EU Chief Compares Russian Invasion of Ukraine to British Presence in Ireland

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives at Government Buildings in Dubl
Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is comparable to Britain’s historic rule of Ireland, the chief of the European Commission suggested on Friday.

In a speech before the Irish Parliament in Dublin, the head of the European Union’s unelected Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, likened Ukraine’s struggle to remain independent of Russia to Ireland becoming free from British rule nearly a century ago.

Marking Ireland’s 50th anniversary of joining the European Union, President von der Leyen hailed the country’s “passion for freedom”, saying: “This country knows what it means to struggle for the right to exist.”

“Today, another European nation is fighting for independence. Of course, Ireland is far away from the front line in Ukraine. But you understand better than most why this war matters so much to all of us,” she said per The Telegraph.

“Just like our friends in Eastern Europe, you know that in Ukraine there is more at stake than the future of one country alone. Ukraine is fighting for freedom itself; for self-rule; for the rules-based global order.”

The comments drew swift backlash from London, with MPs objecting to the comparison of the British Empire and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Former Brexit minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said it was “an extraordinary thing for Ursula von der Leyen to say, undiplomatic, unwise and wrong. It shows she is not entirely aware of the historic circumstances.

“And it shows ignorance of the UK’s relations with Ireland and a tragic failure to understand the depths of the wickedness of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine which has led to the slaughter of innocent people,” he added.

The comments come at a particularly sensitive time given the ongoing dispute between Britain and the European Union over Northern Ireland, which is still an integral part of the United Kingdom.

As a part of the Brexit deal negotiated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Northern Ireland, often referred to as Ulster, has been effectively cut off from the rest of the United Kingdom by internal trade barriers imposed by the European Union, which has been accused of imposing excessive custom checks compared to other border entry points in order to punish the British for Brexit.

This has led to widespread anger among the pro-British Unionists in the province, with the regional government in limbo and some warning of a potential return to violence.

Conservative think tank the Bruges Group said in response to von der Leyen’s speech: “If the EU wishes to be openly hostile towards the UK, we should be prepared to react accordingly with an uncompromising stance on Northern Ireland.

“There is no point negotiating with an organisation which despises us.”

The deputy chairman of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservative MPs, David Jones, said: “It would be easy to laugh off von der Leyen’s statement as just another EU presidential faux pas, in the finest traditions of Jean-Claude Juncker.

“However, this is a much more serious gaffe. The Northern Ireland peace process is a fragile creature, and it is hard to think of anything more provocative than to compare the Irish context with that of Ukraine, whose brave people are resisting the unwarranted aggression of Putin’s Russia,” said the ERG heavyweight.

“Someone in the [European] Commission should take her gently aside and point out that ill-considered words can have the most devastating consequences.”

Despite the diplomatic spat, the Times of London reports that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is looking to be “more pragmatic” than his two predecessors in trying to come to a deal with the EU over Northern Ireland — although neither ever took a firm stand against the EU — which potentially spelling out yet another Brexit betrayal from the government, given the Conservatives’ previous form when it comes to so-called “pragmatism”.

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka


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