Jeremy Hunt faced jibes that he needed to ‘look at a history book’ today after likening the EU to a Soviet prison.
The Foreign Secretary made the striking comparison as he delivered a stark message that the UK would ‘fight’ if Brussels tried to block a fair divorce deal.
He insisted the EU must learn the lessons of history and not try to keep countries in line with dirty tactics.
The combative comments came in a speech to party conference in Birmingham yesterday that fuelled speculation Mr Hunt sees himself as a future leader.
But while they were warmly applauded by activists in the hall, they caused fury in some EU states.
The Latvian ambassador to the UK, Baiba Braže, responded on Twitter: ‘Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned 100 thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of 3 generations, while the EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect. #StrongerTogether.’
The rebuke was retweeted by the EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, while German minister Michael Roth dismissed the comparison and Czech politician Tomas Petricek branded it ‘unfortunate’.
The European commission’s chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: ‘I would say respectfully that we would all benefit – and in particular foreign affairs ministers – from opening a history book from time to time.’
The Foreign Secretary (pictured this morning at the Tory conference venue today) delivered a stark message to Tory conference yesterday (pictured) that the UK would ‘fight’ if Brussels tried to block a fair divorce deal
While Mr Hunt’s remarks were warmly applauded by activists in the hall, they caused anger in some EU states, with the German minister among those issuing a rebuke (pictured)
Mr Hunt arrived for his speech at Conservative Party conference yesterday with his wife Lucia
But the Foreign Secretary did receive support from former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who said: ‘Jeremy Hunt is using my language, the EU is the new Soviet Union.’
In his speech yesterday, Mr Hunt cautioned Brussels against pushing Britain too far, saying that the EU would also lose out if it ‘turns its back on history’.
He said Eurocrats needed to accept that those who voted for are not ‘rabid populists trying to build Fortress Britain’.
In a direct message to the bloc’s leaders, Mr Hunt said it was completely unacceptable for Brussels to demand Northern Ireland stays within its customs jurisdiction when the rest of the UK leaves.
‘What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,’ he said.
‘At the moment you seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves.
The combative comments came in a speech to party conference in Birmingham (pictured) that fuelled speculation Mr Hunt sees himself as a future leader
‘Not just with economic disruption. But even by breaking up the United Kingdom with a border down the Irish Sea.
‘What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.
‘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.
‘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.
‘And a setback for the EU will become a wholly avoidable tragedy for Europe.’
Mr Hunt said the government understood the EU wanted to ‘protect itself’.
‘But if the only way to deal with the UK leaving is to try to force its break up, as someone much more distinguished than me once said, the answer is ‘No No No.’
The reference to the Soviet Union did not go down well with many of the eastern EU states that were forcibly occupied.
Peter Ricketts, the former top mandarin at the Foreign Office, 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.’
Another previous Foreign Office chief, Sir Simon Fraser, agreed with Lord Ricketts.
‘Whatever you think about Brexit, shocking failure of judgment for British foreign secretary to compare European Union with Soviet Union,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Mrs May (pictured at conference today) has been struggling to hold her party together amid Brexit splits