THE downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over war-torn eastern Ukraine has split the UK government over whether Russia should be axed as host of the 2018 football World Cup.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it was “unthinkable” that the tournament could be held in the country, which has been blamed by the West for supplying arms to separatist rebels accused of causing the deaths of all 298 people on board the passenger jet.
He was backed by former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, who agreed with Mr Clegg’s position and said it was “not a political question so much as a moral one”.
Their call came after football’s world governing body Fifa ruled out demands from some German politicians for Russia to be boycotted, insisting the tournament could be “a force for good”.
Last night, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said David Cameron is focused on securing further economic action from the European Union and “does not believe we should reach immediately for boycotts”.
Mr Clegg said that allowing Russia to go ahead without a change of course by president Vladimir Putin would make the world look “so weak and so insincere” in its condemnation of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The EU has added another 15 individuals and 18 entities to the list of those subject to asset freezes, and ambassadors in Brussels are expected to extend the punitive actions to state-owned banks’ access to capital markets and to the arms and energy sectors.
Mr Clegg said, however, that sporting events should also be part of the package of measures – including the cancellation of Russia’s first Formula One Grand Prix, which is due to take place in Sochi in October.
Mr Clegg said: “Vladimir Putin himself has to understand that he can’t have his cake and eat it.
“That’s why I’ve come to the view that if he doesn’t change course, it’s just not on, the idea that Russia will host the World Cup in 2018.
“You can’t have this – the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia.
“Not only would Vladimir Putin exploit it, I think it would make the rest of the world look so weak and so insincere about our protestations about Vladimir Putin’s behaviour if we’re not prepared to pull the plug.”
He said that despite F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s insistence that there was no case for abandoning the Grand Prix, “the question marks I’m raising will only increase over the next coming weeks and months, over the summer and up to the Grand Prix, about Russia’s entitlement to host these major events”.
Mr Clegg said the threat of withdrawing the World Cup would be “a very potent political and symbolic sanction”.
“If there’s one thing that Vladimir Putin cares about, as far as I can see, it’s his sense of status. Maybe reminding him that you can’t retain the same status in the world if you ignore the rest of the world, maybe that will have some effect on his thinking.”
He did not rule out the UK as an alternative host given its recent history of putting on successful global sporting events.
Labour leader Ed Miliband urged EU leaders to meet to discuss sanctions.