Threatened boycott of Ukraine's football championship leads to calls for EU to set down rules for countries that host high-profile international events.
Ukraine's human rights record raised in advance of Euro 2012
AMSTERDAM // European leaders are threatening to boycott next month's Euro 2012 football championship in Ukraine over the country's human-rights record - but critics say this approach will fail to instigate any real change.
With an increasing number of high-profile international events being staged in countries with questionable records on human rights and democracy, some say the European Union needs to adopt a more comprehensive policy.
The questions surround events ranging from the annual Eurovision song contest in Azerbaijan this week to the 2014 ice hockey world championship in Belarus. Both countries are considered more authoritarian than Ukraine, an aspiring EU member.
And then there is the riddle of the 2015 European basketball championship being awarded to Ukraine - just months after authorities last year jailed the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose case is the focus of the current boycott threats.
EU foreign ministers addressed the Euro 2012 question during a meeting in Brussels this week but failed to agree on a common line. The final communiqué just said that Ukraine, which is co-hosting the tournament with EU member Poland, was discussed.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, had to admit, "we are not at the stage of making decisions on attendance".
Her boss, José Manuel Barosso, who heads the European Commission, has made clear that he will not attend any matches in Ukraine, unless the rights situation improved.
Nor will the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Germany is the most eastward looking of the main EU countries and has shown the most concern over Tymoshenko's treatment.
But there is no suggestion that any country would withdraw its team from the tournament, which kicks off in Warsaw on June 8.
Tymoshenko is a nationalist politician, always seen in public sporting a characteristic braid in her blonde hair. She led Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" following the country's controversial elections in late 2004, which were plagued by allegations of corruption and fraud. She served as prime minister for eight months in 2005 and from December 2007 until March 2010 but lost that year's presidential election to Viktor Yanukovich, who leans more towards Russia.
Since then, she been the target of several prosecutions and was sentenced to seven years in prison last year for abusing her power. The trial was seen in the West as being politically influenced and the outcry over her case grew louder last month, when she claimed that she had been beaten while in detention.
The uproar coincided with an important German regional election cycle and, according to Juergen Mittag of the German Sports University in Cologne, it was seized on by the politicians to gain publicity. "Always when these big sport events take place, politicians make use of it to express their opinions and realise their ambitions," he said.
But the issue is much wider-ranging than just Germany and Ukraine, Mr Mittag said. International sports federations are looking for new markets and are not always very picky about democracy and human rights records.
"In the near future, more events will take place in those countries that are interesting from a new-market perspective, for example, some Arab countries and also in East Asia and in African countries."
Major international sports events are seen as a way to raise a country's profile or signal acceptance by the international community, Mr Mittag said. Often, in less than fully democratic countries, it is easier to organise such events. On the other hand, especially in the age of social-media scrutiny, sporting events attract a lot of often-unwelcome attention. "Yanukovich is not very interested in having the spotlight on the Ukraine," said Mr Mittag
But any concerns that may trickle down to the level of the fans who read up on a country ahead of the tournament are likely to dissipate soon after kick off, said Henrik Brandt, the director of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies.
"The tournament will be a success. People will watch it in the stadiums and cheer and we will see it on TV and it will be as usual. And nobody will notice what happens afterwards."
But with an increasing number of events being staged in what some may consider as problematic countries, "European politicians should be more concerned in a sustained way with the politics of sport, with how the sports federations function and how these events get assigned", said Mr Brandt.
Political observers agree and often cite the case of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when Mrs Merkel and several other leaders stayed away in protest over the issue of Tibet but others attended. Olaf Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, was blunt about the efficacy of this approach: "There was no serious effect of this. China knows quite well how to play this."
In fact, German-Chinese relations are now stronger than ever, he said.
His colleague at the Council, Jason Parello-Plesner, a China expert, added: "The lesson from Beijing was that piecemeal and disjointed action is quite ineffective."