BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND — Former Brexit Secretary David Davis has been accused by a Conservative MP of pushing “ugly nationalist sentiment” after suggesting that no EU member state is as “great” as the United Kingdom.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference on Monday, Davis recalled a “row” he had with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, over the financial commitments the UK must pay when it leaves the bloc.
“That was the very first row I had with Barnier on the first day I saw him. He said the price of being a great country is standing by your commitments,” Davis told an audience of Tory party members in Birmingham.
“I’m not being lectured on how to be a great country by European countries.”
Conservative MP Guto Bebb told Business Insider that Davis and his fellow Brexiteers were guilty of “jingoistic sabre-rattling”.
Bebb, the former minister and supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, told BI: “As the Brexit project continues to fall apart, David Davis is reduced to the kind of jingoistic sabre-rattling that we all thought had been consigned to a bygone era.”
He added: “Brexiters like David Davis are still refusing to acknowledge that the vision of Brexit they helped sell to the British people is fundamentally undeliverable.
“So they are trying to pass the buck by appealing to the lowest common denominator of ugly nationalist sentiment.”
Davis’ remarks come after European leaders responded with outrage to Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion on Sunday that the EU was behaving like the Soviet Union in its approach to Brexit talks.
“What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving,” Hunt said in a speech to Conservative party conference.
A spokesperson for the European Commission scolded the UK foreign secretary on Sunday, telling journalists in Brussels that Hunt would benefit “from opening a history book from time-to-time.”
Davis’s comments were described as “extraordinary” by a senior EU source.
The source told Business Insider that “lots of people are upset” by Hunt’s remarks, adding: “People know it’s Tory conference — but it’s still an extraordinary thing for a British foreign secretary to say.”
A number of European politicians rounded up on Hunt.
Baiba Braže, Latvia’s ambassador to the UK, tweeted: “Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned [hundreds of] thousands of Latvia’s inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of 3 generations, while the EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect.”
Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s former foreign minister, called on Hunt to apologise. “Brexiteer comparisons of the European Union to the USSR is cheap and offensive, particularly to us who have lived both,” he tweeted.
“Did the Red Army force you to join? How many millions has Brussels exterminated? Gulag for demanding a referendum on independence? Apologise, @Jeremy_Hunt!”
He was joined by the European Parliament’s Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt, who tweeted: “Offensive and outrageous comments by Mr. Hunt, especially to those millions of Europeans that lived under Soviet occupation. Churchill and Thatcher, these great defenders of European freedom and democracy must be turning in their graves.”
However, Hunt’s controversial comparison was welcomed by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who tweeted: “Jeremy Hunt is using my language, the EU is the new Soviet Union.”
In his conversation with the UK In A Changing Europe thinktank, Davis played down fears of a no deal Brexit, claiming: “There will be tractors on the Champs-Élysées when they [French farmers] can’t sell their milk and cheese.”
He also rejected suggestions that aspects of the Leave campaign were bigoted, telling the fringe: “I don’t think there was any bigotry in the Leave campaign. There are undoubtedly bigots in the UK. There are bigots everywhere.”
He added: “My previous resignation was over civil liberties. Who were the primary beneficiaries from that resignation? It was the Muslim community. They felt oppressed by terrorist laws which they felt were unfair. I take very seriously the importance of coherence in our society.”