Irish MEP: ‘Sport can bring EU closer to citizens’

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The European Commission should use its upcoming sports competence to bring the EU closer to citizens by sports club twinning, cross-border exchange of minority sports and establishing an Erasmus programme for exchange of sportspeople, Irish MEP Seán Kelly told EURACTIV in an interview.

Seán Kelly is an Irish MEP (EPP/Fine Gael Party). He is a former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association and former executive chairman of the Irish Institute of Sport.

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

If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the EU will have a competence on sport. How do you see this upcoming competence and how do you hope the European Commission will use it?

The Commission has already indicated to me that it intends to develop an EU competence in a number of sports-related areas, such as the fight against doping, licensing systems, the establishment and functioning of suitable networks to promote good practices, physical activity, sports training, sport for disabled people and gender equality in sport. A call for proposals was published on 15 May 2009 in order to select approximately 15 suitable projects in those areas, anticipating the entry into force of Lisbon. 

I believe there are many possibilities for synergies to be attained with other EU policy areas. For instance, the European Year of Volunteering in 2011 could focus on the huge contribution of volunteers to the grassroots organisation of sports across Europe. Also, there are initiatives such as the Special Olympics, which link sport, health and social inclusion. I recently met with the chief executive of Special Olympics Europe, Mary Davis, and I would see a bright future for co-operation between the Commission and organisations such as Special Olympics Europe. Synergies could also be developed with tourism and regional development.

I also hope the Commission uses this competence to bring the EU closer to the citizens. There is a widespread sense amongst ordinary citizens that the EU is distant and unresponsive to their needs. Sport touches the hearts and minds of millions of Europeans, and is something that unites us all. Therefore, I think it will be extremely well received by the citizens of Europe that the EU will work for the betterment of sport should Lisbon be passed. 

Specifically, I would like to see the development of an 'Erasmus for Sportspeople' programme. We could even name it after a great European sportsperson. It could allow young sportspeople across all sports to travel abroad to train and educate themselves in best practices in other member states. There could also be twinning arrangements between different clubs in different member states. We have a lot to learn from each other, and EU support in this area could provide an impetus for exchanging best practices. 

Additionally, apart from the initiatives mentioned above, I believe there is an opportunity to develop minority sports and to promote and increase cross-border linkages in these sports. I come from a Gaelic Games background. They are the most popular sports in Ireland, but are played as minority sports across the EU. They are part of the cultural diversity which enriches the EU. I would welcome any initiative which serves to promote cultural and sporting diversity in the EU. 

How should the Commission's competence not be used?

The Commission should not over-bureaucratise the process of implementing policy. Any funds allocated for programmes should be targeted directly at grassroots organisations, taking advantage of the huge voluntary nature of sporting organisations. I don't believe that an EU sport policy will be best promoted by a series of events in the environs of Brussels, for instance. I believe it should be brought to the grassroots as much as possible. 

What will the EU's competence on sport change for local clubs or national sports federations?

I think it will mean a lot to normal citizens that, on a symbolic level, the EU cares about such an important part of many citizens' lives. I think that initiatives such as which I've mentioned already could provide a sense to sportspeople that they belong to a bigger community than their local, regional or even national organisations. 

With a competence on sport, the EU can develop a genuine sports programme. What expectations do you have for the budget and priorities of such a programme?

I would expect a budget line to be developed that would match the ambitions of those of us who have campaigned for a sporting competence for the EU. I would hope that a similar level of funding could be assigned to sport as what has previously been assigned to cultural policies. Sport is one of the most effective ways of promoting strong community ties and protecting the physical and moral integrity of young people, and it needs to be recognised accordingly. 

How do you see the importance of EU having a competence on sport?

Whereas sport is fundamentally bottom-up, local and grassroots based, what I have encountered on the campaign trail for the Lisbon Treaty is that people take a positive interest in the debate once they are informed that the EU will have a sporting competence under Lisbon. They see the EU as being more responsive to their priorities. Thus, one cannot underestimate the symbolic importance of ratifying Lisbon. I think most sportspeople in Ireland now realise this fact. Accordingly, there will be a lot of disappointment in this community if the campaign of misinformation on the 'no' side wins out in the end. 

Any predictions as to outcome of vote in Ireland…?

I am quietly confident of victory for the 'yes' side. I especially want to compliment the captains of the Irish football and rugby teams, Robbie Keane and Brian O'Driscoll, as well as Brian Cody, manager of the Kilkenny hurling team, history-making four-in-a-row All Ireland Champions, who have come out strongly to advocate in favour of a 'yes' vote. These are but three of many more Irish sporting greats, with special mention of rugby legend Denis Hickie, who are mounting a strong campaign for a 'yes' to Lisbon.

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