Addressing a Conservative Party Conference on September 30, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt compared the EU to the Soviet Union by claiming that Brussels was hindering the European Union’ s constituent members from exercising their national sovereignty by forcing them to remain within the bloc.
“The EU was set up to protect freedom; it was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,” Hunt said, adding that by rejecting Theresa May’s Brexit roadmap, the EU was effectively forcing its members to “keep the club together.”
Hunt’s mention of the Soviet experience is in reference to the December 1991 dissolution of the Communist state that comprised most of the former Russian Empire. Several of the 15 constituent republics – including the Baltic States, Ukraine, and the nations of the Caucasus joined several other autonomous regions in the country to push for more sovereignty from the iron-fisted rule of Moscow in the late 1980s as the Soviet economy began to collapse, which followed years of mismanagement by Communist Party hardliners and the shock of the social and economic reforms known as glasnost and perestroika that were put in place by then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Hunt’s statement was seen as an attempt to cater to the Conservative base that voted for the UK to Leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum. In doing so, Hunt raised concerns of the ruling Conservative party becoming once again the party of white, elderly English, alienating both youth and business.
Brexit champion Nigel Farage hailed Hunt’s statements, saying the foreign secretary was allowing himself to speak without being filtered for political expediency.
Hunt’s statement has, however, caused a ferocious backlash from former career diplomats, as well as from those who once lived in the Soviet Union.
Two former heads of the British Diplomatic Service, Peter Ricketts and Sir Simon Fraser, pushed back against Hunt’s statements, with the former calling them, “rubbish that is unworthy of a British foreign secretary.” Fraser took to Twitter to write that Hunt’s assertion was “a shocking failure of judgment for British foreign secretary to compare the EU with the Soviet Union.”
The reactions in the Baltic states, which were once part of the Soviet Union, were far more heated with Estonia’s Ambassador to the UK, Tiina Intelmann, calling the comparison “an insult”. Intelmann’s reaction was followed by a Tweet from Latvia’s Ambassador in London, Baiba Braze, who took time to remind both Hunt and Farage that the Soviet Union “imprisoned, executed and deported its people”, while the EU brought “prosperity, equality, growth, and respect.”
Lithuania’s EU Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, recalled his own imprisonment by the feared Soviet-era secret police, the KGB, and offered to brief Hunt on the differences between Europe in the 21st century with what life was like under Soviet Communism.
Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s spokesman, criticised Hunt’s grasp of historical fact and suggested that everyone, “in particular foreign affairs ministers”, would benefit from opening a history book from time to time.
Schinas’ comments have added to the heavy criticism that Hunt has been subjected to since he first made the comparison. A major omission from Hunt’s statement about both the EU and the Soviet Union was that the latter was a single, highly centralised state with a one-party political system and ideology. The European Union is neither a confederation or federation of states that comprise a single nation-state, but is, instead, a multi-party, multi-national bloc and internal single market that shares a standardised system of laws that apply to all of the individual member states.