EU Foreign Ministers decide to wait and see on football boycott


The European Union has decided against calling for a blocwide boycott of European soccer championship games scheduled to be held next month in Ukraine.

However, the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to put on ice talks over Ukraine’s deepening political association and economic integration with the EU.

The EU has been critical of Ukraine over the alleged ill-treatment of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office in connection with a gas deal reached with Russia when she was prime minister.

Earlier, while on a visit to the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, President Viktor Yanukovych had responded angrily to the possibility of an EU boycott saying "it’s very important that we not be humiliated."

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told a news conference that the Tymoshenko case remained of crucial importance.

"We’re not at the stage of making decisions on attendance, but we’ll follow developments carefully and consider what happens next in the light of developments in Ukraine, " she said.

"I will listen to news the prime minister will bring tomorrow, " Ashton added, referring to talks on May 15 between Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and EU officials.

In March, the European Union and Ukraine initialed an association agreement for greater political and economic integration.

Asked what the EU expected of Ukraine before pressing ahead with talks to finalize the deal, Ashton said, "That justice is done and is seen to be done."

She said one criterion would be the conduct of parliamentary elections in October.

’Erosion Of The Rule Of Law’
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt indicated that the elections would show Europe whether Kyiv wanted to move toward Western values.

"We talk a lot about the case of Yulia Tymoshenko and the strong humanitarian concerns we have about that particular case, but it is a lot more and a lot broader than one single person, he said.

"It is an erosion of the rule of law that we see in Ukraine at the moment from a level that from the start wasn’t that satisfying."

Several European leaders have already vowed to boycott Ukraine during Euro 2012, which Ukraine is hosting jointly with Poland, after Tymoshenko said she was beaten by prison officials last month and launched a hunger strike.

Nonetheless, ahead of the May 14 meeting in Brussels, there were still several foreign ministers who remained evasive about the possibility of a boycott.

"I am not talking about a boycott, " said Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal, whose government has threatened to snub the matches played in Ukraine.

"I am just talking about the Ukraine government, which has still has time to do what is needed and that is to show a visible improvement of the situation for Madame Tymoshenko, " he added.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said ministerial attendance at the tournament was being "kept under review."

Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal said the decision would be made "in the end, and not now."

While some EU members favor a boycott, others want to use their potential attendance as a bargaining chip with Ukraine.

Policy Tool?

Some EU foreign ministers, like Sweden’s Carl Bildt, have also played down the political acceptability of a boycott.

"I must frankly say that I fail to see that attendance or nonattendance at football games is the main instrument of European policy, " Bildt said. "I think we have far stronger instruments of policy, and I think we should deploy those."

He added: "At the end of the day, it is up to the leaders of Ukraine to decide if they want to take their country in the direction of Poland or in the direction of Belarus. And that has consequences, that particular choice. If they want to go the European road, there are enormous benefits to the society of Ukraine. If they want to take the country to Belarus, well, they will go to Belarus."

’Selective Persecution’

Tymoshenko, 51, was jailed in October for abuse of office in connection with a gas deal with Russia reached when she was prime minister -- a charge she denies.

Her trial was denounced by the European Union and the United States, as well as by numerous rights groups in Ukraine and abroad, as politically motivated.

Ukrainian authorities deny she has been ill-treated in prison.

A new criminal trial on unrelated tax charges began against Tymoshenko in early April.

Tymoshenko and her supporters accuse Yanukovych -- whose 2004 bid for the presidency was scuppered by the Orange Revolution that Tymoshenko helped lead but who completed a political comeback by defeating Tymoshenko in a 2010 presidential runoff -- of political persecution.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite recently visited Tymoshenko after the former prime minister halted her hunger strike when she was transferred to a hospital facility in Kharkiv.

She has since been seen by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft, who visited her in hospital on May 14. 

Ambassador Tefft told reporters after the visit that the United States disapproves what he called the "selective persecution of Tymoshenko, " and called for her release.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and AP

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