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26 April 2024updated 27 Apr 2024 9:28am

The nationalist romp through Europe

The National Conservative Conference in Brussels revealed a new strain of nationalism is gaining momentum.

By Freddie Hayward

The Claridge hall in Brussels was the third venue the National Conservatives had asked to host their 2024 conference, which took place between 16 and 17 April. The organisers of NatCon said that anti-fascist groups had pressured two other venues to pull out from hosting the event. It was uncertain whether the conference could go ahead at all. By late morning on its first day, the local Socialist Party mayor Emir Kir had prohibited the gathering, declaring the “far right is not welcome”. The Brussels police were on their way.

The National Conservative Conference brings together right-wing thinkers and politicians who view modern society as a narcissistic, failed experiment that has uprooted citizens from their national identity. Their last conference in 2023, however, was a Tory Party knife fight. In Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre, libertarian Thatcherites such as Jacob Rees-Mogg collided with Michael Gove and Lee Anderson, the erstwhile Tory party chairman and professional soundbite who has since defected to Reform.

But the Conservative Party was only mentioned at the Brussels conference as an example of what the National Conservatives are against. When I met him in the foyer, John O’Sullivan, Margaret Thatcher’s former speech writer, insisted that his old boss was a national conservative. But he doesn’t seem to have much hope in the project taking root in Britain: he moved to Budapest in 2014 to work for the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank linked to the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and a key node in an international network of nationalist outfits, such as Jordan Peterson’s Alliance for Responsible Citizenship, and the Budapest-based Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

The Brussels conference aimed to produce a cohesive front for the European Parliamentary elections in June. It was a gathering of Europe’s nationalist vanguard. Orbán, the French politician Éric Zemmour, Nigel Farage, and the former Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, as well as a host of right-wing think tankers, MEPs and commentators came together to deliver speeches decrying everything from Islamisation, immigration and modernity. Over two days, the conference was the stage for court battles and police raids. Rishi Sunak and US Senator JD Vance became entangled in a free speech crisis. A cardinal was smuggled in. Beneath the headlines, the nationalist right emerged triumphant.

The first cheers of the opening day came when Croatian MEP Ladislav Ilčić paid tribute to the Resurrection. The EU, he went on, wants to “reduce nations, peoples and to merge all of us into an amorphous mass of European citizens”. Hermann Tertsch, a Spanish MEP for the Vox Party, railed against migrant boats landing on the Canary Islands and the rise of “ghettos” on the mainland. “We have an Islamic problem,” he said, warning that Muslims across the Mediterranean Sea want to reconquer Spain for the caliphate.

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Around midday, Farage strutted around the stage like the halftime entertainment, regaling tales about Brussels cafés and pubs where he was barred when he worked as an MEP between 1999 and 2020. This is when the police arrived. Enclosed by a wall of flashing cameras outside, three officers handed the organisers the mayor’s notice with an instruction to leave the building. It cited that some attendees were “Eurosceptic”, “reputed to be traditionalists, homophobes and disrespectful of human rights and minorities”, with at least one author of “controversial works on political Islam”.

For a group that claim free speech is threatened in Europe, the mayor’s actions both proved their point and led to much greater attention than their conference would otherwise have received. They were ecstatic. One bespectacled attendant asked the reception staff to take his photo with the police in the background. A young, grinning pair posed for a picture with their arms around each other. The organisers were ready to film the police if they moved in. And they did. After being invited to by the organisers, the police strode through the throng in the lobby. They reached the door to the auditorium and paused before turning to leave. One policeman muttered that he did not want to create a scene. Farage seemed enthusiastic at the prospect of arrest.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom International – a Christian and pro-life legal group – were challenging the order in the courts. The Belgium prime minister Alexander De Croo condemned the mayor’s actions as did Sunak, whose spokesperson said they were “damaging to free speech and to democracy”. A compromise was reached: the police lined the front of the venue, stopping people from entering. This was death by a thousand exits. It meant attendees, including journalists, could not re-enter once they had left the building.

Farage wrapped up his speech and bounced into the foyer to declare that “if anything has convinced me about leaving the EU it’s the events of today!” TV cameras swarmed around him like flies to dung. His tanned face shone with glee. Most people had left the auditorium to hear Brexit-man speak. That left the former home secretary Suella Braverman, more sheepish than usual when away from Westminster, speaking in front of a crowd that wouldn’t fill a Surrey village hall.

Outside, the French National Rally MEP Patricia Chagnon sulked behind the police line. Flamboyant French presidential candidate Zemmour rolled up with his entourage, bowdlerised the local mayor in French, then trotted off. Miriam Cates, the evangelical Christian Tory MP, was unfazed: she donned a headscarf, evaded the police and snuck into the hall through the service entrance. Cardinal Gerhard Müller miraculously appeared in the auditorium fitted out in his black skirt, yellow chain and a red skullcap, looking like a Staedtler pencil.

The organisers pressed on. Cates mourned the West’s paltry fertility rate, a topic that is becoming synonymous with her name in Westminster. Cardinal Müller drew a line between those who split the natural from the supernatural – David Hume, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes and Voltaire – and the modern progressives who reject the biological definition of sex. While His Highness captivated the blazer-clad young gentlemen in the front rows, the German noblewoman, Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, dozed on the backrow in a neon pink jumper and fingerless gloves.

