Boris Johnson sparks fury by comparing Ukraine war to Brexit

‘He is no Churchill. He is Basil Fawlty’: European statesmen and UK politicians appalled by PM’s analogy

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Sunday 20 March 2022 17:48 GMT
Boris Johnson compares Ukraine conflict to Brexit in party conference speech

Boris Johnson has sparked fury by comparing the war in Ukraine to Britain’s vote to leave the EU, with one European statesmen branding it “disgraceful” and another describing it as offensive to those fighting the Russian invasion.

There were calls for the prime minister to be excluded from next week’s European Council meeting, where Mr Johnson is hoping to join EU leaders to discuss the Ukraine crisis with US president Joe Biden.

Speaking to the Conservative spring conference in Blackpool on Saturday, Mr Johnson said that the world faced a moment of choice between “freedom and oppression” and criticised those who believe it is necessary to “make accommodations with tyranny”.

He continued: “I know that it’s the instinct of the people of this country, like the people of Ukraine, to choose freedom every time.

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners. It’s because they wanted to be free to do things differently and for this country to be able to run itself.”

His comments – apparently drawing a parallel between membership of the EU and Russian “tyranny” – came just days after Ukraine officially applied for EU membership.

Vladimir Putin, who was one of the few world leaders to applaud Brexit, has attempted to justify his invasion in part as an attempt to prevent the extension of multilateral voluntary membership bodies like the EU and Nato to Russia’s borders.

Former European Council president Donald Tusk said: “Boris Johnson likens Ukrainians’ fight to British people voting for Brexit.

“I can still remember the enthusiasm of Putin and Trump after the referendum. Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”

And former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt said Mr Johnson’s comments should exclude him from attending next week’s European Council meeting with Biden.

“This is truly disgraceful. Despicable,” said Bildt. “Any thought of inviting this man to an EU summit should be shelved.”

The former prime minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, said: “Comparing Ukraine’s quest for freedom from Russian aggression to Brexit is about as vulgar as it gets.

“Winston Churchill, who understood freedom, must be turning in his grave. Boris Johnson, please stop these nonsensical comparisons.”

And former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, who led the European Parliament’s response to Brexit, said: “Johnson’s comparison of the courageous fight of Ukraine with Brexit is insane.

“Brexit was about undoing freedoms and leaving the EU. Ukrainians want more freedom and to join the EU.”

Mr Johnson’s comments also sparked criticism from the Conservative benches at Westminster.

The Tory chair of the Commons Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, said: “If we are to ultimately defeat Putin we require international leadership and unity.

“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.”

And Conservative peer Gavin Barwell, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff during Brexit negotiations, said: “Apart from the bit where voting in a free and fair referendum isn’t in any way comparable with risking your life to defend your country against invasion, and the awkward fact the Ukrainians are fighting for the freedom to join the EU, this comparison is bang on.”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said that Johnson was more like John Cleese’s xenophobic hotelier Basil Fawlty than his hero Churchill or the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Boris Johnson is a national embarrassment,” said Davey.

“His buffoonery contrasts with the courageous leadership of president Zelensky.

“To compare a referendum to women and children fleeing Putin’s bombs is an insult to every Ukrainian. He is no Churchill: he is Basil Fawlty.”

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