- European Commission president Donald Tusk lashes out at the UK foreign secretary after he compares the EU to Soviet Russia.
- Tusk calls the comparison “insulting” and a failure of respect.
- Relations between Tusk and the UK government have been strained in recent weeks with Tusk openly mocking May on social media.
- There are just weeks until the key EU summit where negotiators hope to determine whether a Brexit withdrawal agreement can be struck.
LONDON – British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comparison between the EU and Soviet Russia was as “unwise as it is insulting,” the president of the European Commission Donald Tusk has said.
Hunt compared the Soviet Union to the European Union in a speech at the Conservative party’s annual conference this week, with his remarks roundly condemned by world leaders and European diplomats.
Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who was evicted from his home when Poland’s rulers cracked down on political opponents in 1981, said: “The Soviet Union was about prisons and gulags, violence against citizens and neighbours, [while] the EU is about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace.”
He added: “As the president of the European Council and someone who has spent half his life in the Soviet bloc I know what I’m talking about.”
He said that “unacceptable remarks that raise the temperature will achieve nothing but waste time.”
Asked whether Hunt should resign, Tusk said: “It’s not my problem.”
Relations between the UK and EU have been strained in recent weeks, following a disastrous summit in Salzburg where leaders lined up to condemn Theresa May for the UK’s perceived intransigence in Brexit talks.
Donald Tusk himself needled the prime minister on his Instagram account, posting a photo of himself offering May a tray of cakes during the summit.
“A piece of cake, perhaps?” Tusk wrote alongside the picture. “Sorry, no cherries.” The comment was a biting reference to accusations from Brussels that May is attempting to “cherry-pick” the most beneficial aspects of EU membership.
May attempted to defuse some of the fury from Brussels over Hunt’s remarks in her speech at the Conservative conference on Wednesday, making a reference to the “shipyard workers of Gdansk who led the resistance in Poland.”
Donald Tusk hails from Gdansk and brought food and water to the dockyard workers who were striking. at the shipyard during the resistance.
But the British government appears to have underestimated the anger with which European leaders have reacted to the remarks. Tusk dismissed May’s previous calls for “respect” from her EU counterparts on Thursday, telling reporters: “The emotional arguments that stress dignity sound attractive but do not facilitate agreement.”
He said a “true measure of respect” would be the UK and EU securing a Brexit deal which was based on the “Canada plus plus plus” which the EU has been pushing for two years, but which stops short of the closer relationship May is seeking with her Chequers proposals.
“From the very beginning, the EU offer has been a Canada+++ deal,” he tweeted.
“Much further-reaching on trade, internal security and foreign policy cooperation. This is a true measure of respect. And this offer remains in place,” he wrote.
‘Unworthy of a British foreign secretary’
Hunt’s remarks were also condemned by two former leaders of the Foreign Office. Peter Ricketts, who ran the Foreign Office between 2006 and 2010, tweeted: “This rubbish is unworthy of a British foreign secretary. The EU isn’t a Soviet-style prison. Its legal order has brought peace and prosperity after a century of war. Our decision to leave was always going to leave us worse off. The only punishment is the self-inflicted variety.”
Hunt later backtracked on the comments and said he was not directly comparing the EU with the Soviet Union.
“Any sensible reading of the speech would see that this was a passionate request and desire for friendship with our European neighbours going forward,” he told a reporter on Tuesday.
“But what I was saying is if the attitude of the EU is that someone that wants to leave the club has to be punished, then that’s not consistent with European ideals,” he told CNBC at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
“The EU was partly set up to stand firm against Soviet totalitarianism and I was just pointing out the contradiction that that’s what we were set up to stop.”
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