Everything that was wrong about Jeremy Hunt comparing the EU to the Soviet Union

Countries repressed by the Soviet Union are now enjoying freedom and growth in the EU, which Margaret Thatcher encouraged them to join 

Adam Lusher
Monday 01 October 2018 18:53
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Jeremy Hunt compares EU to 'prison' of Soviet Union

At least it was an eye-catching comparison.

Urging the party faithful to rally to the cause of Brexit, Jeremy Hunt seemed to liken the European Union to the late, unlamented Soviet Union.

“What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream?” he asked the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.”

“The lesson from history is clear,” intoned the British foreign secretary. “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.”

Inside the hall, they lapped it up.

Outside, not so much.

“I would respectfully say,” suggested European Commission spokeswoman Margaritis Schinas, “That we would all benefit, and in particular foreign affairs ministers, from opening a history book from time-to-time.”

Alternatively, of course, Mr Hunt could find someone to give him a first-hand account of the history: someone like European Council president Donald Tusk, perhaps.

Mr Tusk is, after all, well placed to compare and contrast the repression in Soviet-controlled Poland with the freedom – or otherwise – in the modern EU member state.

On a day in December 1970, for example, the 13-year-old Tusk was able to look out of the window of his Gdansk home and see how the communist authorities dealt with protest.

“I saw policeman shooting people, and soldiers shooting people,” Tusk later told a Financial Times interviewer.

And at about the time that Jeremy, son of Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, was starting at Charterhouse public school, Donald Tusk, the son of a railway carpenter, was starting the altogether riskier business of being an anti-communist dissident.

As a 20-year-old history student in 1977, he helped create the Student Committee of Solidarity, in reaction to the mysterious death of activist Stanislaw Pyjas, who many believe was murdered by Polish state security agents.

In December 1981 when Poland’s ruler General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law, Tusk lost his job as a journalist and was evicted from his home, along with his pregnant wife. For a time, he had to go into hiding.

In 1983 he was arrested, shortly after co-founding the magazine Przeglad Polityczny (Political Review).

But, in a sense, the future Polish prime minister and European Council president was lucky. Three days after his arrest, Jaruzelski announced an amnesty for political prisoners, and Tusk was freed.

Thousands of others endured much longer and much harsher terms of imprisonment. Dozens of Polish dissidents were killed.

In the Soviet Union itself, of course, repression was equally, if not more fierce.

To voice opposition to the communist regime was to risk being sent to the forced labour camps of the Siberian gulag system. That’s what happened to Vytenis Andriukaitis’ parents. Which is why the Lithuanian heart surgeon turned EU health commissioner was actually born in Siberia. And why he now seems willing to explain to Mr Hunt the difference between the European and Soviet Unions.

The more persistent Soviet dissidents could also be imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals, being diagnosed with mental illnesses that only Soviet doctors could detect and, if they protested, being injected with drugs that caused convulsions.

It does seem rather difficult to identify the European member state that is resorting to such methods to suppress dissents, despite the British foreign secretary suggesting the EU is in danger of becoming a “prison”.

There does also seem to be something of a contrast between how the Soviet Union dealt with member states that wanted to leave, and how the EU responded to Brexit.

It is true that Theresa May has had to cope with some rather strong words from the EU, and even a faintly mocking “no cherries” instagram picture from Mr Tusk. As yet, however, negotiations have not been conducted with any British people staring down the barrel of a real, non-metaphorical gun.

Which was not the case when Lithuania became the first member state to break away from the USSR, (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).

On January 10 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union ordered Lithuania to reaffirm that it remained a republic of the USSR.

The Lithuanian parliament, perhaps emboldened by the way communist satellite states like Poland and East Germany had finally rejected Russian overlordship, refused.

The Soviets did not send in the negotiators. They sent in the troops.

On the night of 12-13 January, 1991, Soviet soldiers and tanks broke through a ring of 1,000 protesters who had gathered to protect the radio and television centre in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.

Armed soldiers overwhelmed civilians whose only weapons, if they had any, were sticks. A total of 14 civilians were killed at the TV tower and about 1,000 injured.

After taking the radio and television stations off the air, the Soviet forces warned the people: “Lithuanians, do not resist. Go home to your families and children.”

Many, however, disobeyed and prepared to defend the Lithuanian parliament itself.

As recounted by Anatol Lieven in his book The Baltic Revolution, one of those preparing to defend the parliament declared: “The intention is not to win ... the intention is to die ... to make sure that the whole world knows that Lithuania was prepared to fight for her freedom.”

Lithuania won its freedom because so many civilians crowded in front of the parliament that the Soviet army officers thought there was “too much meat” blocking their path for world opinion to let them get away with storming the seat of government.

It is not clear that such lengths will be required to achieve Brexit.

Latvia and Estonia followed suit in declaring their independence in the same year, and the comments of Baiba Braze, Latvia’s ambassador to the UK, would suggest the Baltic states do not regret leaving the USSR – or joining the EU.

Reacting to reports of Jeremy Hunt’s conference speech, Ms Braze informed a journalist: “FYI – Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned [hundreds of] thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of three generations, while the EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect.”

But if Mr Hunt needs another vivid illustration of how the EU has brought comparative prosperity to the former communist states, he has only to turn to the Tory favourite whose words he quoted immediately after offering his Soviet Union comparison: Margaret Thatcher.

She may, as Mr Hunt noted, have issued her anti-federalist “no, no, no” rallying cry in October 1990, but in March 1991, as the countries of Eastern Europe freed themselves from communist control, Mrs Thatcher told an audience in Washington: “As Eastern Europe emerges from the darkness, the truth is now fully known, and told even by communists: behind statistics boasting of bumper crops, food rotted; as economic growth rates soared on paper, people queued for hours to buy goods that a western supermarket couldn’t even give away.

“As five year plan followed five year plan, command economies turned out products that no one wanted to buy, and created an environment in which no one wanted to live.”

It was a pretty accurate summary of one of the signature features of life under Soviet communism: food shortages and queueing for whatever pitiful scraps of meat or rotting vegetables the shops had to offer.

Long queues and near-empty shelves: a Russian shop in 1991, shortly before the end of the Soviet Union 

Mrs Thatcher, for all her suspicions of the EU, was one of the leading advocates of former communist bloc countries joining it. In that same 1991 speech in Washington, she declared: “The European community does indeed have a political mission. It is to anchor new and vulnerable democracies more securely to freedom and to the west.”

For these countries, as Ms Braze suggested, EU membership does seem to have worked out rather better than membership of the Soviet Union.

Food shortages are no longer a feature of everyday life. Instead in June, when the European Commission published GDP growth forecasts for 2019, nine of the 12 member states expected to grow by three per cent or more were former communist countries.

Donald Tusk’s native Poland was expected to achieve 3.7 per cent growth.

Meanwhile, as it prepared to leave the EU, the UK – with Jeremy Hunt, Theresa May and the rest of the Cabinet at the helm – was expected to achieve 1.2 per cent growth, the lowest figure in Europe alongside Italy.

Which is perhaps one answer to Mr Hunt’s question about “what happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream”.

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