European Council President Donald Tusk today (17 May) launched a scathing attack on Boris Johnson, a leading figure in the campaign to take the UK out of the EU, after the former London mayor compared the EU to Adolf Hitler.
Britons will vote on whether to remain or leave the EU in a 23 June referendum. Johnson, a conservative in the Vote Leave group, on Sunday said European history had witnessed repeated efforts to create a single government on the continent.
“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods,” Johnson told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“When I hear the EU being compared to the plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent,” said Tusk in a Copenhagen press conference with Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
“Such absurd arguments should be completely ignored if they hadn’t been formulated by one of the most influential politicians of the ruling party,” he said.
“Boris Johnson crossed the boundaries of a rational discourse, demonstrating political amnesia,” said Tusk, who added there was, “no excuse for this dangerous blackout”.
The former Prime Minister of Poland, a country that suffered greatly in the Second World War, is the first EU chief to intervene in the British referendum.
The European Commission has repeatedly refused to comment on the increasingly bitter debate, insisting it is a question solely for the British.
Commission Chief Spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels, “We have refrained from any comments, regardless of their taste, on any comments proffered on the UK referendum and we will not change our position today.”
In Denmark, Tusk said that everyone in Europe had the right to organise referendums and pose hard questions.
“The British citizens will make this decision themselves and they do not need any whisperers, especially from Brussels. I understand this very well,” he said.
“But we, the advocates of the European Union also have the right, an obligation even, to defend our vision of Europe.”
Tusk said the EU was not a “superstate” but a common tool to face crises such as aggressive Russian foreign policy or the refugee crisis.
“The EU may be blamed for many things, but it still remains the most effective firewall against the ever-dangerous, and often tragic conflicts among the nations of Europe,” Tusk told reporters.
“Today, we have to finally begin to remind ourselves of this banal, and perhaps boring truth; the only alternative for the Union is political chaos, the return to national egoisms, and in consequence, the triumph of anti-democratic tendencies, which can lead to history repeating itself.”
When EU compared to plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent. Demonstrates political amnesia pic.twitter.com/LU4wxNbvd4
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) May 17, 2016
Johnson’s comments were also criticised over the weekend by campaigners pushing for the UK to remain in the EU.
The main opposition Labour party said Johnson’s comments showed his campaign was “losing its moral compass”, while Johnson was branded a “tin-pot imitation Churchill” by former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.
Johnson, a former reporter in Brussels, also faced anger last month. As Barack Obama urged Britons to stay in the EU, Johnson suggested the US president had moved a bust of World War II leader Winston Churchill out of the Oval Office because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage.
The Hitler controversy had died down until Tusk’s comments in Denmark, which held a referendum on its opt outs from EU policy last December.
For Denmark to remain in Europol, the European Police Office, voters needed to back changing its justice and home affairs opt-out to a case by case system. Instead, 53% of voters rejected it.
“The Prime Minister has also raised the issue of the follow-up to the Danish referendum, as he always does every time we meet,” said Tusk, “Let me say that the European Union would of course prefer to keep Denmark as close to its core as possible.”
“At the same time, we must also respect the outcome of national referendums as well as the existing political and legal limitations. So, it will not be easy. Maybe impossible,” he added.
British Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate the UK's relations with the European Union before his election in May 2015. The renegotiation was to be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017, to decide whether or not the United Kingdom should remain in the EU.
After the February 2016 European Council, where a reform deal was agreed, Cameron will campaign to stay in with the referendum date set for 23 June.
- 23 June: referendum