My husband and I touched down in Venice in late March, rented a Fiat 500, and drove through a rolling Italian countryside spotted with vineyards. Our destination was the medieval town of Verona.

Verona has become something of a political flashpoint lately. It is the symbolic home of the Lega Nord, the now-leading conservative half of Italy’s coalition government. Matteo Salvini, Lega leader and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, has made headlines the world over for his refusal to allow UN ships full of migrants to land on Italy’s shores. We were there because Verona was the host city to the 13th meeting of the World Congress of Families, for which I work. It’s a global gathering of the world’s top pro-family activists, scholars, and NGOs. The Lega itself had invited the Congress, and Verona had given us the Gran Guardia palace as meeting space, free of charge.

By the time we arrived, the media uproar had been intense for weeks. They called us a hate group, demanded Verona back out, and promoted a petition for local hotels to deny lodging to Congress participants. Police milled about on the front steps of the Gran Guardia, and by the final day of the conference—when both Salvini and then Family Minister Lorenzo Fontana addressed the crowd—over 1,000 polizia and carabinieri in riot gear, as well as groups of private security in jeans, leather jackets, and sunglasses, guarded every conceivable entrance point. Some 20,000 protestors had arrived in the city by the busload.

And what were they protesting? Brian Brown, head of the International Organization for the Family, parent organization of the World Congress of Families, stated it best in his opening: “We are here today to defend, promote, protect, and lift up something so basic, true, and beautiful—the family: a man, a woman, a child.”

Salvini, who is despised by his country’s leftists in much the same way Trump is in the U.S., garnered some of the most negative press for comments during his conference speech that turned the arguments of feminism back onto the protestors. He pointed out that it was not the pro-family stance of the Congress participants that degraded women, but rather Islamic extremism, which keeps women cloistered in their homes, or covered from head-to-toe in the burka.

The talks presented at the conference were as varied as the speakers—pro-family policy in America, homeschooling in Russia, anti-abortion sentiment in Africa. Politicians from Hungary, which hosted the World Congress of Families in 2017, presented what the Orbán government had recently done to encourage family formation and growth, among which is the elimination of personal income taxes to women who bear four or more children. A representative from Moldova, the Congress host country in 2018, shared that her country had made 2019 the Year of the Family, enacting policies, such as opening more kindergartens, to aid married couples who have children.

In Italy, proposed pro-family policies include free nursery schools to aid women returning to work. An early Lega budget addition called for free farmland to be given to married Italian couples who welcomed their third child. Italy has also requested a UN moratorium on the practice of surrogacy, which the Lega deems degrading to women.

The theme for the Verona conference was “The Wind of Change,” and it is clear that change is indeed sweeping across Europe, where so-called populist parties continue to gain momentum. Euroskeptic parties that oppose unfettered immigration and promote a sense of national identity and patriotism are emerging in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and even Spain. This past June, such parties earned about a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament. At the cornerstone of many of their platforms is a regeneration of the family.

Conference speakers took the protests and media volleys in good stride. “I’ve just arrived—I was doing the ironing,” quipped Giorgia Meloni, leader of the party Fratelli d’Italia and former candidate for mayor of Rome, whose fiery speech stole the show. “Then I found 10 minutes to come and talk about politics with you.” Meloni was one of several speakers who highlighted that native Europeans aren’t having children for a number of reasons. These include a culture that devalues life and the family. But also because economic stagnation and a paucity of jobs have made it almost impossible to have even a moderate-sized family without ending up in the poor house. “We want to bring these issues to Europe,” Meloni said. If something isn’t done to address Italy’s low birthrate, “everything else we do is pointless.”

“Instead, what do we do?” Meloni continued. “We import people from the outside. We support mass migration as the continent, as Europe, instead of helping our own people to be able to have children, to be able to have families.”

Katalin Novák, Hungary’s Minister of Youth and Family Affairs, told the audience that Europeans “are giving up on ourselves.”

“We have a demographic decline in many European countries, and on the other hand we are facing a mass migration towards Europe,” Novák said. Europeans rarely think to question this state of affairs. “We don’t ask: ‘Why don’t European young people have children?’…How can we help young Hungarians, and young Italians, young Europeans to be able to have children?”

The European Union’s solution to the abysmally low birth rate is to import migrants to support the fragile social structure. The pro-family populists seek instead to make it possible for Europeans to have their own babies again. Leftist activists and media organizations try to paint our efforts as a ruse to implement some kind of tyrannical agenda.

“They frame it as being in favor of family and life and religious freedom, but really what they mean is simply different ways of restricting people’s human rights,” a representative of the European Parliamentary Forum told CNN.

This should sound familiar. Remember how the coastal elites concluded that Americans were just a bunch of rubes who were tricked into electing the secret dictator, Trump? Or how the poor, ignorant British didn’t really understand what they were voting for in Brexit? The elite are ever eager to believe they are the saviors of the ignorant masses, who don’t really want what they say they want.

On the last day of the conference, a pro-family march of some 30,000 people began outside the doors of the Gran Guardia. Carrying signs depicting the classic family unit—a mother, father, and several children—the marchers peacefully made their way through the beautiful city. Past centuries-old shops with red-tile roofs, past Gothic cathedrals, past the first-century stone coliseum that still houses the operas of Verdi and Puccini, through the city squares and past granite fountains carved with the gods and goddesses of the Roman pantheon, past native Italians and holiday-goers sipping espresso or Sangiovese at sidewalk cafes—this huge group marched for the Italian family. They had realized what the European Union clearly has not, that the preservation of local cultures depends on having local people, and that the very existence of such people depends upon a married mother and father raising children. I wish I could have joined them, but I was eight months pregnant myself at the time.

The EU was established for the laudable purpose of avoiding another European war. But it was born in fear, and its objective is a leveling of all cultures to one, maintainable status quo. This, the Italians and many others have come to believe, is too steep a price to pay for nominal peace, and no way to live. Rather, they have begun to rally around the principle of the family as the basis of all noble and good things on this earth, as an institution worth preserving, and as the cornerstone of a sustainable, thriving culture.

Italy and many other European countries may be well on their way to a true revival. Some scholarly evidence suggests that combinations of tax breaks and stipends for pregnant married couples do indeed have measurable effects on a country’s fertility gains.

To be sure, such measures are also hugely expensive. Demographer Jonathan Last highlights an econometric study finding that “for every 25 percent increase in natalist spending, society gets a 0.6 percent fertility increase in the short term, and only a 4 percent increase in the long run.” The same analysis found that although individual policies made a difference, improvements were largely dependent on a political culture which included family-friendly housing, welfare, and gender policy initiatives.

In other words, for cultural change, we need to dig deeper than law. We need a change of heart, a religious recommitment, an organized network of friends who believe as we do and can share what does and doesn’t work.

As my husband and I boarded the plane home, we remarked upon our time in Italy—the warmth of its people, the beauty of its landscape, the deep richness of its history, architecture, viticulture, and literature. This is a culture worth preserving, and the Italians themselves are beginning to recognize that their identity is worth the fight.