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Soccer wars

May 4, 2012

Source: Wikimedia Commons

We have previously written on this blog about the difficulties inherent in forging a unified foreign policy among EU member states. With about a month to go until the start of the 2012 Euro Football Championship, a new issue seems to be creating conflict among some member states. The conflict pertains to Ukraine, along with Poland one of the two co-hosts of the tournament. Officials from several EU member states governments, including German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, as well as several leading EU officials, such as European Commission President Juan Manuel Barroso, have threatened to boycott the matches being held in Ukraine.

The deteriorating relations between the EU and Ukraine are in response to several factors, most notably the imprisonment last year of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko. (We have previously discussed EU-Ukraine relations on this blog here, here, here, here, and here.) Timoshenko was accused of exceeding her authority in a gas deal she signed while PM with Russia over gas shipments. Not content with the seven years she was sentenced for this particular offense, Ukrainian authorities have opened a separate case against her even as she sits in jail in the east Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Her confinement has received increased coverage in recent weeks over allegations of mistreatment and threats that she is or will go on a hunger strike. Besides Timoshenko, several members of her government have been convicted of various charges. Critics in Ukraine and the West claim that these convictions are politically motivated witch hunts orchestrated by current president Viktor Yanukovych to weaken the opposition. Besides the prosecutions, critics point to several other facts as evidence that the current Ukrainian government is straying from the democratic path, including tightened controls over the media, manipulation of electoral laws, and the rapid accumulation of wealth among member of the president’s family.

The EU has previously voiced its displeasure with Ukraine through delaying ratification of an association agreement that has long been discussed, as well as through sharp criticism by EU officials. Some actors who are dissatisfied with Ukraine’s behavior might see the Euro as a more effective tool to modify the country’s behavior. The Euro tournament has been eagerly anticipated in Ukraine, with billboards plastered all over Kyiv and other the three Ukrainian host cities: L’viv, Donetsk, and Kharkov. Impressive new stadiums have been built, infrastructure has been upgraded, English-language signs have been added in anticipation of throngs of foreign tourists. Many Ukrainians see the tournament as an opportunity to improve their country’s image, which has taken a beating throughout the post-Soviet era as a bastion of corruption, authoritarianism, organized crime, and economic dysfunction.

Thus far, officials from Germany, Austria, and Belgium and several members of the European Commission have threatened to boycott the matches in Ukraine, while officials from other countries have promised to consider doing so if the situation does not improve. The boycott threats have earned a rebuke from Poland, which has criticized attempts to politicize sports. Poland is no fan of the Ukrainian government’s treatment of Timoshenko, but argues that a boycott of the Euro will not be an effective way to influence Kyiv’s behavior. President Bronislaw Komorowski argues that such a step could push Ukraine towards Russia and away from Europe: “In Poland we understand very well that Ukraine is somewhere in between a choice of integration with the Western world and all of the consequences of this – improving the legal system, the judiciary – or taking part in the Customs Union proposed by Russia,” he said. Poland itself has been an active supporter of the Eastern Partnership and building closer ties between the EU and its post-Soviet eastern neighbors. In fact, Poland was one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine’s bid to co-host the tournament. Poland has also been one of the harshest critics of Russia within the EU, so it easy to see where they are coming from.

At some point, though, the EU may grow weary of the idea that its “sticks” are pushing Ukrainian towards Russia, and that more carrots are needed instead. As Nicu Popescu argues in his “Neighborhood” blog at EU Observer, Ukraine has been playing this game with the West and Russia for a long time. After a time, its threats to move closer to Russia may lose their validity. (And for what it’s worth, Russia has not been particularly satisfied with Yanukovych’s behavior, either; the deal that landed Timoshenko in prison was signed with Vladimir Putin, so calling the bilateral agreement illegal calls into question his legitimacy, as well.)

There seem to be several interesting things to watch for here. First, for observers of the EU, how will this cleavage between those who want harsher and softer approaches towards Ukraine develop? For those interested in Ukraine, will the boycott threats actually influence Yanukovych’s behavior? If not, if the boycotts are actually carried out, and the Euro 2012 ends up being a PR disaster for Ukraine, what will be the repercussions for the domestic political situation there?

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