Figel’: ‘Sport is not business as usual’

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Sport is not simply an economic sector like any other and has specific features that have to be recognised and dealt with at EU level, Jan Figel’, the EU commissioner responsible for sport, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Jan Figel’ is the European commissioner responsible for sports. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

What is the Commission already doing in the field of sport? 

The European Union is a very specific sui generis organisation in which sport generally remains a national issue, dealt with by the member states, while sport rules are mostly dealt with by international federations and associations. 

However, the EU as a legal space has a lot of rules which concern and make an impact on sport in an indirect way. Here the Commission has a specific mission. It is very strong on areas like protection of competition, broadcasting rights and the internal market, while in other areas it is rather supportive and complementary to national actions. But there is no sports policy in the EU or concrete sports portfolio in terms of a full legally defined space. I’m the commissioner for sport as well because there are already a lot of issues on the agenda. 

The EU has touched sport twice at the highest political level: at the summit in Nice in 2000 and at the summit in Brussels at the end of last year. The European Commission and the Parliament have also touched upon it several times on different occasions. Now, for the first time, there is a legal clause related to sport included in the text of the Lisbon Treaty in ratification. So, with the future treaty, we may have an EU sports programme, policy and EU Ministerial Sports Council. 

Currently we are working on the implementation of the 2007 White Paper on Sport and preparing for future intensified cooperation. Also, in the current 2009 budget, we are making an extra effort on sport, as there is special sport money earmarked in it for preparatory action in the area of sport. I’m happy that support for sport is growing and that sport is related to areas of education and youth. We are doing a lot to promote participation in sport, and the value of sport in building our common Europe. 

How much does the EU already fund sports through different programmes? 

There is more than €6 million this year for preparatory actions. Having an overall figure of all projects supported through different programmes is difficult. But there are quite a few sport-related projects financed through the Structural Funds, or in the area of health related to the fight against obesity, for example. 

We also had a special Year on Education through Sport in 2004. There was a budget of €12 million and we did more than 200 projects across Europe to boost networks and the way that we cooperate in education through sports. This has helped us prepare the White Paper and provided a lot of input regarding social inclusion, education, economic activities and sporting organisations’ volunteering in the EU. 

We are also testing the European Qualifications Framework (EQF) in the field of sports. The EQF classifies different qualifications in EU countries and creates the conditions for their transfer and recognition between countries. We needed a European matrix for sport-related national qualifications, and we funded projects for this purpose. So, we do around sport a lot of other activities that are directly or indirectly promoting participation in sport. 

What will the Lisbon Treaty change? Is it just about having an EU programme and funding for sport, or will the EU actually get some new powers? 

I’d like to stress that money is not the most important thing. I’m not saying that it is not important, but still. First, the change could be qualitative. We currently only have informal ministerial meetings, so-called ‘conferences’, and there is no special council of sport ministers. With the new treaty, we could have such a structure, which is very important for some decision-making. 

And this could also establish a base for an EU-wide sports programme, which could mean transfer of knowledge, formation of networks, exchange of best practice, coordination in this area, mobility of sportsmen and women and trainers and young people. 

Is all of this not yet being done? Or is it just happening informally? 

It is either informal or very limited. Because we have some smaller pilot projects, but we need a sort of Erasmus in the area of sport to show and share how sport can help in professional development, in better education, dual training and the promotion of volunteering. 

So with sport in the treaty, we could have a permanent sports programme and a continuous budget, and thus many more activities than we have today. For example, I’m soon proposing to declare the year of 2011 the European Year of Volunteering. For amateur sport and for sport for all, the European model of sport based on volunteering is a must. By promoting volunteering, we should also promote the social dimension, civic responsibility and non-formal learning. So, in one, we see a lot of practical contributions to the quality of and cooperation in sport. 

What kind of budget are we talking about regarding the future EU sport programme? 

It is difficult to guess now, and there is no definite agreement of the Lisbon Treaty ratification either, but I would like to speak about tens of millions of euros per year. 

We have, for example, a very humble and growing programme called ‘Europe for Citizens’ and it is €215 million for seven years. So it is like €30 million annually. The programme is very popular. It multiplies so many networks and activities, from people-to-people to NGO cooperation and town-twinning, that it brings much more than this limited sum of money. 

When do you think the first EU sport programme could be launched? 

We are too much in the future here. Today, we try to encourage participation in the European elections and the overall understanding that Europe needs to move to respond to some problems not only at high political level but also at grassroots level. Issues include citizens’ participation, social inclusion and intercultural dialogue, because sport is a very popular instinct instrument. 

The launch of the programme depends on if and when the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and enters into force. But meanwhile, we have this preparatory action and attention and support for the agenda is growing, so I can assure you that anyhow the EU and sport should be seen more and more together. 

I understand there are some problems with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules, which conflict with the acquis, in particular on data protection, as they are considered excessive. What is the way ahead for the EU on this? 

We are dealing with that, and of course everybody has a special role. But WADA needs internal and external consensus. Internal consensus is based on two stakeholders – governmental representatives and sport bodies – which adopt rules to be a frontrunner, advancing policies and mechanisms in order to fight doping efficiently. The area is so sophisticated and dynamic that we are usually seen as a latecomer, only reacting and not in fully sufficient way. 

External consensus means it should and must very clearly be in compliance with other actions, mostly on national levels. And Europe is a very specific place, because we are very advanced and there is a strong mentality and public support for the fight against doping. And WADA should use it for the better, and not create question marks about whether our two approaches are compatible or not. Because with the current WADA standards, we see inconsistencies in compatibility in the anti-doping rules. 

The WADA standard on personal data protection, in use since 1 January this year, was according to our legal assessment in breach of the EU’s Data Protection Directive from 1995. But the signals from WADA have been encouraging in the last few weeks, because it has got the message of the problem in Europe, but also of the constructive approach we have. We have had several occasions to discuss, since especially the November 2008 Biarritz forum, where WADA was fully represented. 

In late April there was a consultation organised in Madrid between WADA, the Council of Europe and the Commission. In early May in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe continued the consultation and prepared a European contribution to the meeting of the WADA governing board and executive committee on the issue. [Shortly after the interview, WADA’s executive committee adopted an amended version of their data protection standard, which seems to take Commission’s concerns into account.] 

I think the momentum is there, and we hope that it will be used for adaptation of some other WADA documents which may also pose problems from the perspective of our data protection directive. European legislation in this area represents the best available international practice, and I trust that full compliance can be reached. 

In mid-May, we are organising an anti-doping conference in Athens, which could even more raise the visibility and importance of this common issue – whether now before the June elections or after. It is one of the most important strands we have to cooperate in, and the roles are very different. 

We don’t have a European WADA. I was against such an idea. What we need is more intense cooperation, where the same objectives are achieved through National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs), through cooperation of our laboratories, experts, member states and sport bodies. 

This brings us to the ‘specificity’ of sport. Where are you going to draw the line on the specificity of sport? Under what framework is thespecificity of sport going to be dealt with at EU level? 

Most people like the ‘specificity’ of sport but not many understand it. 

I’m happy that the partners around the Commission now understand that ‘specificity’ does not equal to exclusion of sport from the laws of the EU and is not a bloc exemption. Specificity is that sport is not business as usual. There are specific features, characteristics we have to know and deal with and care for, but basically they are implemented, organised and exist within the legal space. 

So, for example the issue of fundamental rights – both top and lower-level sport people have some fundamental rights to be respected. There are rules for, for example, personal data transfer to third countries. We have rules for internal cooperation, but once we cross the borders of the Union, there are very strict rules on how and with whom we may or may not share the information, and this concerns anti-doping data as well. There are limits defined by EU law and fundamental freedoms. 

Otherwise we are not only ready to consult, but also to cooperate on the correct implementation of anti-doping policies. WADA has a role and we recognise, respect and support that role, but not against the existing rules, which are important for living in freedom in an open space for cooperation. 

Could the introduction of an EU exemption to the FIFA 6+5 rule solve the current problem of the rule being incompatible with EU law? Meaning that the rule could apply elsewhere in the world, but not in the EU? 

We are not the only part of the world that has issues with the 6+5. It is a problem in Latin America too, for example. We have nothing to say, legally, regarding the space which is not defined by EU rules. So if FIFA within its structures makes some specific arrangements in Africa or Latin America, we won’t object. It’s for them. We can accept FIFA rules as long as they do not lead to direct discrimination, based on nationality, between EU citizens. 

What we need to clarify and support is that our cooperation is open and constructive. We launched a dialogue on these matters in January. The next occasion to meet within this dialogue is in June, here in Brussels again, at top political level, with the IOC, major international sport bodies and EU Commission. 

At an expert-level meeting in March, a way forward based on the principle of theme-by-theme discussions was agreed. It’s something different in different areas, and we cannot treat sport in one large bloc or box. So we are ready to, theme-by-theme, to deal with these issues – there is no bloc exemption or case-by case approach, because theme-by-theme reflects the specificity, diversity and also the most efficient way to address topics such anti-doping, mobility and nationality, dual training, volunteering, professional-amateur sport relations and funding, especially funding of grassroots sports. 

We will address the ‘specificity of sport’ theme-by theme and 6+5 is one of these points. 

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