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Thursday, 21 June 2012 15:54

Football Diplomacy: Euro 2012

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The imprisonment and alleged maltreatment of the Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko have, to some extent, overshadowed Ukraine's role as Euro 2012 host. Officials from Germany and the UK decided to boycott the tournament and José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, cancelled his trip to Ukraine. But what is the political effect of boycotting a sporting event and what are the implications for EU foreign policy?

When former Prime Minister Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison for abuse of office over a natural gas import agreement signed with Russia in 2009, she became a personified symbol of selective justice in Ukraine. Moreover, she has reported incidents of physical abuse during her time in prison and began a hunger strike, which increased international attention before the upcoming Football Championship. Simply ignoring these political developments for the duration of the tournament was impossible for European states, given that they have pledged to protect human rights.

However, there is no agreed approach to this issue. Poland, the second hosting country of the Football Championship, regards the boycott as an excessive measure. Polish President Bronisław Komorowski mentioned the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow during the invasion of Afghanistan or in Beijing 2008 during protests in Tibet as examples of more extreme cases. Human rights organisations criticised the absence of European politicians in Ukraine and suggested it was an opportunity to call attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. Instead of just staying at home and relying on notes of protest, they suggest that politicians should have used their visits to engage in a more definite and observable protest at the scene of the crime.

Human rights organisations suggest that politicians should have used their visits to engage in a more definite and observable protest.

It is hard to anticipate the political success of boycotting the tournament. International organisations are probably right to point out the significance and strength of a critical message against the regime's actions at the location of the tournament. But the EU and its biggest member states have to consider several other factors when seeking appropriate methods of protest.

First, Ukraine's history after the demise of the Soviet Union has been characterised conflicts within the elite, a fragmented political landscape and instability. The Orange Revolution led by Viktor Yushchenko in 2004 was unable to unite democratic movements for a substantial length of time. For that reason, Yanukovych returned to power in 2010. Polarising statements and the involvement of external actors could in fact worsen the unstable political situation. Second, the EU's relationship with Ukraine is a complex one, to say the least. The country is part of the Eastern Partnership Initiative and has already conducted considerable negotiations to intensify its economic integration with the EU. In order not to jeopardise the progress achieved so far, diplomatic actions must be carried out cautiously.

The question of how politics and sport are or should be interrelated will not disappear. Ukraine isn't the only Eastern European country with a deteriorating human rights record. Its neighbour, Belarus, is the last dictatorship in Europe. In 2014, Minsk will host the World Ice Hockey Championship. But since the EU's strategy of isolation proved to be unsuccessful in increasing the chances of regime change in Belarus so far, boycotting a sporting event will probably not be successful either. EU foreign policy will continue to encounter this issue and finding the appropriate answer will always remain difficult.

For the people of Ukraine, the Football Championship represents above all a great sporting event including weeks of celebrations. Yanukovych has blamed European leaders for mixing politics with sport, but in reality, he was the one who asked for Europe's response. Political responses on human rights violations are invariably criticised for being too weak, too strong or generally mistaken. But at least the political boycott of Euro 2012 sent a strong message while allowing the tournament to continue as planned.

Last modified on Monday, 25 June 2012 21:40
Simon Schmidt

Simon Schmidt holds a BA in International Business and is an alumnus of the International MA program of Political Science with respect to Russia and Eurasia of the European University at St. Petersburg. His main interests are Russian-EU relations and energy, security and economic developments in post-Soviet Eurasia. He currently lives and works in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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