s “Christian” character. He proudly boasted about having no migrants in his country and put forth what even he called a “conspiracy theory”: that other countries want non-Christian migrants so they can vote for left-wing parties.

‘Mr. Ben’

In the end, the practical impact on the conference’s program was nearly nil. The only high-profile speaker who was barred entry by a police cordon set up Tuesday outside the venue, French far-right firebrand Éric Zemmour, spoke the following day. 

But it mattered not. 

As soon as the left-leaning Mayor Kir dispatched police Tuesday to shut the conference down because, an officer said, of antifa protest fears, the narrative that lefty cancel culture was impinging the right to free speech was unleashed. When the antifa counterprotest did transpire, it was an unthreatening affair.

After two other venues, Concert Noble and the luxury Sofitel hotel, fell through after being put under political pressure, organizers set their sights on the Claridge, a light-starved 90-year-old hall in one the poorest districts of Brussels. The venue’s sticky carpets play host to all manner of events from Bar Mitzvahs and charity gigs to Togolese music concerts.  

Its 59-year-old Belgo-Tunisian owner Lassaad Ben Yaghlane was the unexpected hero of the right-wing gathering, getting the nickname “Mr. Ben” for insisting the event had the right to go ahead “with respect.” 

With Vlaams Belang topping polls, Mr. Ben questioned the point of imposing a firewall against far-right parties in Belgium, where far-right parties get no coverage in French-speaking media. 

Vlaams Belang Member of Belgian Parliament Dominiek Lootens said, “This is not good for the image of Brussels in the whole of Europe.” 

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