Thieule: Sports policy could lead to ‘European identity’

Laurent Thieule.JPG

The EU's sports policy is a good basis for constructing a ''common European identity'' and although it may be under-funded, what matters most is political will, Laurent Thieule, president of a leading EU sports think-tank, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Laurent Thieule is president of the European think-tank Sport and Citizenship (Sport et Citoyenneté). 

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Andrew Williams in mid-December.

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

Negotiations over the EU budget for next year are ongoing and the debate regarding the next long-term planning period of 2014-2020 is set to begin next year. It seems likely that the bloc's new sports policy will fall victim to EU budget cuts after Commission officials told a conference last month that there is "no money available at all". Can you shed any light on the future of EU sports policy? Will the new competence be properly funded?

When thinking of the future of EU sports policy, there are two aspects that should be differentiated: the priorities – i.e. the political guidelines – and the funding. We expect a lot from the new competency and right now, like many other stakeholders, we are waiting for the first ever Commission Communication on Sport – to be published in the near future – for it will be the main and fundamental basis for all the policies that could be made at European level in the field of sport.

We have no doubt that this communication – being the first document since the entry into force of the new competency – will be fully used and therefore we do hope it will include the main priorities regarding the social and educational aspects of sport, which have been included in the Lisbon Treaty. This eagerly awaited document will give a fresh impetus to European sports policy and we are full of expectations for the guidelines to come.

Regarding the question of funding and in line with declarations from Commissioner [Androulla] Vassiliou considering the burden of the financial and economic crisis, we are pessimistic for the years 2012 and 2013. However, we must highlight that there has been funding for sport since 2009 within the framework of the 'Preparatory Actions' and funding for Preparatory Actions in 2011 is not jeopardised.

But most of all, there are many MEPs who do believe in the power of sport. Have a look in our journal: Sean Kelly, Ivo Belet, Doris Pack, Emine Bozkurt, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Christel Schaldemose, Vincent Peillon, Damien Abad, Iva Zanicchi, Alain Cadec, and many others. All these MEPs from different countries and political views do share a common vision that sport plays a unique social, societal, economic and cultural role in Europe.

As MEP Maria Badia i Cutchet said during our conference on 'Sport and European Citizenship' held in Brussels on 9 November, 'the social impact of sport, in intercultural dialogue, in social cohesion, in the fight against exclusion and discrimination, can be very significant, and we cannot miss the opportunity to make good use of it'.

This leads us to be more optimistic for the next financial period (2014-2020), for there exists a strong political will for building an EU sports policy that should benefit European citizens and European society as a whole.

In the event that the budget for sport is drastically reduced or cut altogether, what do you think the EU’s priorities in this field should be?

Since the very beginning, the aim of Sport and Citizenship has been to promote the idea that the specificity of sport should be recognised. We do believe in the social and educational functions of sport.

Therefore our wish is that the priorities of the future EU policy – whatever the budget – will be mainly focused on access to sport and its benefits for all, with special attention paid to sectors of the community in difficulties – a need that has been identified in several of our journals and conferences.

In this regard, the cut in the budget for sport – which results from a critical situation in several other areas – should lead the policy to focus on developing sport as a tool for inclusion by fighting against discrimination (i.e. racism, sexism, homophobia…) and promoting equality (i.e. gender, disabilities…).

Finally, the policy should focus on equal opportunities for all people – whatever their origin, religion, gender or background – for countries and for the next generations.

With the EU institutions standing accused of being out of touch with the everyday lives of European citizens and policymaking dominated by the response to the financial and economic crises, can sports policy serve as a way for the EU to engage more with citizens and show a more human side?

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, therefore representing a tremendous vehicle for education and citizenship.

It constitutes 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 (social inclusion, EU law, citizenship, diversity…).

Furthermore and as stated during our conference on 'Sport and European Citizenship' by William Gaillard, special advisor to the UEFA president [Michel Platini], this culture is the necessary cement of each and every political initiative, for without it, it would be impossible to move forward on complex topics.

