Monday, 25 June 2012

Taking The Positives Out of Euro2012

Recently I got into a conversation about Euro2012 with someone who is, well let’s say, from the other end of the political spectrum. It turned out we both had gripes about how our respective political camps were interpreting Euro2012.

Her main complaint was that some elements of the conservative-right in Poland were criticising Poles for only bearing the flag and expressing their patriotism during a football tournament and not during national days of patriotic celebration. She pointed out that this was a narrow-minded approach and that they should instead welcome this mass display of national pride. 

On the other hand, I expressed my dismay that many on the left were only pointing out the negatives of the tournament. They portray Euro2012 as a celebration of nationalism, commercialism and misogogony, that wastes billions of złoty that could have been spent on more worthwhile projects (this latter point I have already made myself) and ignores the huge social and economic problems building in Poland.

I will leave aside the debates occurring on the conservative right (I have no real knowledge or concern for these) and consider what should the attitude of the left and other progressive forces be to Euro2012. Debates about whether the tournament should have been organised or not are now a thing of the past, the point presently is whether anything positive can be taken from the experience. 

As the tournament enters its final week we can first of all say that Euro2012 has been a success. This is not just the opinion of the media or elite but a feeling that runs through the vast majority of society with 88% of Poles positively assessing the decision to jointly organise the tournament with Ukraine.

I believe that there are two main outcomes of Euro2012 that the left should welcome and seek to build on.

Anti-Racism and Multi-Culturalism

Euro2012 opened shortly after the broadcasting of a documentary by the BBC that reported the existence of racism in stadiums in Ukraine and Poland. It was accompanied by leading black former footballers claiming that they and their families would not travel to Poland or Ukraine as they feared racist attack and abuse.

I have mixed feelings about this programme. On the one hand it was good that the media displayed how racism does exist in some football stadiums in Poland and Ukraine and opened up a debate on this matter (a topic that has largely been ignored by the domestic media.) However, the programme was so one-sided that it gave the impression that the stadiums would be full of rabid racists hurling abuse at black players and attacking fans of different nationalities and races. This could not be further from the reality of Euro2012. 

As  I left Warsaw’s fanzone after watching a game last week, I  overheard an exchange between two Polish fans. ‘The problem with the BBC documentary is that they didn’t show things like this’, was the gist of their conversation. It’s a sentiment that has often been expressed and one that reflects a frustration amongst the 99% of Poles who have embraced the spirit of Euro2012 as one of openness and diversity.

In the 15 years that I have lived in this city I have never seen it quite like this. The streets are full of fans and tourists, with people of different nationalities and races intermingling and celebrating this festival of football.

There is of course a problem of racism and xenophobia in Poland, as there is in Ukraine. It is true that racism can sometimes be expressed openly, including on the terraces of football stadiums, in a way that is no longer acceptable in countries like Britain. However, Euro2012 has shown that these are the actions of a minority (often connected to the far-right) and can be marginalised as they are seen to be unacceptable by the majority.

This is not helped by those in Western Europe portraying countries like Poland as being hotbeds of racism. This is particularly hard to swallow in countries that have never had histories of colonial conquest, never participated in the slave trade and have not built their economies on the exploitation of immigrant labour.

It is also difficult to accept the tone of superiority of those from a country that has its own fresh experiences of racism in football. This does not end with the convictions and allegations of racism on the pitch made against leading Premier League and English national team players last season. It extends to the racist and Islamophobic English Defence League, which is organised around football hooligan groups that now terrorise on the high-streets instead of in the stadiums.

The problem of the far-right also exists in countries like Poland and Ukraine. Beyond the newly developed stadiums and corporate fanzones, lie some deep pockets of poverty and social exclusion. The process of deindustrialisation and its subsequent high unemployment and social inequalities have created fertile breeding grounds for those seeking to spread their message of hate. 

These countries have at times in their history been isolated from other parts of the globe and once opened up to the West have tended to experience large emigrations. These are not multi-cultural societies in the western sense and this has bred a racism built more upon ignorance than that of superiority that is common in the ex-colonial centres.

Euro2012 has gone some way to opening up Poland to other cultures and nationalities and has dismantled many stereotypes of Poland and Poles from those visiting the country. It has been almost amusing to watch the supporters from various countries falling over themselves to become friends of Poland, seeing who is able to sing loudest the Polish chant ‘Polska Biało-Czerwoni’.

The State can be Effective

The second major success of Euro2012 has been the example of how the state can be an effective instrument in socio-economic life. For more than two decades the ideology has been propagated that the state is inefficient, wasteful and bureaucratic and that the private sector should replace it. This has become a self-fullfilling prophesy as successive governments have starved the state of resources.

Euro2012 has dispelled this myth and shown that the state can be a successful and efficient investor and organiser. It has been public investment organised by the state, using national and EU funds, that built the stadiums, roads, railways, train stations, fanzones and transmitted the matches on national television. Yes, we can argue about whether the money should have been spent better elsewhere, but now this has been done be we should be pointing out what successes can be gained by the state coordinating its activities around a clear project that is supported by the majority of society. Most crucially the left should be underlining that it is only by the state furthering its investment, that the Polish economy can continue to defy the recessionary pressures building once again in Europe.

An efficient well organised and active state that exists alongside and open and tolerant society? Well we can dream, but Euro2012 has taken us a small step further towards this goal and this at least should be welcomed. 

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