Sport diplomacy gains ground as EU Commission organizes second seminar in Brussels

6 December 2017


Cooperation in the field of sport can contribute to better international relations. Moreover, sport’s potential as a tool for development has also been largely unexplored. Sport diplomacy may help overcome cultural differences and bring people together. Sport competitions or activities can bring about positive social changes as sport is a common language that transcends borders, increases dialogue and connects people on a personal level through their common interests, values, and passions.

The real first incursions on the topic date back to 2015, when Commissioner Navracsics set up two high-level groups, one of them being dedicated to sport diplomacy.

The aim of the group was to assess the value of sport in EU external policies, and in public diplomacy in particular. It identified how sport can help the EU reach its external political ambitions (e.g. easing relations with partner countries) and be an element of dialogue with third countries and regions as part of EU public diplomacy.

The report and conclusions of the group were presented to the Commissioner in 2016.

This led to the adoption of Council conclusions on sport diplomacy on 21-22 November 2016, under the Slovak presidency.

Sport diplomacy then went on to become one of the priorities of the new EU Work Plan for Sport 2017 – 2020 which states that “the Commission should ensure a follow up of the work done by previous high-level groups on grassroots and sport diplomacy”.

After a first edition in December 2016, the European Commission’s Sport Unit organized the second seminar on sport diplomacy on 6 December 2017, gathering a large panel of organisations, among which representatives of the sport movement, the Paris 2024 Olympics, good practices, academics and governments.

Theoretical approaches were exemplified by good practices from ISCA, UEFA, Play International and ENGSO Youth.

Traditional diplomacy vs. grassroots sports diplomacy?

The topic of sport diplomacy is evolving slowly at European level. Despite its size, the EU is a very responsible organization. The crisis in traditional diplomacy led to the emergence of new forums and tools. Foreign policy goals haven’t really changed but the means of delivering them have. Public bodies are increasingly recognizing that sport can play a role in delivering effective foreign policy objectives now. Mega-sport events like the Olympic or the football World Cup are important features of nation-branding strategies.

On the other hand, countries cannot make the economy of grassroots sports. If diplomacy is about image, building a brand and mostly showing, it is probably best exemplified through field work and doing. In recent years, the shifts from diplomacy to public diplomacy and to cultural diplomacy could open the door for a new concept of grassroots sports diplomacy. The strengths of a nation in conducting diplomatic relationships could increasingly rely on volunteering, civil society, democracy and human rights. These are values shared by the grassroots sport and the European Union. EU values and also grassroots sport s values. Diplomatic relationships would certainly benefit from more openness and by fostering people to people contact.

Paris 2024 as a laboratory

Reinforcing European identity through the Olympics has been one of the features underlining Paris 2024 through the bidding process. In early June 201, a delegation for the Paris bid for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games received the support of the European Parliament, for the first time in history.

Paris is now following up on this promise to make the 2024 Games also a project to be shared with Europe and its citizens, with an ambitious legacy project aligned with EU policies and centered around healthy lifestyles, inclusiveness and sustainability.

Funding opportunities for sport and diplomacy initiatives

The European Commission emphasized on the will to extend the Erasmus+ Sport programme to more countries outside the EU’s borders, namely countries from the Eastern partnership. According to a study by Ecorys, commissioned by the Sport Unit, several opportunities outside Erasmus+ Sport exist, although their often rarely know.

Projects using sport as a tool to build external relations could be supported under following funding instruments:

  • European Neighborhood instrument, especially the cross-border cooperation programme
  • Foreign Policy Instrument – IcSP
  • European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights
  • EU Peacebuilding Initiative
  • Creative Europe
  • Health Programme
  • Erasmus+ (education, training and youth actions)

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