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25 April 2022updated 26 Apr 2022 6:34pm

What does Europe’s right want?

This year's National Conservatism conference was notably short of new ideas, meaningful debate and pro-Putin speakers, as attendees stuck to the safe space of the culture wars.

By David Broder

The last time we had met, Ronald Reagan’s deregulation tsar Chris DeMuth reminded the audience, it was “the last week of normal life in Europe to date”. In February 2020, the National Conservatism conference had assembled in Rome, just as the first cases of Covid-19 were detected there. Back then, a line-up of 26 speakers invoked the values of “God, Honour and Country” against the unholy alliance of “woke capital” and “cultural Marxism”. Now, after two years of pandemic – and one month into war on the continent – what do Europe’s nationalists have to say about the global disorder?

One couldn’t help but be impressed by the organisers’ sense of place for NatCon 2022. After meeting in Rome, they were now only a few hundred yards from the European Parliament in Brussels. With Nato leaders simultaneously meeting to discuss Ukraine, the 23-24 March conference – which promised the Polish and Slovenian prime ministers, recently back from Kyiv, plus various MEPs and pundits – made a bold bid for Brussels’ attention.

If the chandeliers above the Concert Nobel ballroom were imposing, the mood was relaxed. The first keynote speaker, Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga, drew laughter by commenting that she couldn’t always expect such a warm welcome in Belgium’s capital. Doubtless given the fines recently levied on Budapest for defying European court rulings on asylum rights, few in Brussels would have echoed DeMuth’s description of Varga as “a spirited defender of the law against international bureaucracies”, or her portrayal of the “empire-like” EU.

Still, imperialism loomed over all the proceedings at NatCon, and not just because Varga spoke directly beneath a giant canvas of the Belgian colonialist Leopold II. Rather, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine weighed on everyone’s minds. While there were sporadic references to Donald Trump and fulsome praise for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán throughout, the conference seemed to mark an attempt to distance the attendees from the more openly pro-Putin elements of the European far right.

The first morning of the conference appeared designed to reinforce the message that the NatCons identified with Ukrainian resistance. In a talk on energy security and independence, Polish minister Piotr Naimski, a veteran anti-communist and former leading figure in Solidarnosc (Solidarity), condemned countries such as Germany for becoming hooked on “the Russian weapon” of gas and ignoring the warnings from eastern European capitals. He feared Vladimir Putin’s attempts to “undermine our solidarity”. Ukraine’s representative to the EU also addressed the conference, again with a plea for European solidarity: “a new Ukraine is emerging in these days; its place is here in the European Union”.

Praise for Ukrainian resistance was a constant – though, insisted Juan Ángel Soto, from a think tank associated with Spain’s far-right Vox party – it showed that when “hard times come it is not Nato or the EU that acts but strong independent nations”. For him “there was no liberal international order”, and several speakers insisted that Ukraine fought for conservative values, not liberal ones, especially since it fought for itself. Robert Tyler of the Thatcherite New Direction Foundation claimed that “conservatives have stepped up the most” in supporting Ukraine – and even that this had been a “unifying moment for the conservative movement” as it could rally behind a struggle for “traditions, family and home”.

No speaker departed from a basically Atlanticist line. Yet there was constant reference to an “empire”: namely the liberal, woke, progressive, left-wing European empire, seeking to falsely claim Ukraine’s war as its own. The former Tory MEP Brigadier Geoffrey Van Orden insisted, citing a friend of his at the front line, that Ukraine’s struggle was driven not by “think tanks lecturing them on the rules-based international order” but by “stocks of resistance and patriotism built up over centuries”. He damned the idea of an EU army and calls for European strategic autonomy which would “cook up” a preordained response in advance of Nato summits.

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While there was lots of praise for Ukraine, there was also understanding for those states who hadn’t joined the chorus of support. NatCon’s main organiser is the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony, whose book The Virtue of Nationalism (2018) has been used by some to draw positive parallels between Russian and Israeli nationalism. In Brussels, Hazony insisted that Israel’s attempt to mediate in the conflict had been unfairly tarred as pro-Putin, and denied that the NatCons are “Putin supporters just because we don’t support a universal liberal empire”. He insisted that NatCon did not accept speakers who are pro-Putin or pro-Xi Jinping: a stance which had been “consistent” even if “maybe we made mistakes”.

This surely sets a high bar for what counts as pro-Putin. Recent NatCon invitees include Tucker Carlson (who has claimed to “root for Russia” in the Donbas, is promoted on Russian state TV, and in March spread fake news about biolabs in Ukraine) and Matteo Salvini (who posed in both Red Square and the European Parliament with a Putin T-shirt). One speaker, the French historian Hélène de Lauzun, had in January written a European Conservative piece on the Russian state’s suppression of the human rights NGO Memorial, which investigated Soviet atrocities, coolly observing that Memorial had earned official displeasure by leaving “the field of historical research to engage in much more political activities”, and by also touching on the “extremely sensitive subject” of Putin’s wars in Chechnya.

