Boris Johnson faces backlash after comparing the war in Ukraine to the Brexit vote

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hit by a wave of criticism at home and across Europe after comparing Ukraine’s fight for “freedom” to Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak tried to defend the prime minister on Sunday, insisting the two issues were “not directly analogous” and that Johnson had no intention of making a direct comparison.

But other senior Tories distanced themselves from Johnson’s remarks at the Conservative Party’s spring conference in Blackpool, while European leaders condemned them.

Johnson said on Saturday it was the “instinct” of the British people, “like the people of Ukraine”, “the freedom to choose”, citing recent events such as the 2016 EU referendum and the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in Great Britain.

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large, large numbers, I don’t think it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners,” he said. “That’s because they wanted the freedom to do things differently and that this country should be able to govern itself.”

Asked at Sky News Sophy Ridge on Sunday Program on whether he thought the comments were “crass,” Sunak said Johnson “has taken a lead around the world to stand up to it [Russian president Vladimir] Putin”.

But Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Johnson had to apologize, adding that the remarks were “absolutely distasteful and offensive” to both the Ukrainian and British public.

Johnson’s comments are likely to reinforce widespread sentiment in some European capitals that the prime minister is a populist determined to continue scoring against the EU six years after the Brexit vote.

“It’s really a shame,” said Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister, on Twitter. “Despicable. Any thought of inviting this man to a summit meeting should be shelved.”

Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, said comparing the EU referendum to Ukraine’s quest for freedom from Russian aggression is “as vulgar as it gets”. He added: “Winston Churchill, who understood liberty, must turn in his grave.”

Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council, tweeted: “Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, British and common sense.”

Johnson, who is in Brussels for a NATO summit on Thursday, has not been invited to attend an EU summit on the same day, although US President Joe Biden will be a guest at the event.

“There could be leaders of other NATO countries who are not EU members and want to come,” an EU official said. “We can’t invite them all.”

Downing Street had indicated Johnson was ready to attend his first EU summit since Brexit came into effect.

The EU official added: “We could envision a 27 plus Britain summit at some point.” A spokesman for Charles Michel, President of the European Council, declined to comment.

Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative Chair of the Defense Committee, was the first Tory MP to publicly criticize Johnson’s remarks. “To compare the Ukrainian people’s struggle against Putin’s tyranny with the British people who voted for Brexit damages the standard of statecraft that we have begun to show,” said the MP for Bournemouth East wrote on Twitter.

Theresa Villiers, a former cabinet minister who supports Brexit, told the BBC broadcasting house: “These are probably not words I would use myself.”

In recent weeks, icy relations between London and the EU have thawed as both sides worked together to coordinate sanctions on Russia, but Johnson’s comments could mark a blow.

Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary, was invited to a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council this month, while Britain rewrote its sanctions legislation to allow it to copy measures introduced by Brussels against those linked to the Putin regime to stand. Boris Johnson faces backlash after comparing the war in Ukraine to the Brexit vote

Adam Bradshaw

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