Britain's top diplomat under fire over EU-USSR comparison

Birmingham (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


Britain's Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt came under fire on Monday after comparing the EU's attitude to Brexit to that of the Soviet Union.

His remarks come just six months before Britain withdraws from the European Union in a divorce which has been peppered with bitter disputes and acrimony.

Speaking to delegates at the annual conference of the ruling Conservative Party, Hunt said the EU wanted to "punish" Britain for leaving, comparing it to USSR trying to stop its members from breaking away.

In remarks directed at Brussels, Hunt said: "You seem to think the way to keep the club together is to punish a member who leaves ... 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," he said.

His remarks were quickly denounced by two former heads of the Foreign Office.

"This rubbish is unworthy of a British foreign secretary," Peter Ricketts said, while his successor Simon Fraser branded it a "shocking failure of judgement".

Hunt, 51, took over at the Foreign Office after Boris Johnson resigned in July over Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit blueprint. Habitually softly-spoken, Hunt is seen as a potential successor to May.

May's plan involves keeping Britain close to the EU on trade but it was roundly rebuffed by European leaders at a summit in Salzburg last month.

They have demanded a rethink before another summit in mid-October, putting May under intense pressure.

Her centre-right Conservatives, who run a minority government in parliament, are badly divided over her plan -- something she will have to address at the party conference.

A sizeable chunk of them, with Johnson in the vanguard, want a cleaner break from Brussels with a harder form of Brexit.

But Hunt showed no sign of giving up his attack on the EU's approach, telling Monday's Daily Telegraph that there was no chance that Britain would respond to a hard line in the talks.

"The way Britain reacts is not that we crumble or fold but actually... we fight back," he said.

"We are one of the great countries of Europe and there comes a point where we say 'we're not prepared to be pushed around, if you're not serious about a deal then we won't be either'."