Sports ministers kick off EU policy dialogue

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Ministers gathered for the first ever EU Sports Council last week agreed to establish a regular dialogue between representatives of sports movements and EU policymakers. But observers warned that it was not yet clear who was representing the sports movement in Brussels. 

Ministers responsible for sport adopted a resolution last Thursday (18 November) establishing an ongoing "high-level structured dialogue" between the EU institutions and stakeholders from the sports world.

Those consulted must include Olympic sports and non-Olympic sports, professional and amateur sports, competitive and recreational sports, grassroots sports and sport for people with disabilities, the ministers stressed.

The first such meeting would take place in early December, they announced.

The ministers hope that a strengthened EU dialogue with sport stakeholders will "serve as an opportunity for a continuous and well-structured exchange of views on priorities, implementation and follow-up to EU cooperation in the field of sport". They identified a "specific need to develop the high-level component" of the exchanges that exist already.

Only "a limited number of participants" will be invited to the meetings, but organisers will seek to ensure "balanced participation" from the EU institutions, public authorities and representatives of the sports movement.

Particular efforts must be made to achieve "representative, broad and balanced participation from the sports movement" and to ensure continuity of representation.

Battle for representation

Some sports stakeholders, however, believe the EU institutions have so far failed to cast their net wide enough in canvassing opinion on the future EU sports policy.

"There isn't really one voice that represents sport in Brussels," a source close to the policy debate told EURACTIV. "It has been suggested that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could be the best body, but they don't represent the grassroots."

"De facto it's been the IOC so far, as there is no other viable body. The problem is that you can't have 200 sports federations represented at once, but you can't have football represented by rugby either," the source said.

Mogens Kirkeby, president of the International Sport and Culture Association, told a European Parliament hearing last week that "we need to involve stakeholders from beyond the limited sports sector" in designing EU sports policy.

Sport's role in social inclusion

Meanwhile, the ministers also adopted conclusions on the role of sport as a source and driver of social inclusion, identifying three common priorities for promoting social inclusion through sport: ensuring that sports activities are accessible for all citizens (the so-called 'Sport for All' principle), making better use of sport's potential to contribute to community building, social cohesion and growth, and establishing transnational exchanges of strategies and methodologies.

Welcoming the Council's recognition of the role played by sport as a catalyst for social inclusion, Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner responsible for sport, said "sport can open doors and give people a second chance".

The Commission works with national authorities and sports organisations to help people from disadvantaged groups like migrants, drug users, ex-offenders and those who have left school with no qualifications. 

Fight against doping

Ministers also adopted conclusions on the role of the EU in the global fight against doping in sport, stressing the need for better coordination of EU and national positions ahead of meetings of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – in particular to defend the free movement of athletes and protect their privacy and personal data.

Now that the Lisbon Treaty has given the European Union a competence on sport, "ensuring that the views of the EU and its member states are given due weight in WADA deliberations is of crucial importance," state the ministers' conclusions, adding that it will be the rotating Council presidency's responsibility to coordinate the EU's position ahead of WADA meetings.

"Europe is represented by its ministers from the presidency in WADA, but they have no mandate and only speak on a personal basis," explained Gregory Paulger, director of DG Education and Culture at the European Commission – the department responsible for drafting the new EU sports policy.

"The EU provides 50% of the funding for WADA, but in no way holds 50% of the power. We are extremely weak and wield almost no power on its foundation board. The EU must act together if we are going to have any influence there," Paulger said.

The European Commission is expected to present a communication detailing the EU's first ever sports programme late this year or early next, but officials have expressed fear as to whether they will have enough funding to launch the policy (EURACTIV 19/11/10). 

Speaking after last week's meeting, Flemish Minister of Sport Philippe Muyters said he was "honoured to be chairing the very first Sports Council".

"I am also extremely proud that we were able to successfully conclude three major dossiers. The Council gave a clear signal about the direction it wants to take with this new authority," Muyters added.  

Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner responsible for sport, welcomed the Council's decision to establish closer cooperation between EU countries and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and recalled that the EU has a legal responsibility under the Lisbon Treaty to promote fairness and openness in sporting competitions and to protect the "physical and moral integrity" of sportspeople.

"Doping has no place in sport and I am determined that we will work closely with WADA to stamp out abuses and ensure a level-playing field in all sports. Doping isn't just bad for the sportspeople who risk damaging their health and ruining their careers, it also cheats the fans who want to see fair play," Vassiliou said.

The commissioner also hailed the Council's decision to establish a high-level 'structured dialogue' on sport, involving representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament, member states and the sports movement.

"It is our objective [for] all relevant stakeholders in the sport movement [to] participate in discussions at EU level on actions that concern them. This is another strong signal by the Council to recognise the important role of the sport movement," Vassiliou said.

"Article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty opens the door for political visions and decisions, but we need to leave behind myths and outdated models of describing the sports sector," said Mogens Kirkeby, president of the International Sport and Culture Association.

A former Lithuanian sports minister told a European Parliament hearing last week that "EU representation in WADA is far too weak given that [the EU] provides half of its funding. We need a permanent representative of the Council, the Commission and the Parliament on WADA".

Commenting on difficulties experienced so far in creating a genuine dialogue on EU sports policy, Michele Colucci, professor of international and European sports law at Tilburg University, said "we cannot always blame the institutions when something doesn't work. The opportunities for dialogue are there".

"We don't think there's a deficit in dialogue. The dialogue exists," said William Gaillard, senior advisor to UEFA President Michel Platini.

"Huge team sports like ours aren't asking for money – we're asking for our autonomy to be respected. We just need the ear of the EU institutions and a dialogue – nothing more," he said.

An Vermeersch, a spokeswoman for the Belgian EU Presidency, said last week's meeting of EU sports ministers was "historic" because ministers had dealt specifically with sport at EU level for the first time.

The Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, gave the European Union a competence on sports policy (Article 165).

The European Commission is currently drawing up plans for the first-ever EU sports programme, a limited version of which it is aiming to launch in 2012 ahead of the first fully-fledged raft of policies in 2014.  

It will soon unveil a communication on the impact of the Lisbon Treaty on sport, in which its proposals for the sports programme will be tabled.

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