In 2009, the new Article 165 TFEU confidently declared that ‘the Union shall foster co-operation with third countries and the competent international organisations in the field of sport’. Few took much notice until in 2015, European Commissioner Tibor Navracsics convened a High-Level Group on Sport Diplomacy in order to explore how this goal could be operationalised. The group reported its findings in 2016, details of which can be found in the link below.
Political impetus was added later that year as the Slovak Presidency adopted Council Conclusions on Sport Diplomacy that outlined the contribution sport can make to the EU’s relations with third countries. In 2017, the EU adopted the 2017-2020 EU Work Plan for Sport and within it, sport diplomacy was identified as a priority theme. The Work Plan committed the EU to carry out actions to facilitate evidence-based decision making in this area and in that regard, the European Commission staged an EU Sport Diplomacy seminar in Brussels in late 2017 at which the results of a Commission study on Sport Diplomacy, Identifying Good Practices were released.
For EU sport diplomacy have relevance required key actors to take the issue out of the meeting room and develop real-life initiatives. Between the winter of 2017 and summer 2018, sport was integrated into the EU-China High Level People to People Dialogue (HPPD) and the newly launched EU-Japan Policy Dialogue on Education, Youth and Sport. In February 2018, the Commission and UEFA adopted a cooperation arrangement that included the goals of promoting values and principles common to both parties. Further practical initiatives with UEFA were frustrated as EURO 2020, a potential source of diplomatic action, was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In 2018, the Council adopted Conclusions on Promoting the Common Values of the EU Through Sport in which it invited the Commission to include sport as part of external relations and to promote the common values of the EU. Also in 2018, the Erasmus+ funding criteria was amended in order to facilitate participation from third countries, a change recommended by the High-Level Group. In another significant development, changes were made to the European Week of Sport programme. From 2018, this was extended to permit participation from Western Balkan and Eastern Partnership states. In 2019, an EU call for proposals on exchanges and mobility in sport presented a tool for international co-operation initiatives with the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership and with countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Despite a change of Commissioner and the coronavirus pandemic, EU sport diplomacy has developed a momentum and the EU would be wise to see this initiative through. A number of Erasmus+ supported projects are providing a growing evidence base on what works and, in this regard, an emerging theme is the development of grassroots sport diplomacy as opposed to a traditional form of sport diplomacy in which the state crudely co-opts sports for its own political purposes.
As with the development of any new area, many questions remain. Will sport diplomacy work as well in a supranational context as it does in national settings? Can the EU develop a diplomatic persona distinct from its constituent Member States? Will these strategies be complimentary or conflicting and what value will be added to national initiatives? Can the EU institutions act collectively in this area or will institutional silo mentalities infect the approaches? Will EU citizens accept as legitimate a growing EU role in sport diplomacy? Will sport play ball?
Professor Richard Parrish was a member of the European Commission’s High-Level Group and he is project lead on the EU’s Erasmus+ project Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sport Diplomacy.
High-Level Group on Sport Diplomacy: https://research.edgehill.ac.uk/files/20063257/290616-hlg-sd-final-report.pdf
Promoting a Strategic Approach to EU Sport Diplomacy: www.ehu.ac.uk/sportsdiplomacy
Prof. Richard Parrish
Edge Hill University
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