Ursula von der Leyen compares Britain’s rule in Ireland to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

von der leyen - Brian Lawless/PA Wire
von der leyen - Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The head of the European Commission has risked a diplomatic spat with London by likening Ukraine's war with Russia to Ireland's "struggle for the right to exist" before independence from the UK.

Conservative MPs were appalled by the comparison from Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, with one saying the remarks were “beyond disgusting”, adding: "It seems that UK bashing is alive and well in Brussels."

Mrs von der Leyen made her comments during an address to a joint sitting of the Irish Parliament in Dublin to mark Ireland’s 50-year membership of the European Union.

She said: “I would like to dwell on five Irish virtues that will help our union to face our common challenges ahead.

“First, the Irish passion for freedom. 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.

“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.”

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Mrs von der Leyen added: “When the citizens of Kherson raised the EU’s blue and gold flag, as well as the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine, to greet their liberators, it was a powerful visual confirmation about a people’s desire to belong to our union.

“We have shown that our union is the home of all European countries thriving for freedom and democracy. And our support for Ukraine must continue, for as long as it takes. Until Ukrainians fully recover what Russia has tried to take from them.”

On Friday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, told The Telegraph: “It is 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.”

The comments were also given short shrift by David Jones, deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Conservative MPs.

He told The Telegraph: “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.

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

Ms Von der Leyen - PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images
Ms Von der Leyen - PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images

Craig Mackinlay, one of the ERG’s senior officers, added: “Ursula von der Leyen’s comparison is beyond disgusting. Britain outside the EU has led the international coalition against Russia.

“The UK and Ireland had a tetchy relationship in the early years but it was settled through negotiation and treaty. It seems that UK bashing is alive and well in Brussels.”

Mrs von der Leyen had been on a two-day trip to Dublin, where she was meeting Micheál Martin, the Irish premier.

The two leaders discussed the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, green transition and the Northern Ireland Protocol during her visit.

The Foreign Office in London was approached for comment.