Still, a long way to go for sport
10 years after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty which gave the EU a legal basis to intervene in sport, progress is slow but recognizable.
As the European Commission’s mandate comes to an end and Commissioners are renewed, and after 5 years of continuous improvement, sport remains one of the most underestimated and underutilized sectors in its capacity to contribute to the European Union’s objectives. Still, it is worth looking at some positive developments and areas for future improvements.
From marginal, to attempts at mainstreaming
Positive developments have emerged for the sport sector during Commissioner Tibor Navracsics’ mandate between 2014-2019. From increased funding through Erasmus+ Sport, to the development of the European Week of Sport and the Tartu Call for a Healthy Lifestyle, sport has gained ground and been somewhat consolidated as an element of EU policies.
The Tartu Call in particular has been pivotal in harnessing the transversal nature of sport and physical activity, at least on paper. Signed in 2017 by three Commissioners, the Call contained 15 recommendations or actions. 2 years later, and despite reiterated commitments and the creation of a new inter-service group on the promotion of healthy lifestyles, improvements seem difficult to track and evaluate. Securing financial investments in “healthy lifestyles” programmes or projects, particularly within the EU Health programme would be an interesting first step. The Tartu Call has failed to deliver on this so far. But, as everyone following EU policies knows (especially around sports and culture), “things take time” (sic).
The European Week of Sport is also slowly emerging as a yearly meeting point for promoting participation in sports and physical activities. The Week has grown in numbers since the launch in 2015. More countries are partnering up, bringing more participants (almost 14 million in 2019, increased pool of ambassadors and number of events). The next challenge will be to know who these participants are, what the actual impact is and their relationship to physical activity. Beyond a communication exercise, the European Week of Sport is expected to bring about behavior change in Europe. If hashtags help relay stories, they sure don’t incite to move. Focusing on school-aged children would be a good place to start.
Focusing the effort
Europe still has much to gain from the strength of sport to help advance major social issues. Sedentary lifestyle should be a prime concern for the next Commission. We now know that 210 million Europeans are completely inactive. This situation has dramatic costs on our savings, amounting to 80 billion euros per year in the 28 Member States. Physical activity can obviously bring a lot to get European citizens on the move. Local communities and cities have a role to play here in instrumentalizing sport positively at local level. The PACTE project is leading the way on this issue, by helping municipalities becoming “Active Cities”.
Second, the diversity and tolerance embedded in European history since its creation must also be based on the sports sector and its 700,000 associations. Sport and those who organize it can be even more important agents of socialization and inclusion. If this is not the primary mission of the sector, it is a positive consequence that is observed across Europe. Support to disadvantaged groups, in particular migrants and refugees, has grown over the past year, including financially. The FIRE project, led by Sport and Citizenship is paving the way for football organizations to jump on board.
If funding for the Erasmus programme is set to double, the next European programming period (2021-2027) offers an opportunity to establish sport as a subject in its own right by integrating it (that is to say by expressly naming it) as one of the themes supported by European structural funds, which irrigates regions and territories across Europe. We are working in this direction with the actors of European sport through the SHARE Initiative.
A fragile recognition at institutional level
One key positive development in 2014 was to see sport appear in the title of the portfolio of Commissioner Navracsics. This has now disappeared. In addition, sport appears to be fragmented in two portfolios. Commissioners Gabriel’s mega-portfolio, and the one of Commissioner Schinas. Time will tell who will step up for sport.
On the European Parliament side, the Sports Intergroup – led by MEPs Fisas, Tarabella and Wenta and that we were happy to help set up – has proven to be a dynamic and interesting forum to address the many issues around sport. The renewal of this group will be key to ensure sport’s profile continues to rise in Brussels.
If much remains to be done within the sport sector, the challenge is to go beyond this simple sport / EU relationship, which remains a niche sector. The political interest for physical activity and sport must penetrate other fields of action, other public policies, other agendas. It is in any case in this sense that our think tank has been pushing since its creation in 2007.
This might all seem like an everlasting grunt from never-satisfied civil society organizations. We can assure you that recognizing sport’s impact is not a mood point. It’s a necessity. We hope the next European Commission acknowledges that, keeps up the good work, and even surprises us.
Maxime Leblanc, EU Affairs Manager for Sport and Citizenship’s Think Tank
 The objective is to strengthen co-operation among relevant services of the European Commission, to coordinate actions to promote healthy lifestyles and related funding. The group gathers relevant services of European Commission Directorate Generals and is closed to external stakeholders.