If Carlson and Salvini are prominent but incidental allies of NatCon, the conference has much more fundamental ties with Hungary, clearly the EU’s most pro-Putin government. NatCon’s sponsors include the Danube Institute, a think tank hosted by Orbán’s administration, as well as the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, a university chaired by Balász Orbán, who, while no relation to the Hungarian prime minister, is his political director. The Hungarian premier was running for re-election at the time of NatCon, and anyone who overheard the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley asking Danube Institute director John O’Sullivan whether Orbán would “do it” could hardly have doubted what it meant for this conference’s future. 

Orbán had been the main draw at Rome’s NatCon in 2020, offering a legend of victimhood, resistance, and ultimate victory over the communists, whom conservatives the world over were now again fighting in the guise of “cultural Marxism”. With polls at the time of NatCon 2022 predicting a tight election in Hungary on 3 April, his absence was no surprise; he would instead pass his verdict on the “international left” and the war in Ukraine during his election night rally, at which he derided “opponents” including George Soros and Volodymr Zelensky. His nationalism, he insists, stands “not for Ukraine or for Russia”, only for Hungary itself.

At NatCon, historian Andrew Roberts told the audience that it must be “devoutly hoped by all true conservatives that Mr Orbán win the election” though he left no doubt as to his own support for Ukraine. He criticised former Ronald Reagan ally David Stockman, who wasn’t in the room, for denying that Ukraine is a “real country”. For Roberts, the war was a time to “unite the right, when the left is so disunited”; he even cited Charles Lindbergh, the American proponent of appeasement of Nazi Germany, as an example of someone who had taken dubious positions before turning to the right side.

But with so many promised speakers missing, one wondered if the right is as united as Roberts suggested. One of the absentees was Marion Maréchal, the wayward scion to the Le Pen dynasty, and so, too, Lorenzo Fontana, deputy leader of Salvini’s Lega. Their absences were not officially announced, though privately Maréchal’s non-appearance was blamed on schedule clashes. This could, indeed, happen to anyone: both the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his Slovenian counterpart Janez Janša were away on Nato business, so sent pre-recorded interventions instead. But only those who had most embarrassed themselves with support for Putin were missing entirely.

Instead, conformism reigned, also giving this conference a rather bland feel, as if nothing was at stake. Anton Jäger, a scholar of populism who attended NatCon, told me that he was struck by the inability to discuss contentious issues, with neither questions from the floor nor debate between participants: “Dissident voices, mainly on the French right, were muffled or absent.” Instead, “culture warring was the great unifier and leveller for all the attendees. On geopolitics and economics, there was a risk of impolite disagreement. On culture – the danger of wokeness, the existential threat of the trans movement, left-wing academics – there could be none. So, in the end most opted for the road of least resistance.”

Even the culture war felt humdrum. Eleven days ahead of Hungary’s referendums to condemn “the promotion of gender-reassignment treatments to minors” and “unrestricted exposure of minors to sexually explicit media content”, Bálasz Orbán told NatCon of “LGBT activists capturing kindergartens and primary schools in other European countries”. Yet most stopped far short of such outlandish claims, with reheated stories about trans athletes more the order of the day.

Brussels had dropped its mask mandate, meaning none were worn, and discussion of the pandemic was minimal, beyond the blame laid on China for covering up the initial scale of the problem. Some speakers whinged about the effectiveness of Covid lockdowns, but without making any concrete case that they were unnecessary. Francesco Giubilei of Nazione Futura – a self-described “liberal-conservative” think tank that sponsors NatCon – insisted that the pandemic response, like the war in Ukraine, showed nations could only rely on themselves.

More provocative were those who insisted that conservatives, and the West, needed to rediscover God. Historian David Engels argued that conservatives had to embrace their role as one of multiple “parallel societies”. This meant building their own “education and media systems together with their own social welfare, and the establishment of individual regional power centres as a starting point for the reconquest of the state as a whole”. This would, he calmly asserted, set an example to which others would rally “when the failure of “the left-liberal utopia becomes obvious”.

Catholic priest Benedict Kiely, who was seen throughout the conference carrying a Habsburg-flag drawstring bag, spoke of the bravery of Christian minorities outside of Europe. He deplored Western churches’ preference for holding displays about climate change rather than persecuted Christians in Iraq or Nigeria, explaining “when you are about to have your head cut off you don’t care about air conditioning”. Also taking up the theme of an embattled minority, American writer Rod Dreher, an Orthodox Christian, spelled out the value of building resilient communities with networks of mutual assistance, akin to the dissident underground in communist Czechoslovakia.

