Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been engulfed in a wave of criticism at home and across Europe after he compared Ukraine’s fight for “freedom” to Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak tried to defend the prime minister on Sunday, stressing that the two issues were “not directly analogous” and that Johnson had no intention of making a straight comparison.

But other senior Tories distanced themselves from Johnson’s comments at the Conservative Party’s spring conference in Blackpool, while leading European politicians condemned them.

Johnson said Saturday it was the “instinct” of the British people, “like the people of Ukraine”, to “choose freedom”, citing recent events such as the 2016 EU referendum and the rollout of the Covid-19 pandemic. 19 vaccine in the UK.

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large, large numbers, I don’t believe it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners,” he said. “It’s because they wanted the freedom to do things differently and to allow this country to run itself.”

Asked on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday program whether he found the comments “rude,” Sunak said Johnson “has been leading the way globally to stand up to [Russian president Vladimir] Putin”.

But Labor shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said Johnson should apologize, adding that the comments were “utterly distasteful and offensive” to both Ukrainian and British publics.

Johnson’s comments are likely to reinforce the view held in some European capitals that the prime minister is a populist determined to continue scoring points against the EU six years after the Brexit vote.

“This is a real shame,” Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden, said on Twitter. “Despicable. Any thought of inviting this man to a summit should be shelved.”

Alexander Stubb, former Prime Minister of Finland, said comparing the EU referendum to Ukraine’s quest for freedom from Russian aggression was “about as vulgar as it gets”. He added: “Winston Churchill, who understood freedom, must be turning in his grave.”

Donald Tusk, the former president of the European Council, commented on Twitter: “Boris, your words offend Ukrainians, the British and common sense.”

Johnson, who is in Brussels for a NATO summit on Thursday, has not been invited to attend an EU leaders’ summit that same day, although US President Joe Biden will be a guest at the event.

“There may be leaders from other NATO countries who are not EU members who want to come,” said an EU official. “We can’t invite them all.”

Downing Street had indicated Johnson was open to attending his first EU summit since Brexit took effect.

The EU official added: “We could consider a summit of the 27 plus the UK at some point.” A spokesman for Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, declined to comment.

Tobias Ellwood, conservative chairman of the defense selection committee, was the first Tory MP to publicly criticize Johnson’s comments. Comparing the Ukrainian people’s struggle against Putin’s tyranny to the British people voting for Brexit hurts the standard of statecraft we have begun to exhibit,” the MP for Bournemouth East wrote on Twitter

Theresa Villiers, a pro-Brexit former minister, told BBC’s Broadcasting House: “These are probably not words I would use myself.”

In recent weeks, frosty relations between London and the EU have thawed as both sides have worked together to coordinate sanctions against Russia, but Johnson’s comments could spell a setback.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was invited this month to attend a meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council, as Britain redrafted its sanctions legislation so as to extend the measures introduced by Brussels against those linked to the Putin regime, can copy.

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