The coming into being of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 proved to be a watershed moment as it was a game changer first in the way the European Union would have a legal personality to enact sport policy to begin with while also reflecting an ambition to project its European dimension in sport externally towards other regions.
Key in this ambition is Article 165/3 TFEU declaring that ‘the Union shall foster co-operation with third countries and the competent international organisations in the field of sport…’ that frees up the EU to advance its external actions through sport. One way of doing this identified early then on was by coupling with active sport partner organisations that co-bear as stakeholders. UEFA is one such organisation having entered into an Arrangement for Cooperation with the EU in 2014, later renewed in 2018. For the EU, this ‘arrangement’ is strategic in a number of ways not least because it can help in the realization towards the promotion of fundamental values both of sport and of the European Union itself and in so doing, kick-off this EU sport diplomacy.
A pan-European Sports Governing Body and a custodian of European football independent of the EU, UEFA is important because it is a guardian and a representative of the traditions of football in Europe which accounts for its importance as opposed to other cultural activities connecting the EU to third countries. Already, the Commission holds lofty ambitions regarding EU norm entrepreneurship in its overarching foreign policy goals – envisaging a rules and values promotion cutting across all dimensions (political, economic, social, environmental); and earmarked to be incorporated into each of the sectoral programs that characterize EU relations with third countries. UEFA is thereby important for the EU in realizing this ambition of improving the EU’s soft diplomatic outreach through sport. Through uptake of ‘new sectoral diplomacies’ such as sport in its external relations, at least with UEFA as a touchstone, the transfer of EU procedural principles like transparency, good governance and accountability, as well as democratization, human rights and tolerance etc. is more easily reconciled through sport. The assumption is that this precipitates a process of social learning and lesson-drawing in third countries, hereby allowing sport to act as a ‘diplomatic lubricant’.
Another reason UEFA emerges as key for the EU is that for all its 55 national associations, one cannot help but notice how it is ambiguous in its make-up as it comprises of nations that are ostensibly non-European; for instance Israel, granted membership in 1994 despite geographically being classified as a Middle East nation due to UEFA’s derogation of the geographical principle. This, follows a long string of other politically salient actions carried out by UEFA such as its decisions to not play conflicting neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2013together with its decision to grant the UEFA Under-21 European Championships to Israel in 2013. This changes the whole perception of UEFA from one seen as independent to one whereby it is viewed as an apolitical organization that plays politics with football as it has shown a proclivity to accede to politics time and again.
The necessity of EU-UEFA cooperation for advancing EU external relations is also underscored by the fact that UEFA harbours member associations such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, Israel, Moldova and Ukraine – which are all quite important for the EU when it comes to the European Neighbourhood Policy. In Israel, the EU is vested in resolving the protracted Israeli-Palestinian Conflict among other things while also wanting to resolve the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict in the South Caucasus where it oftentimes plays a role politically through engagement but non-recognition of the de facto states there. It is noteworthy that the ENP is one of the EU External Relations and Foreign Policy fields touted by the High Level Group on Sport Diplomacy as an area in which Sport could bring added value if deployed in advancing the EU’s external relations objectives.
UEFA in this regard come across as a natural ally for the EU since football shares ‘the values and principles of the European Union and UEFA, such as respect for the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union’ and as well, because for the EU, this involvement by other international actors and organizations in promoting identical norms that fall into the dominant discourse enhances the effectiveness of norm transfer as it allows EU action to ‘strike a chord’ which further fortifies the legitimacy output of the EU’s acquis. Therefore, partner organizations like UEFA that harbour key third countries arguably present an entry point for the EU since cooperation in less sensitive fields such as Sport policy, presumably via UEFA can help teether these regions faster towards EU norms, rules and values despite their political orientations.
From an economic standpoint, UEFA is also fundamental for the successful promotion of the European sports dimension. Whereas the Walrave and Koch ruling already established that sport falls within EU law whenever it constitutes an economic activity, since 2011 the EU sports model has also been transposed towards football clubs in UEFA member associations that are from third countries due to the Financial Fair Play regime. Since the objectives of FFP resonate with the aims and objectives of EU policy in the field of State Aid, UEFA acts as some kind of trigger mechanism that allows the EU to indirectly convey its market principles and competition rules towards third countries. In so doing, this consolidates upon the normative rules/values transposition of the EU towards non-EU countries.
In any case, various processes from the Bosman ruling, culminating in the founding of UEFA offices in Brussels all the way back in 2003 - pitting it amongst the political ‘movers and shakers’- perhaps was always going to mean that UEFA would be central in any EU sport diplomacy owing to heightened contacts between the two both historically and at present.
Sociology, University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe
European Interdisciplinary Studies, College of Europe, Warsaw, Poland