A controversial network of ultra-conservatives that has been called an anti-LGBT ‘hate group’ in the US has forged increasing links with senior European politicians including heads of state, cabinet ministers and MPs, openDemocracy can reveal.
The World Congress of Families (WCF) – a global network of US, Russian and other ultra-conservative activists – is next meeting in Verona, Italy, this week. Among the expected guests will be representatives and supporters of several far-right parties looking to win big in the next European Parliament elections in May.
This network crosses borders to oppose abortion, sex education, same-sex marriage and bolster the power of religious institutions. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the far-right Lega party, is due to address their meeting and has positioned it as a showcase for “the Europe that we like”.
Today, new research from openDemocracy reveals that dozens of politicians from across Europe – including mayors, governors, MPs, ministers, ambassadors and heads of state – have been listed as speakers at WCF events over the years.
Almost half of them came from far-right parties in five countries – Hungary, Italy, Poland, Serbia and Spain – with most of these politicians attending these conferences in the last few years alone.
Also on these lists are at least seven cardinals on these lists, along with aristocrats from Austria, France, Portugal and Germany.
These findings confirm “what we had long suspected… and what the WCF have gone to great pains to hide”, said Neil Datta at European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development in Brussels, Belgium.
“Far from being a grass-roots initiative of mainstream religious [or] Christian people”, he continued, “It is very much a forum for the elite and former elite to exchange and feel that their far-fetched and far-right ideas are somehow mainstream”.
An incubator for extremism
In the US, researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who monitor extremist movements, have designated the WCF as an anti-LGBT ‘hate group’.
A WCF spokesperson disputed this designation, saying: “It’s an unfortunate slight for the countless Americans and the people around the world who hold the same views as we do on marriage, the nature of family, and the right to life, that are part of the fabric of Christianity and also other traditional points of view”.
Europe has hosted most of the WCF’s international events (seven out of the last 10) – though its expansion and influence in the region has gone under-investigated according to Datta, who described it as “an incubator for extremism”.
Our findings, he added, revealed how these gatherings have become sites “where the far-right mingle with the ultra-conservative religious actors” – and plan campaigns “to roll back human rights for women, children and sexual minorities”.
openDemocracy located and analysed the programmes of each of these WCF gatherings since 2004 – compiling a list of more than 700 people connected to this network from more than 50 countries around the world.
Most of these people represented conservative and religious groups, and there are more Americans – more than 200 in total – than speakers from any other country.
The US Christian right ‘legal army’ Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has recently ramped up its spending in Europe and has a new office in London, opened in 2017, has sent numerous people to these events.
But there were also about 100 current or former politicians from 25 countries on these lists – with more than 60 from Europe and almost half of these European politicians coming from far-right parties.
Growing far-right links
Most of the far-right politicians on these lists appear to have attended WCF gatherings since 2017 – we only found nine on the programmes before that year, with the majority of those from Poland in 2007 when that country hosted the event.
Speakers on the 2007 programme included Marek Jurek. He had then recently left the far right Law and Justice (PiS) party over its failure to push through a constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion in all cases.
That year, Jurek founded a new Christian right political party called Right of the Republic, which doesn’t have any MPs in Poland – though he is an MEP.
The former Polish prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was also scheduled to speak – but was replaced by his identical twin Lech Kaczynski, then Poland’s president.
Spanish far-right politicians were also at the 2012 WCF in Madrid in 2012, including then MEP, and former Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja, who once called fascism "an extraordinarily peaceful period" and said that terrorist attacks happened because Christian values were lost when gay marriage was legalised.
More than a dozen Hungarian politicians have attended these gatherings over the years, including current family minister and vice president of the far-right Fidesz party, Katalin Novak, who is also scheduled to speak at this month’s event in Verona.
Bosko Obradovic, the leader of the far-right Dveri party in Serbia also attended the WCF when it was hosted in Budapest in 2017. openDemocracy reported from inside that event, where a Lega party official read a statement from Salvini, urging collaboration to defend the “natural family” that is “constantly being threatened”.
Moldova’s president Igor Dodon – who supports bans on homosexual 'propaganda' and said "I am not president of the gays" – is expected in Verona too. He spoke at the 2018 WCF his country hosted and was on the list for the 2016 edition in Georgia.
Defending ‘Christian Europe’
Our analysis of the speakers’ lists at these events comes as far-right and ultra-conservative movements surge across numerous European countries and appear to be increasingly interlinked – and ambitious.
Earlier this year, Italy’s Salvini was in Poland for “strategy meetings” with the PiS. At a press conference, Polish interior minister Joachim Brudziński said the countries “will be part of the new spring of Europe, the renaissance of European values”.
The far-right Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán – who spoke at the 2017 WCF that his country hosted – praised these connections saying “the Warsaw-Rome axis is a great development” to which “great hopes are linked”.
Orbán launched his European elections campaign last month by calling on voters to defend “Christian” countries against immigration – and announced new tax breaks and benefits for women who get married and have several children.
Italy’s family minister Lorenzo Fontana is also expected to speak at the WCF in Verona, where he was previously deputy mayor. He once called for the repeal of an anti-fascism law banning racial hatred, and said gay families “don’t exist”.
Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament and a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party since the 1990s, had also been on the list of speakers – though his name was taken off it amid criticism from MEPs in Brussels.
In Italy, prime minister Giuseppe Conte recently demanded that the logo of his office be removed from the WCF website, saying he had nothing to do with it and that the government respects “individuals independently of their sexual orientation”.
Amid growing local controversy around this week’s event, the WCF’s Italian press office put out a statement last week comparing themselves to “blacks at the time of segregation… we’ll have to sit on seats in the backs of buses”.
The statement suggested there has been a local campaign targeting the hotels that participants’ plan to stay at during the meeting and referenced a letter signed by numerous academics from the University of Verona protesting the event.
It claimed the WCF was the victim of a “witch hunt” including “bullying” by the media, “lies, even institutional fake news, but we are going ahead for the sake of families”.