Boris Johnson has been taken to task by a Swedish MEP who accused the UK foreign secretary of “bad taste” and political insensitivity after he repeatedly referred to Brexit as “a liberation”, in a spat caught on camera at the recent Munich security conference.
According to footage that emerged on Wednesday, Johnson was confronted about his choice of language by Anna Maria Corazza Bildt during a panel discussion on the future of the west.
“I would like to tell the foreign minister of the UK that the word liberation in the history of Europe has a very strong meaning,” she said, to some applause. “In these challenging times talking about liberating Britain from the European Union is just bad taste.”
A uncomfortable looking Johnson responded: “I say, come on. I have to say, I hesitate to accuse you of pomposity, but the word liberation clearly means … it’s etymologically equivalent to being freed, and I’m afraid it’s an undeniable fact that we, the UK, has been unable to do, to run its own trade policy for 44 years.
“We now have an opportunity to do exactly that. I think people should be very proud and very excited by that and that is exactly what we are.”
Warming to his theme, Johnson told Bildt: “And I want to reclaim the English language, if I may. There is absolutely no reason why I should not use the word ‘liberation’ to refer to our ability to take back control of our tariff schedules in Geneva and do our own free trade deals. And I’m sorry, but I’m going to disagree with you emphatically.”
The MEP responded: “We are neither occupying you or a prison.”
As Bildt wrote subsequently in The Guardian:
This was surprising language from the representative of a country renowned for its diplomacy all over the world. It was also a completely unacceptable reference that offended several members of the audience. So I took to the floor pointing out that in the history of Europe the word “liberation” has a strong meaning.
For millions of Europeans it’s still vivid and is about freedom, not about free trade. Europe was liberated from military occupation, fascism, nazism and communism. This is part of our common history, where the UK played a major role for countries all over Europe in recovering their freedom during the second world war. We should be for ever grateful to the brave people of Great Britain for the blood they shed for our freedom. My mother was liberated from the Nazis and fascists in Rome, as was my father in northern Italy. I was there when Sarajevo was liberated after five years of siege. The UK also played an important role there.
Johnson rebutted that liberation is about being freed, and said he wanted to reclaim the English language, stating that he should be able to use “liberation” in relation to the UK’s ability to take back control of tariff schedules in Geneva. However, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of liberation is clear: “The action of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery, or oppression; release.”
Johnson’s inability to distinguish between writing a fake-news column for The Telegraph and his role as Foreign Secretary is sad.