Move to shut down Brussels conference ‘extremely disturbing’ – Downing Street

Reports that Belgian police attempted to shut down a conference due to be addressed by British politicians are “extremely disturbing”, Downing Street has said.

Authorities in Brussels ordered police to close the National Conservatism conference taking place in the city on Tuesday, citing concerns about public safety.

Officers attended the conference, where speakers included Suella Braverman and Nigel Farage, but instead of closing the event down immediately, they elected to barricade the entrance, allowing attendees to leave the building, but not re-enter.

The conference had already struggled to find a venue, with two event spaces cancelling the National Conservatives’ booking in the face of public pressure – leading organisers to accuse Brussels mayor Philippe Close of seeking to “cancel” the event for political reasons.

On Tuesday afternoon, a Number 10 spokeswoman said: “Clearly, these reports are extremely disturbing.

“The Prime Minister is a strong supporter and advocator for free speech and he believes that should be fundamental to any democracy.

“Speaking more broadly to the principle of such events, he is very clear that cancelling events or preventing attendance and no-platforming speakers is damaging to free speech and to democracy as a result.

“He is very clear that free debate and the exchange of views is vital, even where you disagree.”

The spokeswoman added she was not aware of any plans to raise the issue with the Belgian government.

Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo described the police action as “unacceptable”.

He said: “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.”

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Belgian police prevented anyone entering the building where the National Conservatism conference was being held, following an order from local officials (AP Photo/Sylvain Plazy)

Conference organisers said they would launch a legal challenge to the order requiring them to close, and suggested the second day of the event could be held at a different venue.

In a video on social media, Mr Farage said the Brussels authorities were behaving “like the old Soviet Union”.

He said: “At the meeting, over the next two days, you’ve got the Prime Minister of Hungary, you’ve got a bishop, you’ve got members of the European royal families coming, well-known international businessmen and women, politicians, leaders of parties that will win European elections in countries this year in June.

“And yet, because they are questioning ever-closer union, because they are questioning globalism, they are literally being shut down.”

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Nigel Farage compared the Belgian authorities to ‘the old Soviet Union’ (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Ms Braverman said: “It’s laughable that Brussels thought police were sent out to shut down a conference of democratically elected politicians representing the views of millions of people.

“They clearly didn’t want to hear about how we can secure our borders and protect our citizens.

“The more ridiculous their attempts to shut us down, the more cheered I am that we’re winning the arguments.”

While police surrounded the building, the former home secretary had delivered a speech calling for the UK to leave the European Convention of Human Rights immediately, but saying the Government lacked the “political will” to do so.

Ms Braverman attacked the ECHR as incompatible with parliamentary democracy and the court charged with enforcing it as “profoundly undemocratic and politicised”.

The Conservative MP, a long-time opponent of the ECHR, said the UK could leave the convention “at the stroke of a pen” with the Prime Minister sending a letter giving six months’ notice to the Council of Europe.

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Belgian police blocked access to the National Conservatism conference in Brussels on Tuesday (Virginia Mayo/AP)

She said: “I wish the UK would do so now. Not only is it the right and necessary thing to do, it is also the politically expedient thing to do.”

But she said she does not expect this to happen, and poured scorn on Rishi Sunak’s recent suggestions that he would be willing to leave the ECHR if it prevented him from implementing his policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Ms Braverman said: “Regrettably, the UK Government doesn’t have the political will to take on the ECHR and hasn’t laid the groundwork for doing so.

“It’s therefore no surprise that recent noises in this direction from the Prime Minister are being dismissed by the public as inauthentic.

“It must also be said that any attempt by the Government to include a plan for ECHR withdrawal, or a promise to hold a referendum on the question, in a losing Conservative Party election manifesto would likely set the cause back a generation.”

The conference also heard from Conservative MP Miriam Cates later on Tuesday, and is expected to host a speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Wednesday.

Mr Sunak had faced pressure to block Ms Braverman’s attendance at the conference, with shadow minister Jonathan Ashworth urging the Prime Minister to stop the former home secretary “giving oxygen to these divisive and dangerous individuals”.

Under Boris Johnson’s government in 2020, Conservative backbencher Daniel Kawczynski was reprimanded for attending a National Conservatism conference in Rome, with a Tory spokesman condemning the views of some other speakers, including Mr Orban.

Both Ms Braverman and Ms Cates addressed the National Conservatism conference in London last year, which was disrupted by protesters.