Why the UK should boycott Euro 2012 in Ukraine

Cameron should join Merkel and take a stand on political repression.

Does Roy Hodgson speak Ukrainian? The question arises as England’s new multilingual manager now faces the horror problem of all sports bureaucracy – namely whether England should play in Ukraine given the alarming reports about political repression there.

Last October, I asked David Cameron about the harsh treatment of the former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. She had been placed on a political show trial by the current Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanokuvych, her deadly life-long rival. The charge was poor administration of the complex energy dossier from the time Ms Tymoshenko was prime minister.

The Prime Minister’s reply was robust. Cameron said “‘We completely agree that the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko, whom I have met on previous occasions, is absolutely disgraceful. The Ukrainians need to know that if they leave the situation as it is, it will severely affect their relationship not only with the UK but with the European Union.”

So will Cameron now join other European leaders and take a stand on the ill-treatment of Ms Tymoshenko who is now suffering from severe health problems as Yanukovych regime increase pressure on her? Hillary Clinton has now expressed concern about Ms Tymoshenko’s health as well as the continuing prosecution by the Yanukovych clique of the former prime minister’s aides and associates.

Not content with winning power Yanukovich is determined to take revenge on anyone who challenged him in his years of opposition after the Orange Revolution. In Ms Tymoshenko he rightly sees a serious opponent. But the Ukrainian ruler like his friend, Vladimir Putin, whose inauguration as Russian president next Monday will be greeted by protests, refuses to abide by the normal rules of Council of Europe member states and accept that an opposition should exist as part of democratic politics. Politics is personal in Russia and Ukraine and where better to dump a political opponent than in prison.

The question for us is: will Cameron live up to his word? Will the treatment of Ms Tymosenko “severely affect” the UK-Ukraine relationship as he told the Commons six months ago? Many of his fellow centre-right leaders in Europe think so. Angela Merkel has said she will not go to the Euro 2012 contest as long as the Ukrainians continue to hold Ms Tymoshenko in prison in dire conditions. She is joined by the EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso and Cameron’s close political Eurosceptic ally, Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic. The presidents of Austria and Germany have also said they will boycott the Ukraine matches.

It is a problem for England as all the first round matches are being played in Ukraine even if the team themselves are going to stay in Poland for the contest. The real responsibility lies with UEFA who should threaten to relocate the matches out of Ukraine if Ms Tymoshenko is not  released and allowed to have proper medical care.

But as with the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix, the wilful blindness of sports organisers to how they can end up boosting repressive regimes should be examined. In 1938 the England football team in Germany were ordered to give the Hitler salute by the Football Association. Whatever their bleating about not getting involved in politics, the 3 Lions will be used by Yanukovich to boost his repressive regime Today, while William Hague and Cameron wallow in their (perfectly correct) denunciations of Syria they are silent on Bahrain. In China, Cameron refused to mention the name of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Laureate who is rotting in the Chinese gulag. At least Mrs Thatcher raised the case of Andrei Sakharov and Malcolm Rifkind when a junior FCO minister in the 1980s went to Poland and expressed support for the banned Solidarity trade union.

Today, Britain’s foreign policy has all but given up on human rights. Instead William Hague’s mercantilism -- trade above democracy and human rights -- prevails. Almost certainly the Hague mercantilist wing of the British state regret that Cameron was so forthright in his support for Yulia Tymoshenko in the Commons. But the Prime Minister should stick to his position and join Angela Merkel and other EU leaders in boycotting Euro 2012. It may be too much to ask Hodgson and Wayne Rooney to take a stand. But how wonderful if England’s political-sporting nexus could speak for freedom and decency rather than hiding behind the lie that sport and politics should not mix.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and former Europe Minister. Follow him at @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com

A supporter of Ukrainian jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenkoshouts as she holds a picture of her during a rally in front of a court in Kiev. Photograph: Getty Images.
Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage