Sports policy to fall victim of EU budget row

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European Commission officials yesterday (18 November) expressed doubt as to whether they would have enough funding to launch the European Union’s new sports policy after talks on the EU budget for 2011 collapsed. 

The Commission is currently drawing up proposals for the first EU sports programme, set to begin in 2012, with a communication on future areas of EU action expected in December or early in the New Year.

But concerns are mounting that the raft of budget cuts sweeping European capitals, which earlier this week saw member states and the European Parliament dramatically fail to reach agreement on EU spending in 2011 (EURACTIV 16/11/10), are jeopardising funding for sports policies at EU level before they have even got off the ground.

'No money available at all'

"Article 165 gives us a legal basis but it doesn’t give us a budget. Unfortunately the treaty came into force at exactly the wrong time and there’s no money available at all," Gregory Paulger, director of DG Education and Culture at the European Commission – the department responsible for drafting the new EU sports policy – told a Parliament hearing yesterday.

Paulger said the Commission had included funding for sports in the draft budget blocked on Monday. But even that money is now in doubt given that negotiators have returned to the drawing board.

"Where will we find the money for a sports programme? The reality is that there is none. We have no budget yet," the Commission director said.

"We cannot even fund Media Mundus in 2011. Would you like us to take money from Erasmus? I don’t think so, but there will even be attempts to take away that," he warned MEPs.

Nevertheless, "funding for preparatory actions in 2011 is still in our draft budget, so let’s hope it survives the current negotiations," the Commission official said.

"We’ll still continue to come forward with proposals for more preparatory actions and want to propose a full programme in 2014, but it will be extremely difficult to get the money to do this. It’s not in the treaty," Paulger repeated.

Upcoming sports programme

The Commission’s upcoming communication on sports is expected to focus on areas where the EU can add value to what is already being done in the member states, rather than duplicating the work of local and regional authorities.

Commission officials yesterday cited boosting sports participation among women, ethnic minorities and the disabled, establishing cross-border recognition of qualifications, promoting the role of sport as a health-enhancing physical activity and fighting against doping as areas the communication would focus on.

It will also deal with fighting against racism, violence and intolerance, helping ensure free movement of sportspeople, boosting volunteering and regulating transfer activity and sports agents, as well as addressing intellectual property, gambling and media rights.

But German Green MEP Helga Trüpel, vice-chair of the European Parliament’s culture committee, which is responsible for sports policy, echoed the Commission in saying that "it’s not clear whether there’ll be any money for sports policy in 2011".

‘Everything depends on Council’

"Everything depends on how fast the Council moves. MEPs were so strict [in this week’s negotiations] because we want to make sure that the UK and the Netherlands take the EU’s responsibilities under the Lisbon Treaty seriously. But if [UK Prime Minister] David Cameron gets his way, then we’ll lose all our funding for sports and cultural programmes," Trüpel said.

Moreover, German MEP and committee chair Doris Pack (European People’s Party; EPP), believes the uncertainty over funding means that "the Commission is going to have to be very inventive if Article 165 is going to be properly implemented".

"Let’s not make the mistake of trying to attempt everything and ending up achieving nothing. We need to focus on a few goals that we think we can achieve in the next 4-5 years," Pack said.

The German MEP insisted that even in the event that there is no funding for a limited programme in 2012-13, the EU could still continue to prepare new preparatory actions in the field of sport in the meantime.

Meanwhile, other participants in yesterday’s debate also warned against the danger of trying to do too much at once at EU level.

Pack’s Italian EPP colleague Marco Scurria warned that belt-tightening and uncertainty surrounding the EU budget means "we need a clearer remit if we’re going to secure the resources we need to implement the EU sports policy".

"It cannot just be a framework with all sorts of things added. The EU needs to figure out what it wants to do, and make sure that it can achieve one or two things first to maintain its sports funding," Scurria said.

The Commission is expected to draft a new budget for 2011 which can be discussed by EU heads of state and government at a summit on 16-17 December. 

"The Commission will soon adopt a communication on the future EU sports policy. It will underline sport’s contribution to the EU 2020 goals by boosting social cohesion and improving people’s well-being," said Gregory Paulger, director of DG Education and Culture at the European Commission, which is responsible for EU sports policy.

"There is a vast agenda, because sport is a vast area, and we look forward to working with the European Parliament and civil society to establish priorities. The communication will be broad for now, because it’s about drawing up a policy," Paulger said.

"The communication will fully respect the treaty by adding value to action already carried out at national level. It will address transnational challenges related to sport, provide a platform for dialogue, improve the knowledge base, especially on EU law, and provide a forum for best-practice exchange," he explained.

Finnish MEPand committee vice-chair Timo Soini (Europe of Freedom and Democracy) warned that "we need a much clearer definition of the treaty article. We’ve been preparing for this for long enough already, but before we can roll out any initiatives we need a much stronger foundation of European sports law," said committee vice-chair.

Polish EPP member Piotr Borys, meanwhile, believes that the biggest challenge facing the EU’s new sports policy is that "it hasn’t been defined precisely enough".

"Some people are sceptical and there’s a danger of ‘blah blah’. If the communication spreads itself too thinly, then we’ll get nothing done," warned Irish EPP MEP Seàn Kelly.

Patrick Hickey, president of the European Olympic Committee, said "we want to build up a relationship with the EU institutions to produce a better EU sports policy," expressing hope that the new competence "should allow the EU to move beyond relying on court rulings" to exercise its influence.

Commenting on his new role as chairman of the EU Sports Platform, a position he will assume on 1 December, former Irish Taoiseach and former EU Ambassador to Washington John Bruton said "the new sports competence in the Lisbon Treaty means it has never been more important for sports of all sizes to engage with the EU".

'This is a pivotal moment and we want to ensure that sports bodies at all levels can benefit from the new EU sports policy," he told Irish broadcaster RTE.

As for yesterday’s hearing, he said it was a great opportunity for the Parliament to make its voice heard. "I hope MEPs will stick up for grassroots sport, and ensure that all sports, and not just professional football, will be involved in the debate," he said.

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.

Meanwhile, policymakers gathered for a conference in Brussels earlier this month suggested that involvement in sports can drive citizens' participation in the European Year of Volunteering in 2011 (EURACTIV 15/11/10). 

  • 16-17 Dec.: Summit of EU heads of state and government in Brussels. 

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