EU at the Olympics: An invisible powerhouse

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The London Games should confirm the EU’s position as a major soft power (at least in its sportive dimension), despite the global financial turmoil and economic crisis on the Old Continent, writes Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski.

Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski is a research fellow and head of the politics and institutions programme at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. The graphics are provided by CEPS.

"The European states have a long history of good performance at the Summer Olympic Games. The Olympic Games are the most important global sportive event taking place every four years. There is a long history of intertwining the Games with politics.

The Soviet Union and the United States treated the Olympics as a proxy to project and enhance their soft power.

Using this old technique, what would be the EU’s soft power if measured by the EU member states' collective performance at the Summer Olympic Games since 1992? (The basic assumption here is that ‘EU’ means the activity of 27 member states, not the European institutions. The EU institutions' presence and impact on the major sportive events over the years has been limited.)

The most important finding shows that the EU’s soft power has not been fading away with time. Quite to the contrary, it has increased thanks to its collective output since 1992, which is mainly due to the Union’s enlargement.

The second most important finding is related to the enlargement itself.

Successive 1995, 2004, and 2007 enlargements have helped to cushion the decreasing soft power of the 12 EU member states of 1992: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom. In 1995 EU enlarged to Austria, Finland and Sweden. In 2004 Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined, and in 2007 Bulgaria and Romania became EU members).

And, on top of that, during the 2008 Games EU’s member states' performance was the best in history in amount of gold medals won.

What will happen in London depends on European athletes. But politics of hosting the games will continue. After the London Games there is no confirmed return of the Olympics to the EU in the next decade.

In the recent 20 years the EU member states hosted the summer Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona, in 2004 in Athens and in 2012 in London. The winter Olympic Games also were held in the EU in 1994 in Albertville and in 2006 in Turin.

The next chance for an EU city to host the Games will be in 2020 if Madrid wins the bid (the Spanish capital is competing with Istanbul and Tokyo; the decision will be taken in 2013).

Finally, the Beijing Olympics has been considered China’s entrance as a global soft player. The EU’s best performance in history (gold medals) was hardly noticed.

However, one needs to keep in mind that it is not proper to compare the EU member states' collective achievement with other countries, as numerous EU member states have many more chances of winning medals than any other individual country.

What will the London Games teach us about the EU’s soft power? The sportive trajectory is clear: we should expect between 85 and 90 gold medals and about 280 total medals won by representatives of 27 states.

This should confirm the EU’s position as a major soft power (at least in its sportive dimension), despite the global financial turmoil and economic crisis on the Old Continent. Also, in the political terms, the London Games could be viewed as the European, or – in a larger context, as the UK is often viewed as a bridge between the European and the American continents – transatlantic response to the East Asian rise to prominence.

The EU official institutions' presence at the Olympics, however, will be marginal, despite the fact that the Olympics have never been held closer to Brussels than this year (the Paris in 1900 and 1924, London in 1908 and 1948, Antwerp in 1920 and Amsterdam in 1928 were held before the process of European integration has started).

The situation calls, however, for reflection. In the process of building a stronger European Union, many critics argue there is lack of pan-European identity and pan-European solidarity.

True, there is no one European demos, but a European political actor should stand up and make a statement of appreciation and congratulation to all the successful athletes of EU member states. Hence a question: Will Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, send congratulatory letters to all the European gold medallists? Should he do this?

If the president supports the development of a pan-European solidarity and pan-European identity, then he should. This would also be in a spirit of the EU’s new sport policy – underpinned by a new legal basis in the Lisbon Treaty. So far the EU institutions’ approach to sport was socio-economic, not political.

Most likely the Olympics will be pronounced as ‘the most successful Games’ in history. This is a standard statement made at the end of almost all of the events by the head of the International Olympic Committee. So what will the London Games teach us about the EU’s soft power? We will see in two weeks.

Let the Games begin."

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