Jeremy Hunt performs humiliating climbdown over EU and USSR comparison after backlash

Posted On: 
2nd October 2018

Jeremy Hunt has backtracked on his comparison between the European Union and Soviet Russia following a barrage of criticism.

Jeremy Hunt was criticised for comparing the two blocs
Credit: 
PA Images

The Foreign Secretary sparked widespread anger when he said the EU was trying to “punish” the UK  for Brexit, which he likened to the USSR preventing its member states from leaving.

“What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream?” he told delegates at the Conservative conference in Birmingham. "The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving. 

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"The lesson from history is clear: if you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won’t diminish, it will grow – and we won’t be the only prisoner that will want to escape."

The comments were roundly condemned by political and diplomatic figures in Europe and the UK.

But in an attempt to limit the damage caused by his speech, Mr Hunt told Bloomberg: “I wasn’t saying that the EU is like the Soviet Union.

“What I was saying is that the EU was set up to counter the Soviet Union but they’ve got to be very careful... if they really think that the only outcome that’s acceptable from these talks is to punish Britain from wanting to leave the club, then that’s not consistent with European ideals and we should remember why we were set up because there were organisations that did take that approach."

His initial comments led to Latvia’s ambassador to the UK to point out that the USSR “killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Latvia's inhabitants”, before defending the EU as having brought the country “prosperity, equality, growth, respect”.

Meanwhile ex-Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Ricketts branded the claim “rubbish unworthy of a British Foreign Secretary” while his successor Sir Simon Fraser called it a “shocking failure of judgement”.

When pressed on whether he thought the comments were helpful, given they had angered some in Europe, Mr Hunt responded: “I think they need to understand that we’re very angry as well and if the EU’s view is that every time we put constructive proposals on the table all they have to do is say ‘no, come back with something different, and that’s not a negotiation.”

When asked whether he thought the choice of words was “diplomatic” he continued: “What I would say is that it was a very diplomatic argument because what I was saying is that our future in Europe… will be more secure, more safe and more prosperous if Britain and the EU are friends.”

He added: “People want to leave the EU but they want to stay friends with EU countries and they don’t want to throw the baby with the bath water.

"But the thing that’s been so extraordinarily successful in keeping the peace over the last 60-70 years has been that partnership where the UK has helped defend the orders of the EU, we have made it stronger, so let’s keep the good things of that relationship.”