In this regard, 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.

However, sport cannot be considered as a cure for all European ills. There is a need for regulation and to confront all the abuses with which it is threatened. This implies strong cooperation and will from the different stakeholders. Given the magnitude of the sports movement globally (whether from the point of view of its economical, societal or media impacts), an obligation exists, albeit moral, to give back to and care for society in a responsible way.

Is the debate on EU sports policy overly dominated by football?

Football, as the most popular sport in the world and in Europe, is indeed a major stakeholder, being strongly represented in the debate. However, it would be a bit simplistic to say that debate on EU sports policy is overly dominated by football, for there are many other stakeholders who take part in the debate.

The world of sport – in its broad meaning – is deeply aware of the opportunities and challenges offered by the new competency. Sport and Citizenship, as a think-tank for sport policy and a forum for new thinking, is a good example of the multiplicity and diversity of the stakeholders involved in the debate on EU sports policy.

Furthermore, we would say that football – as the most advanced sport in terms of professionalisation and mediatisation on one side and in its non-professional organisation on the other, with thousands of volunteers and a system of multi-level governance between local, regional, national and international levels of management – can be a model for other sports.

Indeed, thanks to a 'learning by doing' process and a constructive analysis of the football phenomenon, other sports can identify what might be done (there are some examples of best practice, such as the fight against hooliganism) and what should be avoided. Of course they do have their own specificity and their evolution will not follow the same steps as football, but it could be a good indicator.

Are all stakeholders sufficiently represented in the EU policy dialogue? Debates in Brussels are often dominated by the same voices.

As I said before, our aim is to give the floor to a wide range of actors involved in sport – some of them being less visible in the EU policy dialogue – from academics to the private sector, from top decision-makers from the sport movement to volunteers, from politicians to NGOs…

By putting people in relation with others, our wish is to enable an exchange of views aimed at fuelling the debate.

This is in line with the structured dialogue on sport desired by European institutions – which was highlighted under the Belgian Presidency – and aims at giving the voice to representatives of national and regional/local public authorities, sport federations, the Olympic movement, civil society and academics.

The last public hearing on the future of European sport policy, held at the European Parliament on 18 November, is a good example of this trend. This is a really good thing and Sport and Citizenship will keep working on gathering together all the stakeholders involved in and concerned by sport, and be a gateway for them to the European institutions.

Do you think the EU sports policy will be a success?

Only time will tell. But regarding the political will demonstrated by European institutions and the involvement of many stakeholders from the world of sport in the process of defining priorities and identifying challenges, we do hope it will be a success for the world of sport and for European society as a whole. Indeed if all the requirements (budget, involvement, learning process…) are fulfilled, it will definitely be a success.

Do you expect the EU's new competence to be challenged at the European Court of Justice? The wording of the Treaty article is rather vague.

It is indeed the role of the European Court of Justice to implement and interpret the Lisbon Treaty. With that in mind, Sport and Citizenship's jurists are paying close attention to each and every position taken by the Court in the field of sport, especially those related to the specificity of sport. The outstanding issue is probably to know if this specificity could legally result in a sporting exception.

Would the visibility of EU sports policy be improved by boosting its importance with a Commission portfolio in its own right? Sport does not seem to be high on the agenda of Commissioner Vassiliou.

The EU construction process demonstrates that subjects advance step by step, so we should be patient and most of all aware of our chance: the new competency is a great opportunity and instead of focusing on negative aspects, it would be more constructive to remember this.

Would a Commission portfolio on sport boost the visibility of EU sports policy? How could we know? Look at the different EU countries: do they all have a Sports Ministry? No, and this does not mean that sport policies cannot be seen. Is a Sport Ministry a guarantee for a strong and constructive sport policy, or could it be only a communication strategy?

As I said before, sport is related to many diverse questions and areas (whether economic, social or societal) so therefore 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. In this regard, European institutions have made several positive signs. Commissioner Vassiliou is taking positions on sport, especially emphasising its social and educational importance, and does take this issue seriously into account.

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