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Brexit: Chief EU negotiator condemns Boris Johnson's 'abhorrent' punishment beatings comments

Guy Verhofstadt has responded to Boris Johnson's suggestion that French President François Hollande ‘wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie’

The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator has slammed Boris Johnson after he suggested the President of France might be considering Nazi-style “punishment beatings” on Britain for wanting to leave the EU.

Guy Verhofstadt said the comments made by the Foreign Secretary about François Hollande are “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful” as the UK and EU prepare for sensitive talks to determine Britain's future relations with the bloc.

Downing Street was also dragged into the embarrassing row, being forced to defend Mr Johnson by saying the remarks were “theatrical”, adding “he was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi”.

In characteristically unconventional remarks made in India, Mr Johnson said Mr Hollande might want “to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie”.

Shortly after, Mr Verhofstadt tweeted: “Yet more abhorrent & deeply unhelpful comments from @BorisJohnson which PM May should condemn.”

Jeremy Corbyn's spokesman attacked the Foreign Secretary for having “a habit of making wild and inappropriate comments”.

He added: “Talking about World War Two in that context is another one of those and that is not going to be something that is going to improve the climate for this negotiation.”

Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said: “This is an utterly crass and clueless remark from the man who is supposed to be our chief diplomat.”

But responding to the furore, Theresa May's official spokeswoman claimed Mr Johnson was simply “making a point” about other EU leaders approaching Brexit in a punitive way.

She said: “He was in no way suggesting that anyone was a Nazi. If anything, this falls within the category the PM used yesterday of a hyped-up media report.”

During her speech on Tuesday, Ms May accused parts of the media of embellishing stories about the Government's Brexit plans, while eschewing the tight-lipped disciplined approach she and her ministers had taken in recent weeks.

But asked on Wednesday if she would accept that Mr Johnson was at least referencing German World War Two camps in his comments, Ms May's spokeswoman explained: “I think he was making a theatrical comparison to those evocative World War movies that people have seen.”

She indicated that she would not characterise his words as a “stray comment”, and would not say that it was inappropriate or that the Foreign Secretary should apologise.

Asked if Ms May might use similar words to Mr Johnson's, she added: “They've got different styles.”

A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary said: “He was not suggesting anyone was a Nazi and the word never passed his lips. He was simply saying that treating Britain harshly for trying to leave the EU makes no sense.”

Mr Johnson's full comments were: “If Mr Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie, I don’t think that is the way forward, and it’s not in the interests of our friends and partners.

“It seems absolutely incredible to me that, in the 21st century, member states of the EU should be seriously contemplating the reintroduction of tariffs or whatever to administer punishment to the UK.”

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