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Why the UK should boycott Euro 2012 in Ukraine

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

New Statesman
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.

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