The Interview

Agata Dziarnowska

To mark Agata’s departure from the European Commission’s Sport Unit, we caught up with her and asked a few questions about herself and the state of sport in Europe.

Please tell us a little about yourself

I am Polish, born in Warsaw, and European. I grew up in Poland not being in the EU and still recovering from the communist times, in a family strongly believing in the idea of European integration.  

I graduated from the University of Warsaw, law faculty, mostly reading books about EU and sport (some written by Richard) and mediation. When Poland became a Member of the EU, I was 22 and I remember my mum saying ‘we are witnessing the glorious moment in the history of Poland’. I was accepted to the College of Europe, where I spent one year ‘living’ the European project with another 100 students from all over the EU and beyond. Subsequently, everything went quickly… internship in the European Commission Sport Unit, polish Ministry of Sport, first ever polish Presidency of the EU, chairing the EU Member States meetings, implementing the EU sport policy in Poland and finally back to the European Commission as a seconded national expert in the Sport Unit. My first passion is sport, practicing, watching, supporting and promoting its power in the social and educational contexts. Handball is my sport and for many years I played both the indoor and beach versions.   

During your time with the Sport Unit of the European Commission, how would you say that the relationship between sport and the EU has evolved?

I was lucky to have joined the Sport Unit in a specific moment. It was 2014, the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and art 165 were well advanced, the institutional structures were in place, and sport had received its first direct funding programme as part of Erasmus+. All the elements were there, and we just joined the dots. We managed to put the EU sport policy into practice, to reach the grassroots sport organization and to help professional athletes. Thanks to the excellent cooperation with the European Parliament, Council, Committee of Regions and other services of the Commission, we raised awareness of the possible contribution of sport in different policies. We can say that sport is now one of the EU polices and is recognized as an important sector, the sector which is very close to the EU citizens.     

In terms of our relations with the sport movement, we reached many sport organisations, especially the smaller, grassroots ones. Our current cooperation with the sport movement goes beyond funding. Dialogue is in place, which is relatively well settled but it's still not enough. I have witnessed the implementation of the three EU Work Plans for Sport, so we have roadmaps for the development of the EU sport policy and we can undoubtedly observe more inclusiveness towards the sport movement. But we still didn't reach the final line together. Both sides need to take a few more steps. We often have common priorities but sometimes we implement them separately. Major sport organisations should take a lead example and see the EU as a real partner. Together we are stronger. 

Whilst at the Commission, what would you consider to be your and the Commission’s greatest achievements? What issues kept you awake at night?

In general, I sleep very well. However, as always there were few topics closer to my heart. I would name three of them: sport diplomacy, developing human capital in sport and funding for sport. Back in 2014 the international dimension of sport raised only limited interest. We managed to put it on our agenda, of the agenda of the Commissioner, of the Member States and start implementing it. We started with the expertise from the High Level Group on Sport Diplomacy, collecting good practices through a study, political statement from all the EU Sport Ministers (Council Conclusion), opening our initiatives such as European Week of Sport beyond the EU and having a dedicated funding via a specific additional budget from the European Parliament. The main aim is to bring regions together (e.g. EU, Western Balkans, Eastern Partnerships), to bring people together, share experience, promote values and implement common projects – this all through sport. Regarding, human capital, I think over past years we reoriented sport policy by putting in the centre people involved in sport (coaches, athletes, sport participants or those involved in sport governance) and developing projects which would empower them, help them to increase their skills and qualifications and to understand their role in the organization, community and society. Last but not least, regarding funding for sport, in 2014 we started with €22 million for a dedicated sport Chapter in the Erasmus+ programme and today we have €70 million. In addition, each year specific support was available from the European Parliament in dedicated areas such as mobility in sport. Moreover, we were listening to our potential beneficiaries and adjusting the programme, for instance introducing smaller projects or adapting priorities. Of course, these are just a few things and sport achieved much more. It was a team effort - Commission, our Agency, other institutions… cooperation has always been a key factor to the success.

Now that you have left the Commission, what changes, if any, would you recommend to improve the status of sport within the EU institutions and to make relations between the EU and the sport movement work more smoothly?

I strongly believe that changes are good. After several years we tend to perform our tasks in a repetitive way, simply because it works well. Sport is a part of the EU but there is still room for improvement. We need to bring EU sport policy closer to people. Recent crises linked to Covid-19 show how important physical activity is for our mental and physical health. At a certain point how, where and with whom we can practice sport as well as there being no Olympics in 2020 was all over the news. Of course, I am not trying to say that sport is an answer, but it is still underestimated in the social, health and educational context. We need to continue to mainstream sport, ‘use it’ better in other policies and have more common initiatives like the Tartu Call for Healthy Lifestyle. It will not happen without the sport movement, we need them on board, they are the ones to implement our policies. I would recommend finding better ways of involving sport organizations at all levels, particularly at the preparation stage and not just at the implementation phase And one personal suggestion, for communication and recognition purposes, SPORT should be reintroduced into the title of the Commissioner responsible for sport.

What advice would you give to someone looking to work in the EU, both generally and specific to sport?

I am leaving sport after 11 years with a bit of a sad heart, but at the same time I am looking at what the future will bring and hoping to be back one day. The EU needs motivated people who believe in the EU project as well as active citizens. Administration, civil service is to serve people not the other way around – we need to remember this. Sport is a great sector, it brings people together, makes them healthier and happier. What can I advise? Be motivated, check all the possibilities (there are not so many, but they are there), have a plan, be aware what can you bring to the institution or organization and be always positive.

July 2020