The Irish Times view on Jeremy Hunt’s history lesson: offensive and preposterous

Theresa May’s insistence that the EU has yet to explain its objections to UK proposals is patent nonsense

In a preposterous and offensive comparison, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt drew a parallel between the EU and the Soviet Union, calling it a “prison” whose inmates are punished for trying to escape. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

In a preposterous and offensive comparison, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt drew a parallel between the EU and the Soviet Union, calling it a “prison” whose inmates are punished for trying to escape. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

 

It’s usually wise to treat the overblown rhetoric of party conferences as theatrical “noises off”, fodder for an excitable rank-and-file. But when a foreign minister speaks, even to party loyalists, the world listens.

What then are we to make of British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt’s preposterous and offensive comparison on Sunday, echoing the reactionary leaders of Poland and Hungary, of the EU to the Soviet Union, a “prison” whose inmates are punished for trying to escape. Describing the EU’s Brexit approach as an attempt to “keep the club together” by punishing “a member who leaves”, Hunt asked: “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.”

Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was “counterproductive” to “insult” Britain’s referendum vote talks. Photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AP
"One might expect tact and sensitivity would be the order of the day for a country’s senior diplomat. Yet your comparison with the Soviet Union could not be calculated to be more offensive to states that remember that regime only too well." File photograph: Ye Aung Thu/AP

Prisoner? Yet the door is open. You are free to leave any time, Mr Hunt. Go, and take your baggage with you. But the trouble is that you don’t want just to leave. You want to retain all the rights of those remaining incarcerated – free lunches, participation in communal training, the right to sell your wares in the cellblocks unhindered ....

And then there’s the small matter of your other commitments. Like that to Ireland and a frictionless Border – there’s your insistence that when you make a choice to leave the EU, it is the EU, not you, which must change its rules to accommodate your obligations to your own citizens.

At a time when negotiations with partners are particularly sensitive, with 10 days to the crucial October summit, one might expect tact and sensitivity would be the order of the day for a country’s senior diplomat. Yet your comparison with the Soviet Union could not be calculated to be more offensive to states that remember that regime only too well, to leaders like Angela Merkel who emerged from that system. “Open a history book from time to time,” the European Commission’s spokesman suggested politely yesterday.

As Baiba Braže, Latvia’s ambassador to Britain, tweeted: “Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned 100 thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of 3 generations. The EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect. #StrongerTogether.” The EU will take no lectures from a Tory minister on protecting freedom.

And Hunt is not the only Tory playing dangerous conference games. Prime minister Theresa May’s repeated insistence in recent days that the EU has yet to explain its objections to UK proposals is patent nonsense.

It is also verging on a level of bad faith that bodes ill for any prospect of agreement.

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