UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt backtracks on Soviet Union comments about EU

  • U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has backtracked on comments he made likening the European Union (EU) to the Soviet Union.
  • "The EU was partly set up to stand firm against Soviet totalitarianism and I was just pointing out the contradiction," he told CNBC Tuesday.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has backtracked on comments he made likening the European Union (EU) to the Soviet Union.

"Any sensible reading of the speech would see that this was a passionate request and desire for friendship with our European neighbors going forward. But what I was saying is if the attitude of the EU is that someone that wants to leave the club has to be punished, then that's not consistent with European ideals," he told CNBC's Steve Sedgwick at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, England.

"The EU was partly set up to stand firm against Soviet totalitarianism and I was just pointing out the contradiction that that's what we were set up to stop," he said Tuesday.

Brexit negotiations between the EU and U.K. have hit an impasse with the EU rejecting British Prime Minister Theresa May's plan for a post-Brexit relationship with the remaining 27 members of the bloc.

Foreign Secretary Hunt prompted a controversy after he told the Tory conference on Sunday that the EU was acting like the Soviet Union in trying to prevent members like the U.K. leaving the bloc. Prime Minister Theresa May also echoed Hunt on Tuesday, saying that the European Union was not the same as the Soviet Union.

Asked whether Hunt was right to have made the comment, May said: "As I sit around that table in the European Union, there are countries there who used to be part of the Soviet Union. They are now democratic countries and I can tell you that the two organizations are not the same," Reuters reported.

Changing tack

Speaking to CNBC, Hunt reiterated that the EU needed to change its stance in Brexit talks.

"The EU's attitude does need to change in these negotiations," Hunt said. "They need to sit down and they need to say that over the (last) 10 or 20 years, what's mattered for Europe is that strong partnership between the U.K. and continental Europe, that's what given us peace and prosperity. Let's not tear that up."

Aside from the EU's position, May is facing a battle at home, having to convince the entire Conservative Party that her 'Chequers plan' is unworkable. Particular criticism is coming from lawmakers that favor a "hard Brexit" that would see the U.K. sever its close trading ties with the EU in favor of striking free trade deals with other countries around the world.

Hunt said that what he wanted out of the negotiations was a "friendship, a partnership with Europe."

"If the EU's attitude is that they want to put us on the naughty step or the sin bin and Britain has to be punished, then that will undermine that friendship and that will be a bad thing for the whole of Europe."