The UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt risked alienating several CEE countries sympathetic to London in its Brexit negotiations by comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.
The comparison did not go down well in the Baltic states, Poland, and other CEE countries for which joining the EU was the final act of breaking up with their history of being parts of or satellites of Moscow's empire.
Hunt accused the EU of obstructing the UK’s departure from the bloc in what, he said, resembled the Soviet Union and its lack of freedoms.
“The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,” Hunt told a Conservative Party conference last weekend.
That elicited strong responses from diplomats in the eastern EU whose countries were actual parts of the USSR, such as the Baltic states, or were its satellites like Poland.
Ironically, some of those countries have been advocating a lenient approach to Brexit.
Hunt’s remark hit a sore spot of their histories, however, in which the years of the Soviet Union’s domination were marked with fear, poverty, and repression, while joining the EU brought about peace and prosperity.
Hunt’s remark is particularly awkward given that the current President of the European Council and a key figure in the Brexit talk is Polish. Donald Tusk was part of the anti-communist Solidarity movement in Poland that helped end the Soviet domination over the region.
Tusk did not comment on Hunt’s words but it is clear from many of his earlier statements that the EU-Soviet Union analogy is plainly wrong.
“Fifty years ago the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed #PragueSpring. But the desire for freedom and democracy survived and is the essence of what unites Europe today,” Tusk wrote in August, commemorating the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Other current and former officials were less diplomatic.
“EU and USSR not comparable. Soviet regime was brutal, I lived under it, comparison is insulting,” Estonia’s ambassador to the UK Tina Intelmann said 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,” Baiba Braze, Latvia’s UK ambassador, tweeted.
A Eurobarometer survey published in May showed that the feeling that their country benefitted from EU membership is absolutely dominant in several eastern countries.
The support is at 90% in Lithuania, 88% in Poland, 86% in Estonia, and 70% in Latvia, the survey showed. Even in the Eurosceptic Hungary, the support is 78%. The EU fares the worst in Bulgaria, where 57% of the population thinks joining the bloc was beneficial. That still is 34pp above the percentage that thinks otherwise.
Poland’s former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski demanded an apology from Hunt.
“Brexiteer comparisons of the European Union to the USSR are 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?” Sikorski wrote on Twitter.