12th Nov 2019

Most EU leaders stay away from Olympic ceremony

Just nine European Union leaders plan to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing on Friday (8 August), where France will officially represent the EU. Most member states are keeping a low profile instead, with a handful boycotting the festivities over China's human rights record.

The presidents of France, Slovakia, Latvia, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Finland and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg will watch alongside 70 or so other world leaders as 15,000 Chinese performers enact a three and a half hour-long spectacle starting at 8.08pm Beijing time (2.08pm CET).

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"China has regained her standing among the greatest nations," French president Nicolas Sarkozy told Chinese state news agency Xinhua ahead of his arrival. "It is as it should be: China, with her rich civilisation and hardworking people, now has the ability to make a decisive contribution to the emergence of a world of development and peace."

France, which currently holds the EU presidency, had in March threatened to stay away after Chinese soldiers shot protesters calling for a free Tibet. Citing repression of ethnic minorities and the arrests of dissidents and journalists, the European Parliament in April also called for EU leaders to snub Beijing, with parliament head Hans-Gert Poettering and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso avoiding the Olympic opening.

In contrast to US president George Bush's pre-Olympics speech urging a "free press, freedom of assembly and labour rights," Mr Sarkozy did not mention any thorny issues in the Xinhua interview, noting instead that "this is the first time a French president will be participating in the capacity of European Union president-in-office."

The French chief declined an invitation to meet Tibet leader-in-exile the Dalai Lama in Paris next week. His Beijing delegation includes businessmen such as the CEO of supermarket chain Carrefour, while pro-free speech NGO Reporters Sans Frontieres and Chinese minority groups were banned from picketing the Chinese embassy in Paris on Friday.

"We are asking for progress on human rights and that is something to be done looking each other straight in the eye, face-to-face," former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who will also travel with the French delegation, told AFP. "You don't talk to the Chinese via newspaper articles."

Washing their hair

The other big EU countries have avoided controversy by keeping a low profile. Germany's Angela Merkel said she cannot go to the opening because she is on holiday. UK prime minister Gordon Brown will attend the closing ceremony instead. Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi said Beijing is too hot and humid. Both Italy and Spain will send foreign ministers to save face.

Many smaller member states have followed suit. Greece is sending its foreign minister to the opening. Sweden, Denmark, Portugal and Ireland are sending sports and culture ministers. The Belgian prime minister will attend the closing ceremony only. Austria, Hungary and Estonia indicated that their absence is nothing to do with politics.

Poland has taken the sharpest position, with the country's president and all members of the government boycotting the event on human rights grounds. "The presence of politicians at the Olympic inauguration seems inappropriate. I will not be going to the Olympics," Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said following the Tibet crackdown earlier this year.

Czech and Lithuanian leaders also stood on their ethics, with Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek wearing a Tibetan-flag lapel pin while making his TV announcement not to go to the opening party. Mr Topolanek and Lithuanian prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas aim to attend sporting events in a semi-private capacity, however.

A recent survey by the International Herald Tribune and France 24 showed that just 23 to 44 percent of people in France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain would like their leaders to boycott the Beijing ceremony. Between 50 and 65 percent wanted to see actions by athletes instead. But just 17 to 29 percent thought Beijing should be a politics-free zone.

One hundred and twenty seven sportsmen, 40 of whom will compete in China, this week signed an open letter to the Chinese government calling for a peaceful solution on Tibet, release of political prisoners and a halt to the death penalty, with individual athletes expected to shout slogans or carry political banners at the opening parade.

Olympic spirit

"We oppose those things. Also we hope and we believe that all the athletes involved in the Olympic games know they should not go against the spirit of the Olympic games," Chinese Olympics committee official Zhang Heping said.

Some observers will be watching Beijing to see which of the old and new global superpowers will scoop the most medals, in a throwback to Cold War times, when the US and Russia tried to demonstrate the superiority of capitalism and communism through sporting prowess.

In Athens in 2004, the US won 36 golds, China took 32 and Russia 27, with Germany the closest EU country on 13. Last month, the head of the European Commission's office in Austria, Georg Dutlik, urged media to count EU medals in China instead of giving country-by-country European tallies, to foster "a certain pride in Europe." The EU gold total for Athens was 90.

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