EU Sport Commissioner Tibor Navracsics praised the involvement of “a wide range of actors” in promoting physical activity in Europe, and called on the private sector to ensure that healthy choices are easier and more affordable for everyone.
Tibor Navracsics is European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Gerardo Fortuna
What is the highest achievement of your mandate when it came to promoting healthy habits through sport?
Promoting physical activity and healthy lifestyles has indeed been one of my main priorities. Europeans move less and less and spend a lot of time sitting down, which negatively affects not only their physical health but also their mental health and well-being. We are working to counter these developments, and encourage people to take up a more active lifestyle.
I am very proud of the way the EU sport policy has developed and what we have achieved over the past four years. In particular, I am delighted to see how partner organisations and governments across the European Union and beyond have embraced the European Week of Sport. Last year, more than 13 million people participated in over 50,000 sports events in 37 countries. The European Week of Sport is now fully anchored in the calendar.
There is no silver bullet to immediately solve the challenges we face, but I am convinced that the European Week of Sport can make a great contribution – showing people that sport is fun, helps them make new friends and is easy to integrate into their daily lives.
The Tartu Call for a Healthy Lifestyle was a defining moment proposing a multi-policies approach to health topics. How do you see the Commission’s efforts to develop further cooperation across the health, sports, education and food sectors?
Healthy lifestyles are about more than sport. We need to work together across different policy sectors. That is what the Tartu Call is about: together with my fellow Commissioners Vytenis Andriukaitis and Phil Hogan, I want to show a firm commitment to cooperate across policy areas such as health, sport, education, food, research and innovation.
The Tartu Call has already had a positive impact inside the European Commission, leading us to adopt a more coherent approach when dealing with initiatives related to healthy lifestyles. Later this year, we will host an event where we get together with stakeholders, representatives of the member states and other policy-makers to discuss the progress made so far and to see how we can take this initiative forward. This has to be a commitment for the long term.
The EU is increasing its efforts through institutional partnerships like the one with WHO on the promotion of physical activity and healthy lifestyles, but what about a multi-stakeholders partnership that brings together stakeholders from civil society to the private sector?
Involving a wide range of actors can only bring benefits. I am very happy with the cooperation we have established with the World Health Organisation. For example, we run the physical activity focal point network together, which collects data on the member states and supports the exchange of best practices on promoting physical activity. This is a very good example of how two major institutions can complement each other’s actions to maximise the impact of what they do.
Beyond that, we do promote multi-stakeholder actions by bringing different actors to the table to discuss specific issues. That is what we do, for example, at the EU Sport Forum, the annual meeting between stakeholders in sport, the EU institutions and the Member States. This year, in early April, we plan to discuss issues such as the role of sport clubs in society, the effect of digitisation on sport competitions, the successful organisation of big sporting events and the fight against doping.
How can the private sector further support the Commission’s ambitions and play a role in the promotion of sport, but also nutrition education and ‘nudging’ healthy choices?
Reaching out to and engaging with citizens is key. To encourage a change in mindsets and habits, the private sector needs to help ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice. Moreover, healthy options should not be a privilege of those who can afford it, but something available to everyone.
Local actors and the private sector are indeed rising to the challenge. Many companies are taking steps to encourage people to exercise more and choose a more healthy diet, targeting both their consumers and employees. Promoting healthy lifestyles presents an excellent opportunity for corporate social responsibility initiatives, especially considering that the private sector can cooperate with Commission-funded institutions, such as the European Institute of Innovation and Technology, and their work on food, to find better, more affordable solutions.
The sports nutrition industry has recently complained about the current lack of a clear EU legal framework for sports foods and they’re asking a deepened internal market and EU harmonised rules. Do you think there is already a fair balance between harmonisation and deregulation?
Evidence shows that the rules applying to EU food law provide necessary safeguards for sports food when it comes to food safety, composition, consumer information and legal certainty. We need to make sure that the food sold on our market is safe. The industry can request the authorisation of new nutrition and health claims, but they must obey the rules.
In the specific case of sports food, there is the added issue of performance-enhancing substances. These may or may not have an impact on consumers’ health so may or may not fall under EU food law. But even if food law is not concerned, we still have to deal with ethical considerations. These kinds of issues should be addressed through international and voluntary standards.
I welcome the initiative of the European Committee for Standardisation to standardise doping prevention in sport. This covers good development and manufacturing practices that are aimed at preventing the presence of prohibited substances in food and supplements aimed at sport.
Erasmus+ opened to sport and you also launched the #BeActive campaign, but which other initiatives are in the pipeline to increase the role of sport in society?
Since 2014, Erasmus+ has had a big impact on the promotion of sport and physical activity for all. And we have even higher ambitions for the future: for the EU’s next long-term budget after 2020, the European Commission has proposed to double the budget for the sport chapter in Erasmus to EUR 550 million. This would enable us to make an even greater impact, in particular by giving more support to small organisations that work on the grassroots level.
Beyond Erasmus, we are opening up other opportunities. For example, it is possible to tap the European Structural and Investment Funds support projects promoting sport and physical activity – but this is only happening to a limited extent. There is a huge potential here, as sport is an excellent means of promoting regional development. That is why I already launched the SportHub: Alliance for Regional development in Europe or SHARE.
I want us to use this initiative to raise awareness of how sport can drive local and regional development and to support local and regional authorities in developing concrete steps to harness this power. SHARE also builds capacity and strengthens partnerships between the sport movement, local and regional authorities, and empowers these stakeholders to unlock support from EU funds for sport activities.
I also think there is room to develop the initiatives I launched to make full use of the potential sport has to break down barriers and build communities. This includes the #BeInclusive Sport Award that recognises and highlights how sport organisations help people from disadvantaged backgrounds find their place in our societies.
What would be the key priorities to set high ambitions for the future of the EU sports policy?
The Commission will continue to support sport diplomacy, grassroots sport and social inclusion through sport. It will certainly also keep working to help protect the integrity of sport – this is crucial to rebuilding the trust that is needed to preserve the place of sport at the heart of our societies. Doing so will require working with sport organisations, which I consider to be our partners in defining EU sport policy and making it a reality on the ground.
I believe that going local is the key to success. It is our job, at European level, to further empower and connect the sport community from the grassroots upwards – for the long-term. In this sense, the Tartu Call for a Healthy Lifestyle is not the end of the journey, but only the beginning.