The 2012 European Championship football finals co-hosted in Poland and Ukraine were supposed to be a symbol of unity and cooperation across EU borders. Instead they have highlighted the lack of respect for European values in Ukraine. The Tymoshenko case is the most obvious symbol of this deterioration, but there are many other concerns, ranging from the two dozen other members of her party in prison to fan safety and price-gouging by Ukrainian hotels. Rampant corruption has delayed Ukraine’s promised infrastructure investment and led to massive cost over-runs. Many visiting fans will be accommodated in temporary ‘tent cities’.
Some EU Member States have already called for a politicians’ boycott of the games; but short-term gestures for the tournament alone would actually make things worse. The priority for the EU should be using the football finals to link together the "Euros", European values and the EU-Ukraine relationship. Ordinary Ukrainians need to see that European values can deliver a better deal from their authorities; not just from 8 June to 1 July, but through to the key parliamentary elections due in October and beyond.
The boycott issue also threatens to become divisive in EU internal affairs. There are suspicions that traditionally Ukraine-sceptic states are using the issue to keep Ukraine at arm’s length. Clear rules of engagement are therefore needed across the board. Some EU Member States will boycott, some will not; but all should stick to a principled approach. The tournament will come and go, but is a useful reminder that the EU has other cards to play.
There is no appetite for involving teams or fans in any boycott, which would only cause a backlash inside Ukraine. Calls to move some or all games from Ukraine to Poland are impractical at this stage: they would mean restructuring the entire tournament and fans have already invested money in their travel plans.
Other Political Measures
Member States who do not wish to boycott can do more in other areas. Back in 2011 when the negotiations on the Association and DCFTA Agreements were first bedevilled by the Tymoshenko case and by more general concerns, some Member States argued for a tough line, others that the Agreements themselves would help transform Ukraine. Both were right. But a tough line need not be at the expense of the Agreements; it can be applied in other areas. It should be made clear that the Agreements are still on the table if Ukraine raises its standards.
There are many accusations not just of Ukrainian hotels and other bodies charging a tournament premium, but of hotels being infiltrated by mafia interests to treble prices or worse. The Ukrainian police, road cops and state regulatory officials traditionally behave with predatory impunity. Local police are not always a source of assistance, but often the source of the problem. The right of Ukrainians themselves to demonstrate has been severely curtailed under President Yanukovych. The EU should press not just for temporary cosmetic changes for visiting fans in these areas, but for long-term changes that will benefit Ukrainians themselves.
The tournament is not yet doomed to be the PR disaster many predict. It can also be a showcase for European values in Ukraine, but only if the EU takes a more proactive approach. The call to boycott has generated headlines, but engagement on the ground will bring results.
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