Exclusive: Foreign Office confirms no officials will attend Euro championship games in Ukraine over jailed opposition leader
The government is to boycott the Euro 2012 football championship, which begins on Friday, in protest at the “selective justice” being meted out to the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
The Foreign Office confirmed that no ministers would attend England’s three group-stage matches. England plays its first game against France on Monday in the eastern city of Donetsk.
There will be no official British presence at England’s two other qualifying games, against Sweden on 15 June in Kiev, and against the hosts Ukraine in Donetsk on 19 June.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The government fully supports England’s participation in Euro 2012. We hope this is a successful tournament for the England team, the fans, and the people of Ukraine and Poland.”
But he added: “No ministers will be attending group games at Euro 2012. We are keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament under review in the light of ministers’ busy schedules ahead of the Olympics and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine.”
Several EU countries have announced they will not be attending games in Ukraine. Last month the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that she and her cabinet would not attend any German games played in Ukraine, which is co-hosting the tournament with Poland, unless the human rights situation under President Viktor Yanukovych improved.
The president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, and Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, have also confirmed they will not be travelling to Ukraine. The Czech president, Václav Klaus, and Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, also called off a regional summit last month at the Ukrainian resort of Yalta.
Oleg Voloshyn, the Ukraine foreign ministry spokesman in Kiev, told the Guardian he regretted what he called the UK’s “emotional” decision.
“There are multiple channels to express the British position as far as the Tymoshenko case is concerned. It has already been done in a clear and consistent way.
“The boycott of the sporting event that has nothing to do with politics is a sign that the British government is inclined to resort to emotional rather than deeply calculated steps. [They] damage football but don’t influence in any positive way the situation with the issue that concerns London,” he said.
Diplomats indicated that ministers might turn up to later matches, but probably only in the event that the England team make it through the quarter-finals and reach a semi-final to be played in Poland’s capital Warsaw.
The announcement also follows widespread concern about racism in Ukraine, and a controversial Panorama documentary last week in which the former England defender Sol Campbell warned that England fans travelling to Ukraine might come back “in a coffin”.
The government had earlier indicated it was reviewing the situation. But Downing Street now appears to have lost patience with Yanukovych, who is accused of showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies.
Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, was jailed for seven years in October after what her supporters say was a politically motivated show trial. Yanukovych has refused to release her, despite weeks of EU pressure.
It appears not all government departments were enthusiastic about the Euro 2012 boycott. Shortly before the Foreign Office made its unequivocal statement, the sports minister, Hugh Robertson, put his likely absence from the group stages down to logistics.
“I hope to go, is the honest answer. I hope to support British teams and support British sport. Given the economic backdrop and the weight of what’s in the diary, it’s unlikely we’ll make it during the group stages,” he said.
“It effectively takes two days out of the diary and we haven’t really got two days. We’re keeping it under review and we’ll look at it very closely if we progress through to the qualifying stages.”
Asked about the Panorama expose of racism within Polish and Ukrainian football stadiums, he said taking big sporting events to new territories could help pressure them into change. “Part of the reason for taking sports events to parts of the world that haven’t had them before is precisely to shine a light on these sorts of things,” he said. “The expose wouldn’t have happened without the Panorama programme and the Panorama programme wouldn’t have happened without the European Championships being there.”
Tymoshenko staged a hunger strike in April after photos appeared showing bruises on her body. She claims prison guards assaulted her and punched her in the stomach. Ukrainian prosecutors said her injuries were self-inflicted. She is currently being held in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, where her condition is being monitored by German doctors.
The city is the venue for Germany’s first group stage match against the Netherlands on 13 June.
The political debacle is a huge embarrassment for Uefa. Football’s governing body in Europe had hoped that expanding the tournament eastwards would showcase the progress made by independent Ukraine since the collapse of communism. Instead it is now looks increasingly likely that Yanukovych will sit in the VIP box on his own, with David Cameron and other European leaders shunning him.
The criticism from western Europe has provoked a sharp response from Kiev. The foreign ministry in Kiev has accused Berlin of cold-war thinking, while officials have suggested that the Germans should refrain from meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
The former Labour Europe minister Denis MacShane said on Thursday that Britain should have been the first, not the last, European nation to boycott Euro 2012. MacShane, who raised Tymoshenko’s treatment in the Commons last October, accused William Hague of double standards in taking action against Kiev but not against other worse regimes that abuse human rights. He described Tory human rights policy as a “shambolic mess of incohrent contradictions and double standards.”
He added: “At long last and after weeks of urging Cameron joins Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande in boycotting Ukraine Euro 2012 over the disgusting treatment of Yulia Tymoshenko. But Britain should taken a lead on this…instead of tailing in behind other European leaders. Cameron and Hague show a shaming double standard as they roll out the red carpet for the killers and torturers of Bahrain but now boycott Ukraine, where the treatment of Mrs Tymoshenko is unacceptable, but not as bad as anything in Bahrain.”