Pressure on UK foreign minister to apologize for Soviet barb

Pressure mounted Tuesday on British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt to apologize for recent remarks comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union.

While British Prime Minister Theresa May effectively rebuked her foreign secretary for making the comparison, leaders from the European Parliament urged Hunt to take back his remarks, which caused particular offense in those East European countries that were under the control of Moscow for 40-plus years after the end of World War II.

Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the ALDE liberals told European legislators at a plenary session in Strasbourg, France that "he is insulting not us, but millions of ordinary citizens who have lived under Soviet rule for such a long time."

Hunt's grating comparison — that any EU attempt to prevent a smooth Brexit was akin to the Soviet Union stopping people leaving — came at a very sensitive time for the British government as it seeks to finalize a deal with the EU.

With Britain due to leave the EU next March, the negotiations about the future relationship have reached a particularly acute time. Both sides have indicated they want to secure a deal by November so relevant parliaments can give their approvals in time for actual Brexit day.

The European Parliament has to give its approval to a withdrawal agreement and the response to Hunt's remark there has been one of anger.

"Mr. Hunt you should apologize for what you said," said Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP Christian Democrat group, the biggest in the legislature.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also sought to distance herself from Hunt's remarks.

"As I sit around that table in the European Union, there are countries there who used to be part of the Soviet Union. They are now democratic countries," May told the BBC. "I can tell you that the two organizations are not the same."

One of those countries is Latvia, and its ambassador in London, Baiba Braze, sent a stinging rebuke, saying that "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."

Philippe Lamberts, the leader of the Greens in the parliament, also reminded Hunt that Britain had hardly been forced at gunpoint to join the EU back in 1973.

"Let he be reminded that the United Kingdom decided freely to join the EU," he said.

Hunt, he added, had succumbed to "the now commonplace rhetoric of the far right."


Jill Lawless contributed from Birmingham, England.