Boris Johnson has been chastised for equating the struggle of Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion with those who voted for Brexit in the United Kingdom.
He said in a speech that Britons, like Ukrainians, have the instinct “to choose freedom,” citing the 2016 Brexit vote as a “recent example.”
Politicians in the UK and Europe have been outraged by the remarks.
Former European Council President Donald Tusk described the remarks as “offensive.”
Lord Barwell, a Conservative peer, said voting in a referendum was “in no way comparable” to risking one’s life in a war, while Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, called it a “insult” to Ukrainians.
Mr. Johnson recently gave an interview to the Sunday Times in which he strongly urged China to condemn the Russian invasion. He speculated that Beijing was reconsidering its neutral stance.
In a speech to the Conservative Party’s spring conference in Blackpool on Saturday, Mr. Johnson compared the Ukrainians’ fight to Brexit.
“I know that the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, have an instinct to choose freedom every time,” he said. I can think of a few well-known recent examples.
“I don’t believe the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers because they were hostile to foreigners in the least.”
“It’s because they wanted the freedom to do things their own way and for this country to run itself.”
Mr. Johnson also used the example of British people who chose to get vaccinated against coronavirus because they “wanted to get on with their lives” and “weren’t fed up with people like me telling them what to do.”
However, his remarks, which were intended to rally Tory supporters, have drawn criticism from politicians in the UK and Europe.
“Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British, and common sense,” ex-President of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted.
Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, called the comparison “insane.”
“I don’t think the prime minister was making a direct comparison between these two things – clearly they’re not directly analogous,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme when asked about the plight of Ukraine and Brexit.
He went on to say, “He was making some general observations about people’s desire for freedom.”
Mr. Sunak claimed that the prime minister had been galvanizing global opinion to send a strong message to Vladimir Putin, and that “that’s what we should be focused on.”
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, demanded that the prime minister retract his remarks and apologize.
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“To draw any comparison between the people of Ukraine fighting for their lives and voting to leave the European Union is shameless,” she told the BBC.
She emphasized that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wished to join the EU, and that “he clearly sees no such parallel.”
“Apart from the bit where voting in a free and fair referendum isn’t in any way comparable to risking your life to defend your country against invasion, and the awkward fact that the Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom to join the EU, this comparison is bang on,” Lord Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff in No 10, said.
Ukraine applied to join the European Union on a fast-track basis last month, shortly after the Russian invasion.
Mr. Zelensky said he spoke with Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, on Friday and expected progress on the application in the coming months.
Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the defence select committee, was among those who slammed Mr. Johnson’s remarks, tweeting: “Comparing the Ukrainian people’s fight against Putin’s tyranny to the British people voting for Brexit damages the standard of statecraft we were beginning to exhibit.”
“To compare a referendum to women and children fleeing Putin’s bombs is an insult to every Ukrainian,” said Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed. He is Basil Fawlty, not Winston Churchill.”
Mr. Johnson’s remarks, according to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, were “crass and distasteful.”
Johnson tells China to speak up
Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson urged China to join the global condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s invasion in an interview with the New York Times.
He warned Beijing that backing Russia was akin to siding with the wrong side in WWII, describing the conflict as a battle between good and evil.
Mr. Johnson told the newspaper that he believed some in President Xi Jinping’s administration were having “second thoughts” about Beijing’s neutral stance.
It comes just days after the US warned China that assisting Russia in evading sanctions would result in retaliation.
“As time passes and the number of Russian atrocities rises, I believe it will become increasingly difficult and politically embarrassing for people to condone Putin’s invasion, whether actively or passively,” Mr. Johnson said.
“People who thought they could sit this one out, who thought they could sit on the fence, are now in a lot of trouble.”
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