But most of the discussion was far less radical, with a notable lack of economic policy. Tory ex-MEP Baroness Foster declared herself an “unreconstructed Thatcherite, with a heart”, as did a representative of Spain’s Vox, and roll-up banners for the New Direction Foundation, co-sponsoring the conference, meant Thatcher and Reagan’s faces were prominently displayed in the lobby. Some speakers vaguely gestured at the merits of insulating the Western economy from China; one reported that a friend had forsaken Chinese produce, without indicating how practical this had proven.

Compared to the Rome conference, this NatCon seemed narrowly centred on the European Conservatives and Reformists grouping in the European parliament, which had included the British Tories after their departure from the Christian-Democratic EPP group. Today, the Reformists grouping combines right-wing parties of government in Poland and the Czech Republic with Italy’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, Spain’s Vox and the Sweden Democrats. Unlike in 2020, there were no speakers from the Identity and Democracy grouping, which includes Italy’s Lega, the Alternative für Deutschland, and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.

Recent splits over Russia were surely decisive in this regard. Just last December, Prime Minister Morawiecki had invited Orbán, Le Pen and Salvini to Warsaw in a bid to form an all-European nationalist grouping. This caused controversy in Poland, where liberal leader Donald Tusk accused the ruling Law and Justice party of “treason” for its association with pro-Putin leaders such as Le Pen. She used that summit to call for a union of the two forces to the right of the EPP, creating the second biggest grouping in the European parliament. Yet the current war illustrates why a hodgepodge of nationalists may not get along.

Le Pen went almost unmentioned at NatCon, though French Telegraph contributor Anne-Elisabeth Moutet denounced both her “ties to Putin” and Éric Zemmour’s previous call for a “French Putin”. While Moutet depicted Putinophilia as an expression of extremes on both left and right, extremism did not seem like such a problem for everyone here. Key Zemmour ally Marion Maréchal had, after all, been billed to speak, and the following week David Engels addressed the far-right think tank the Institut Iliade’s Paris conference, featuring such ethnonationalist luminaries as Renaud Camus, who coined the “great replacement” theory, and Alain de Benoist, director of the GRECE think tank.

Yet the French election also raises difficult strategic problems on this side of politics. With mainstream parties still collapsing in multiple countries, the far right is torn between two rival approaches. the first is the “union of the rights” which seeks to reorient older conservative and Christian-Democratic forces under nationalist leadership. This is the reality in Italy, is increasingly the case in Spain, and has been championed by Zemmour in France. The second approach is an attempt to shed the right-wing label in favour of a transversal populism, which mobilises criticisms of neoliberal economics and claims to stand for the jobless and downwardly mobile.

In France, this latter approach has been championed by Marine Le Pen, who has diverged both from her father’s Vichy nostalgia but also a certain Thatcherite thrust: her 2017 presidential campaign denounced both “the filthy rich right and the filthy rich left”. Defeated in the run-off against Emmanuel Macron, she pivoted somewhat, with the departure of her pro-euro-exit adviser Florian Philippot. Changing the party’s name to the Rassemblement National, she won over some famous centre-right Republicans. Yet her 2022 campaign focuses heavily on the cost of living, and polls show her electorate skews towards the young and blue-collar workers.

Her niece Marion Maréchal has in recent years taken a different approach: in the 2010s a leader of the more free-marketeer, devoutly Catholic wing of the Le Pen outfit, she has called for a focus on breaking the “dam” that divides the far right from the Gaullist party, today known as the Republicans. At her 2019 “Convention of the Right” Zemmour was a star speaker. Now a candidate for president, backed by Maréchal, in his 27 March rally at Paris’s Trocadero, Zemmour insisted “I need Gaullists… I need sovereigntists… I need the whole family of the right”.

Zemmour’s bid for the presidency is over, though his impact on this race is not to be discounted. While his long-standing appearances on Fox-like station CNews have pushed identitarian themes onto the agenda, his call for massive “remigration”, or repatriation of immigrants, makes the Rassemblement National leader look softer by comparison, and has aided her long-term campaign for “detoxification”. While his voters are wealthier and better-educated than Le Pen’s, his eventual effect may also be to shepherd them towards her, not least as he has split away part of the Republicans’ base.

The NatCons are a motley bunch of forces, from liberal-turned-far right parties in Poland and Hungary, to former fascists in southern Europe who claim that they are now the mainstream conservatives. Their references are eclectic and, as this war has shown, their allegiances to each other may bring all manner of embarrassments and fallings-out. But the collapse of France’s centre right also points to a broader climate in which once extremist parties can thrive.  

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