BERLIN — When former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson resigned from his position in July, some of his counterparts abroad were likely relieved. Johnson was known for mockery and ridicule considered to be deeply inappropriate by his foreign counterparts.
But as Brexit is quickly approaching and a deal on the terms of departure is still lacking, the diplomatic sensitivity many hoped would return after Johnson’s resignation is still nowhere to be found. In the latest incident that could play out to Britain’s disadvantage in mainland Europe, Johnson’s successor, Jeremy Hunt, drew angry reactions on Sunday when he compared the European Union with the Soviet Union.
“What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The E.U. was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,” Hunt said in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England, on Sunday. “The lesson from history is clear: If you turn the E.U. 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.”
Britain’s self-appointed Mr. Brexit, former U.K. Independence Party chief Nigel Farage, soon chimed in to claim credit for the comparison.
Despite its questionable historical accuracy, the Soviet Union-E.U. comparison is also frequently being used by far-right populists opposed to membership in the bloc. But the same comparison by a leading member of the British government certainly didn’t go down too well in the European Union member states that lost tens of thousands of people to Soviet occupation.
“Just FYI -- 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 E.U. has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect,” Latvia’s ambassador to Britain, Baiba Braže, argued in a response to Hunt’s speech.
Her outrage was widely echoed in other parts of central and Eastern Europe. “Brexiteer comparisons of the European Union to the U.S.S.R. is cheap and offensive, particularly to us who have lived both. Did the Red Army force you to join? How many millions has Brussels exterminated? Gulag for demanding a referendum on independence?” former Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski wrote on Twitter.
Take the example of Latvia that was invaded by the Soviets in 1940. One year later, on June 14, 15,000 Latvian citizens — including more than 2,000 children — were rounded up in overnight raids and deported to Soviet prison camps. Half of them never returned.
In all the Baltic states that were occupied by the Soviets, Soviet prisons are still deeply associated with torture, executions and inhumane mistreatment. Survivors later recalled sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme heat and overcrowding. Some prison cells built for half a dozen inmates housed up to 40 people.
To European leaders, the latest remarks from Hunt, a leading mainstream conservative, served as yet another metaphor for the disconnect between British politicians and their European counterparts that has permeated the Brexit negotiations for more than one year now.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the European Union and her own country in mid-September after her plan to leave the E.U. appeared to have fallen apart, she emphasized that she had treated the E.U. with “nothing but respect.”
In hindsight, May’s reassurance might sound like a desperate plea to her own party and to E.U. leaders. E.U. Council President Donald Tusk recently posted a photo of him handing a cake to May, complete with the caption: “A piece of cake, perhaps? Sorry, no cherries.” Since then, May’s former foreign secretary Johnson described her Brexit plans as “deranged,” shortly before Johnson’s successor offended much of Central and Eastern Europe — a part of the continent the prime minister was hoping to play off against Western Europe to obtain an advantageous deal to leave the European Union.