Combining Boris Johnson-like grasp of detail with the British tradition of making disastrous decisions over Balkan affairs, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has marked his first official visit to Slovenia by offending the country after he called it a former “vassal state” of the Soviet Union.
It was actually part of Yugoslavia, the communist country, which under Josip Tito jealously guarded its independence from the USSR – to the point of hosting the conference where the Non-Aligned Movement was created in 1961.
Seemingly oblivious to this, Mr Hunt stood beside Slovenian foreign minister Miro Cerar and declared himself “really happy to be here”, before telling his Slovenian hosts: “As a fellow European country, the UK is very proud of the transformation there has been in Slovenia, a really remarkable transition from a Soviet vassal state to modern European democracy.”
The Slovenians, inevitably, spotted the error and another attempt to win friends in the Brexit negotiations was blown off course, as Mr Hunt continued the gaffe-making of his predecessor in the role, Boris Johnson.
In a swiftly shared report, Milan Brglez, former president of the Slovenian parliament, was quoted as saying: “The British foreign minister comes to Slovenia asking us for a favour (to discuss with the foreign minister how to avoid a no-deal Brexit) while arrogantly insulting us. We were never a ‘vassal state of the Soviet Union’.”
The official Foreign Office take, retweeted by Mr Hunt, was a social media message about the foreign secretary visiting four European capitals and insisting: “It is possible to find a way through this, of course it’s challenging, of course there are difficulties but there is a solution.”
Disobliging members of the British public have replied to that tweet by observing: “He’s certain to be winning friends and influencing people with his cringeworthy ignorance of the ex-Yugoslav nations,” and: “You did really well in Slovenia, Jeremy. They love you now!”
It is not unprecedented for Mr Hunt to make unfortunate comments on his first diplomatic missions to countries.
He marked his first visit to Beijing as foreign secretary by trying to impress his hosts by saying his wife is Japanese. She is actually Chinese, and as Mr Hunt acknowledged, it was a “terrible mistake to make”.
The two nations have been rivals for centuries and Chinese memories remain raw of Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of their country during the 1930s and 1940s.
The Independent has asked the Foreign Office for comment.
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