The cardinal was more ecumenical than Father Benedict Kiely, who gravely informed the lock-in that the “catastrophe otherwise known as the Reformation” posed a central problem: what is the church? Today’s question, he went on, was: what is man? Gender ideology and the collapse of the family were leading to the “demonic” oppression of those who abide by Christian doctrine. Each speech was riddled with fears that Western civilisation, as they imagined it, faces extinction. The academic David Engels concluded with an ode: “Long live the West!”

On the continent, internationalist liberals are ceding ground to the nationalist bloc. Orbán has won three elections since he returned to power in 2010. The European Commission’s decision to withhold money after he took partial control over judicial appointments and clamped down on LGBT rights has boosted his reputation as a Hungarian William Wallace. The AfD in Germany, which wants to shut the EU’s borders and for the country to overcome its shame about Nazism, is now second in the national polls.

The European Parliament elections in June are a chance for Europe’s nationalist right to prove their support has surged since the last vote five years ago. Polls suggest that the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) parliamentary groupings will gain seats. The ID group, which counts Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and the AfD as members, are more hard-right than the Eurosceptic ECR, which includes Spain’s Vox Party. As Arvid Hallén from the conservative Swedish think tank Oikos mused when I spoke to him: “Are we going to see a shift from the traditional cooperation between the Social Democrats and the European People’s Party? Is there going to be a shift to the right where the [centre-right] EPP cooperates more with the [nationalist right] ECR? Is this going to happen? We don’t know yet. But that’s the tantalising opportunity for the European right.”

On the surface, Britain is an aberration. It is an outpost against this nationalist romp through Europe. Keir Starmer’s centre-left Labour Party is strolling towards power. Its victory looked improbable five years ago when Boris Johnson won the largest Conservative majority since 1987. But then Johnson turned No 10 into a lockdown rave and Liz Truss impaled the pound. Britain’s closed-shop electoral system means smaller parties need cranky news channels such as GB News to get heard. Brexit stripped parties such as Ukip of the opportunity to excel in the proportional system used for the European Parliament elections.

But this is an anomaly, which invites the question: how long can the centre-left in Britain hold out? The European Parliament elections could see the ascendancy of nationalism in Brussels, crowned by Trump’s potential victory in November. There are divisions within the nationalist right. Le Pen supported the recent move to make abortion a constitutional right in France, for instance. At the conference, Zemmour delivered a paean to European civilisation tout court at odds with national uniqueness. But these cracks aren’t fatal. What they have in common is potent enough.

This is a nationalism defined in the negative. The EU, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations are the oppressive empires which impose diktats on the nation state. Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and father of national conservativism, has sought to redeem nationalism by defining it against the imperialism of Nazi Germany.

When Hazony interviewed Viktor Orbán on the second day of the conference, after Belgium’s highest court had squashed the mayor’s order, he echoed his intellectual mentor: “In our culture, nationalism has a positive meaning, but in the West, that is not the case.” In countries like Germany, he explained, all “major crimes and bad things, catastrophes in that history were created [at the] national level. And the international level was the solution. Look at Nazism. In Central Europe it is the opposite. In our history, all [the] problem was created by international communities, and the good answer was national. So therefore, in our minds, nationalism is a solution.”

This nationalism is also deeply religious. Priests are rarely treated with reverence in Britian. They are at NatCon. The erosion of Christian belief, they argue, explains why the West is committing what they view as civilisational suicide. A devilish melange ­– gender ideology, multiculturalism, Islamisation –­ has rushed into the vacuum left by the empty pews.

This is why Israel, an ethno-religious state, is admired and envied by NatCon’s attendees and supporters. The Times journalist Melanie Phillips praised Israel as the “paradigm nation state” because it is “the place where the land, the religion and the people are fused as one”. They fear that without its Christian bedrock, Europe’s ill-defined liberties and traditions will wither away. Peter Thiel, the techno billionaire and democracy sceptic who spoke at NatCon in 2021, thinks Christianity’s decline has sapped the West’s confidence. He has said: “If we were more Christian, we would also have more hope for the future, and if we’re less Christian we’re going to have less hope. And there’s probably less action.”

Orbán, wrestling with a temperamental microphone, spoke about his plans to imbue education in Hungary with a Christian spirit. He swaggered through his address with the confidence of a leader assured that he speaks for a nation (whose Fidesz party is on 42 per cent in the polls). “Strangely enough,” he pondered, “when the Hungarian people get less and less religious, they support more and more Christian values.”

The National Conservatives are planning a July conference in Washington DC, four months before the presidential election. They sense their time has come. Their momentum is thrown into sharp relief by the absence of a left-wing equivalent. They are building a “Conservative Internationale,” as one smiling attendee put it to me. “Where is your version on the left?” There was no discussion about economics at the conference. This is not about higher GDP, but resisting the European Union, an empire which in their eyes uses the police as a private militia to suppress the vox populi. This abstract conspiracy, perpetuated by liberals who have a greater affinity with the outsider than their fellow countrymen, unnerves the NatCons. Orbán revelled in speculating that liberal politicians are letting in migrants to harvest their votes. Speaking to voters’ anger at spiritual decay and civilisational collapse is the ground on which they are confident they can quash the liberals. Those who mock NatCon should observe its proponents’ electoral success. The actions of a zealous mayor turned an anonymous conference into a continental news story. But it wasn’t necessary: people are listening anyway.

[See also: You’re not paying as much tax as you think]

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