The EU's sports policy has great potential to build a "common European identity," but is unfortunately under-funded and its success depends on political will, Laurent Thieule, president of a leading EU sports think-tank, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Sport is "a very interesting gateway for the construction of a common European identity thanks to its intrinsic values and because it is at the heart of multiple European issues" like citizenship, EU law, social inclusion and diversity, said Thieule, head of Sport and Citizenship (Sport et Citoyenneté), an international think-tank.
"Sport can be considered as a means for the EU to engage with citizens. Sport can, especially in times of crisis, be a catalyst for EU policy that could be worth its weight in gold," he said.
"It is common knowledge that sport unifies and breaks down barriers between people by enabling them to get to know each other. We do believe that sport can be considered as a common European popular culture and a common denominator for all European peoples," the Frenchman added, describing it as a "tremendous vehicle for education and citizenship".
Despite his positive assessment, doubts persist as to whether the European Commission will be able to fund the EU's new sports policy properly when the first full programme is launched in 2012.
Asked whether the budget cuts sweeping European capitals arejeopardisingsports policies at EU level before they have even got off the ground, Thieule admitted he was "pessimistic for the years 2012 and 2013".
Nevertheless, he stressed that so-called 'preparatory actions' had been receiving funding since 2009 and the budget for those in 2011 had already been secured.
Many members of the European Parliament "believe in the power of sport," Thieule added, expressing optimism that there is "strong political will" in Brussels to build an EU sports policy. "We expect a lot from the new competency," he said, but "only time will tell" whether it is successful.
In the event of budget cuts, Thieule believes EU spending on sports policy should focus on promoting equality and "developing sport as a tool for inclusion by fighting discrimination" like racism, sexism and homophobia.
Rejecting suggestions that debate on EU sports policy is overly dominated by football, Thieule instead insisted that as "the most advanced sport" in terms of its professional arm and media profile, not to mention the thousands of volunteers who contribute to its huge non-professional side, football can serve as a model for other sports to follow.
Asked whether he expected the EU's sports policy to be challenged in court given that the wording of the Lisbon Treaty article is vague, Thieule said the most significant outstanding issue was whether the specific nature of sport as described by the treaty could legally result in "a sporting exception".
Article 165 of the Lisbon Treaty requires the Commission to develop the European dimension of sport by drawing up a specific EU policy programme, "while taking account of the specific nature of sport, its structures based on voluntary activity and its social and educational function". But it gives little detail of how this will be done, opening the door to interpretation by the courts.
Responsibility for EU sports policy falls under the remit of Cypriot Androulla Vassiliou, whose official title is commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth.
But Thieule is not sure that making sport a Commission portfolio in its own right would help boost the policy's visibility. Many EU countries don't have sports ministries, he said, but "this does not mean that sport policies cannot be seen".
"I would not say that a Commission portfolio on sport would automatically boost the visibility of EU sports policy. What matters is the existence of political will," he said.
The Commission is expected to publish its first ever communication on sport in the near future.