A European goal for Ukraine

The question whether to boycott the European Championships in Ukraine has become a hotly debated issue. But there are a number of other steps the EU and Member States can and should take to link the “Euros” with European values.  

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.

The Tournament

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.

  • But the EU should establish a common line for all matches, ceremonies and ancillary events likely to be attended by officials from the Commission, EEAS or the seven EU Member States initially playing in Ukraine (Group B – Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Portugal – in Kharkiv and Lviv; Group D – Sweden, France and England, along with Ukraine – in Kyiv and Donetsk). There should be no handshakes, photo-ops or side meetings with Ukrainian officials: they are prone to exaggerating the importance of even the briefest of contacts, and may be tempted to grandstand during each match’s opening ceremony. Ukraine’s own matches will be a particularly sensitive point.
  • Conditional attendance is compatible with this approach, as with German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich saying he will only attend Germany’s opening game if he is allowed to see Tymoshenko; if Member States opt for unconditional attendance they should support other back-up measures.
  • The EU should coordinate all actions closely with the Polish co-hosts. Their prestige is also on the line.
  • EU officials should continue to make media appearances to explain the EU case. They should stress that their actions are not just in defence of a former prime minister, but would apply to any Ukrainian who was in her position.
  • Any boycott should also start at home. Ukraine is investing large amounts of money on PR in Brussels. European parliamentarians, mass media and think-tanks should be wary of various Ukrainian front lobbies and not attend their PR events.
  • UEFA officials should also review their position. Michel Platini or a delegation of officials could ask to make a symbolic visit to Tymoshenko, former Interior Minister Lutsenko or other detainees.

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.

  • The EU should make it clear that Ukraine’s treatment of any possible demonstrations or protests during the championships is part of the review of democratic standards in the run-up to Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in October.
  • The EU should press ahead with preparing a “Tymoshenko list” modelled on the “Magnitsky list”. State officials involved in her trial (judges, prosecutors) and mistreatment in prison (penitentiary officials) should be subject to travel bans.
  • A strong political signal would be sent if EU regulatory institutions and Member States like Austria and Cyprus use the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s revised 2012 international standards against money laundering to keep a closer eye on the foreign financial operations of Ukrainian oligarchs. The EU should work to ensure that Ukraine  will be included in the FATF blacklist, after its untimely removal from it in October 2011.

Fan Welfare

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 EU delegation in Kyiv should publish a name and shame list of profiteering hotels and other organisations in travel advice for national foreign ministries.
  • The EU should establish (or temporarily hire) liaison officers to deal with practical problems (transport, health, crime, etc) in the ‘tent cities’, or second extra consular personnel from EU capitals. Duplication of effort should be avoided by working together on the ground.
  • The seven Member States playing in Ukraine all need extra staff in their embassies and consulates in Kyiv, if necessary temporarily detached from other embassies or consulates in the region.
  • The EU should back Amnesty International’s call for the creation of an independent body to investigate complaints against the police.
  • The EU can send Member State officials (police, Interior Ministry) to keep an eye both on their own fans’ behaviour and their treatment by the Ukrainian authorities.

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.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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