PtG Article 01.11.2007

EU Sports Policy at the Crossroads

On the final day of the 2007 conference, Play the Game took a critical look the new EU white paper on the future of European sport.

That the European Union lacks a clearly defined sports policy is not in doubt. Sport has never been included in its formal structures. However, issues such as obesity and doping, as well as high profile issues relating to legal status and commercialisation have placed sport in the European spotlight like never before. As a result, a new EU white paper is recommending new best practices in a large number of sport-related areas.

Pedro Velasquez, Deputy Head of the EU’s Sports Unit began proceedings by outlining the reasons for drafting the white paper. In the past, he admitted, the EU’s policy on sport has been more reactive than innovative. However, sport has enormous potential to contribute to EU policy goals such as social development and integration, he said, and the white paper will examines how the EU can give sport a higher priority in policymaking. It will also better-define the role of sport in the EU, improve knowledge of EU law, and keep sport visible in EU programmes. Furthermore, he added, the white paper recognises that sport’s specific nature means it should be exempt from EU law in a number of key areas such as the acceptance of gender-segregation.

However, according to UEFA’s Jonathan Hill, the EU’s recognition of the specific nature of sport does not go far enough. While Hill agreed that many areas of sport are now extremely commercialised, he reminded Play the Game that sport is still inherently different to other commercial activities and needs to be treated as such.

Courts changing the rules

Hill applauded the white paper’s recognition of the social role of teams, the importance of training policies to encourage young talent, and the positive aspects of the international transfer system. However, he stated, many sporting bodies were hoping that it would do more to acknowledge that sport’s unique status requires its own specific rules. In its current form, Hill said, the white paper appears to merely restate the Meca-Medina judgement which states that decisions made by sport’s disciplinary bodies can be questioned under European competition law.

The notion of sport’s governing bodies having the final say in areas such as doping bans, he said, is worrying. Civil law is creeping into all areas of sport, he said not just its economic aspects, and this could undermine the ability of governing bodies to govern their own sport using their own rules.

Borca Garcia, a sports journalist and researcher based at the UK’s Loughborough University, spoke of the potential for new partnerships between the EU and UEFA. He referred to the “Big Bang” of the 1995 Bosman ruling, which was described by UEFA as a disaster for football and led to a major rift between the two organisations. Today, he said, relations are a lot more cordial and joint initiatives in areas such as health and development are becoming more commonplace.

Niels Nygaard, the President of the Denmark’s National Olympic Committee and Sports Confederation (DIF) said that although he applauded much of the white paper, people should beware of a creeping EU dominance over national sports bodies. He added that European policymakers should retain an awareness of the global nature of sport. The EU is only a small part of the global sports community, he said, and it is important that the EU does not pass rules that prevent sports bodies working in a global capacity. He also warned that the white paper does not fully acknowledge the broad differences between sports. Different methods must be used when the EU negotiates and cooperates with various sporting bodies, he said, and any future regulations should not adopt one-size-fits-all approach.

Focus on “sport for all

Finally, Mogens Kirkeby, President of the International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) spoke of the white paper’s consequences for “sport for all” organizations. Much focus, he said, is placed on the centres of financial and political power in sport. However, the vast majority of sporting activity takes place in the parallel “sport for all” sector. And it is this sector, he said, that is best equipped to achieve many of the societal aims of the EU white paper, such as combating obesity, furthering integration and encouraging development.

The “sport for all” sector should welcome the white paper, Kirkeby concluded. He expressed his hope that it will provide inspiration for government ministries, foundations and private companies to invest in the “sport for all” sector and encourage greater focus on society-centred sport.