Tel. +44 (0)20 7287 4414
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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Sport: the Marathon to Integration

Dr Lee Rotherham


Brussels' first foray into running Sports Policy happened back in 1988.

It was after the Seoul Olympics; the athletes were returning home to national acclaim; and there, on the second page of a UK newspaper was the advert placed by the European Commission. Imagine, it said, the tally in Gold, Silver and Bronze, if the European teams were counted as one.

The total was impressive, but the question was arrogant, particularly given the known attitudes of the British premier of the time.

Sport really was not on the agenda for the EU (as it would become) for some years. Of course, it is a highly symbolic prize for the integrationists to win. Imagine a "Ryder Cup" team across the board in so many sporting disciplines; to add to the flag and the anthem, a shared set of heroes.

Clearly, the prospect is a touchy area (witness Hong Kong's attempts to maintain its own identity in these areas).

It had been part of the Council of Europe's agenda, however, since 1950. The European Cultural Convention identified Sport alongside Education, Culture and Youth, as areas for international, ie intergovernmental, cooperation. So long as the pretence for the EU was that of trade and the 'four freedoms', official interest in the domain was only incidental at Brussels. On rare occasions, the Single Market may find an issue. This most notably happened over the number of international players that could be permitted in any football team. The ruling was subsequently used by Europropagandists as an example of "Europe working", of the Single Market supposedly making the man in the street's life better by improving the quality of national sport, and of Brussels doing something tangible and understandable. This profile case may thus have been the undoing of sport's intergovernmental status. After all, even the Tour de France rarely crossed any borders.

The Treaty of Amsterdam started the unravelling. Amongst the final Declarations ran the following:

"The Conference emphasises the social significance of sport, in particular its role in forging identity and bringing people together. The Conference therefore calls on the bodies of the European Union to listen to sports associations when important questions affecting sport are at issue. In this connection, special consideration should be given to the particular characteristics of amateur sport."

While not a fully incorporated article, it provided a possible budget line and an authorisation for the Commission to reflect, and the more integrationist within the Council to plan.

The supporters of this development are surprising. As the negotiations were under way in 1996, the fifteen heads of the national Olympic Committees of the member states, supported by the IOC and its head (Samaranch), endorsed a proposal (of unknown origins) to add Sport as a 'Complementary Competence'. This would allow for coordinating, complementary or supporting action short of harmonisation - and allowing legislation and legal funding of activities in the field.

That objective would have to wait. But the ratchet had begun to click. With the Treaty of Nice came a fuller Declaration, which while it again lay outside the treaty body proper, gave more substance to the activities and objectives of the EU. Acknowledging there had been no direct (N.B) competence in the field, it authorised the Community to "take account of the social, educational and cultural functions inherent in sport and making it special, in order that the code of ethics and the solidarity essential to the preservation of its social role may be respected and nurtured." In short, a raft of issues relating to sport would be of interest to Brussels: "social values"; "educational values"; "cultural values"; "integration"; "involvement in social life"; "tolerance"; "acceptance of differences"; "playing by the rules"; access regardless of gender, age and capability; volunteers in sports; sports federations; youth training; health protection; anti-doping measures; "acts of violence"; racism and xenophobia; vocational training by sportsmen for other jobs; minors in sport; management of clubs; TV broadcasting rights; and transfers. A declaration of platitudes thus provides the Commission with the authorisation to become interested in a broad area of fields, with monies to start to infiltrate and buy.

The authorisation for activity still remained in the Treaty Recitals, however, and not properly in the main body of the text. Still, this enabled a Sports Unit (within DG Education and Culture, as it now is) to fund activities and demonstrate an EU presence, for instance an anti-smoking campaign for sportsmen; Football Against Racism in Europe; the XXXVI Chess Olympiad in Calvia in 2004 (described as "The symbol of the Olympic spirit in European territory"); the European Paralympic Committee; and a music show in Athens. In short, it usurped the Council of Europe. The Olympic Flame in January 2004 even made a special trip to see the Commissioner in charge of Sports when the runners passed through Brussels.

The story, sadly, does not stop here. The integrationists on the Praesidium of the Giscard Convention succeeded in putting Sport into the Constitutional draft as a Complementary Competence (despite a marked absence of suggestions from the delegates from the floor to do so). Article 15 identified Sport as an area for "supporting action", along with industry, education/vocational training/youth, culture, and protection against disasters. Motions to remove it (not all from Eurosceptic delegates) were ignored. Consequently, it went before the IGC for debate late in 2003. Once again, sports bureaucrats backed the move: FIFA, UEFA and the IOC seem to have endorsed the plans (the Presidents of FIFA and UEFA even issued a joint statement of support; other associations incurred the Commission's wrath by being more questioning). By October, twelve of the fifteen EU members were said to endorse the change. Reading between the lines, Britain wasn't prepared to go to the wall to veto it, deeming it a matter of minor importance.

So this is where we are today. The Commission feels itself empowered to fund Sports projects and tinker in sports legislation where other EU legislation (such as the Single Market) overlaps. It is waiting for the final ratification of the EU Constitution, which would incorporate Sport as an area for legal activism.

Where that will lead us is anyone's guess. But cgonsider the hysteria last year in a speech by the Commissioner then responsible for Sport, Viviane Reding. ("2004 - A New Lease of Life for European Sport?" Speech 03/411) The EU Constitution made 2004 seem set to be the "starting point for a Community policy of sport". The Community would promote and 'restore' sporting values, and would pursue the educational and social potential of the domain. Reference followed to the need to increase stadium attendance levels; to the failures of national funding of national sports federations; of the desirability of integrating sports somehow into the Social Model (an obligatory paid hour down the gym?); and even possible legislation for a specific Eurocrime of doping in sport - logically, this would bring in Europol.

Rarely is anyone in Brussels so completely hatstand. The language was incredible, with hints of ubermenschen in vests, of "Education through Sport" and of evil doping parents who deserved the ultimate sanction. With legislative rights in the pipeline, the Commissioner's mind tripped the light fantastic. Clearly with Sport, if the Constitution is ratified, all bets are off as to what the tabloids will be able to print.

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