Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has backtracked on comments he made about the European Union in which he compared the group to the Soviet Union.
Hunt provoked condemnation and mockery on Sunday, after he said the EU risked becoming like a Soviet “prison” because of its negotiation stance on Britain’s exit from the EU.
He was met with widespread denouncements, including by two former permanent secretaries of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who described his comments as “rubbish unworthy of a British foreign secretary” and a “shocking failure of judgment”.
Asked this morning whether the EU was like the Soviet Union, Hunt told US broadcaster CNBC: “No, and they’ve got to be very careful that the way they behave in these negotiations is consistent with European ideals, and I don’t think we've been seeing that.”
Hunt’s retreat came after Prime Minister Theresa May moved to distance herself from his comments.
“As I sit around that table in the European Union there are countries there who used to be part of the Soviet Union, they are now democratic countries and I can tell you that the two organisations are not the same,” May said earlier today.
May faced humiliation at a summit of EU leaders last month, after they rejected her signature Chequers proposals for the UK’s relationship with the bloc post-Brexit. Chequers, which calls for frictionless trade on goods but seeks to drop other core EU tenants such as freedom of movement, has been deemed unworkable by European negotiators and also condemned by the right of her own party, who view it as too much of a compromise.
“If you reject the hand of friendship offered by our Prime Minister you turn your back on the partnership that has given Europe more security, more freedom and more opportunities than ever in history,” Hunt said on Sunday, in comment to the Conservative conference.
Lithuania’s EU commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who was born into a Soviet gulag forced labour camp and later jailed by the KGB, the Soviet state security agency, joined the criticism after Hunt’s comments.
“Happy to brief you on the main differences between EU and Soviet Union,” Andriukaitis said. “Anytime. Whatever helps.”
Hunt did receive some support, including from the hardline Brexiter and former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who said: “Jeremy Hunt is using my language, the EU is the new Soviet Union.”