Postcard from The Hague: Reflections on the EU Sport Forum 2016

Alliance Policy Manager, Leigh Thompson, blogs about the issues that are being discussed in European countries following a visit to the European Sport Forum

I attended the European Sport Forum 2016 in The Hague a few weeks back. The Forum is an annual, two-day event run by the European Commission designed to bring together stakeholders from across the EU to consider and debate the key sports policy issues at European level. It is also a chance to take stock of progress and to catch up with contacts from across different EU countries that face the same challenges we do here in the UK: driving up participation, improving governance and making the sport and recreation sector fit for the future.

Inside the conference venue – an impressive 130-year old hotel overlooking the vast Scheveningen beach – it was a relief to escape (at least temporarily) from the frenzied Brexit arguments of recent weeks and to engage with stakeholders from across Europe on some important policy issues facing the sector. The agenda was very wide-ranging so rather than provide a gruelling, blow-by-blow account of the event, I thought I’d use this blog to share some personal thoughts and reflections on a few of the discussions and debates I witnessed during the two days.

Governance – a matter of perspective

A highlight of the first day was the panel discussion on good governance. The panel comprised what I would, perhaps simplistically, define as ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. The ‘insiders’ were representatives from within traditional sports organisations such as FIFA, the European Olympic Committee and the Royal Dutch Football Federation while the ‘outsiders’ comprised those external to sport – politicians (including the EU Commissioner Tibor Navrascics) and representatives from the independent organisation Play the Game.

As might be expected from such a line-up, trenchant and often polarised views were expressed, largely around the scale and pace of change in sports governance. While this made for entertaining viewing, I was struck that it was very much a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ which ultimately left no-one any better off.

The fact is that both sides had important and valid arguments yet neither seemed willing to really listen to and engage with the other. In many respects it felt like a microcosm of the much wider debate on sports governance happening at the moment – a debate which could, I feel, be moved forward if only sport’s ‘insiders’ could acknowledge and engage with constructive criticism and, equally, ‘outsiders’ could accept a degree of realpolitik in order to effect change.

We’re all Europeans now

While the UK agonises over whether or not to remain part of the EU ahead of the June referendum, the Forum was a helpful reminder of the fact that, regardless of nationality, across the wider European sports sector we all face very similar challenges. Poor governance, lack of investment and entrenched physical inactivity are not confined to any particular country and tackling them successfully often requires concerted action between different national governments and stakeholders.

In addition, the Forum reinforced the benefits that come from bringing people from all backgrounds together to share ideas, insights and opinions. These benefits are often difficult to quantify – a lack of quantification which is perhaps at the heart of the UK’s current in/out debate – but they nonetheless exist. As I debated issues with colleagues from France, Belgium, Germany and further afield, I considered myself fortunate to be able to listen to different perspectives and to build international contacts that will be of benefit to our members here in the UK. Some things you simply can’t put a value on.

‘High level’ policy must link to the grassroots

The second day of the Forum opened with an overview of the work of two recently-constituted High Level Groups on Sport Diplomacy and Grassroots Sport. The groups are expected to make recommendations to the EU Commissioner shortly on how the EU might better utilise sport in its external relations and how it might better support grassroots sport respectively.

The presentation of the work of the grassroots sport group got me thinking about how policy is developed at the EU level and in turn how it is translated into meaningful action at the grassroots level. In particular, I wondered whether those working to deliver grassroots sport across the UK and other EU countries would really reap the benefits – in a tangible, practical sense – of all this activity being expended at EU level.

This is not to cast doubt on what is undeniably a welcome initiative drawing on individuals with great experience and expertise. But the missing link for me remains how the broad strategic themes identified by the High Level Group will be distilled into concrete, workable policy proposals that directly assist those delivering grassroots sport. The challenges facing grassroots sport are many and varied including the need for sustainable funding, investment in facilities, innovation, better skills and volunteer recruitment. The EU needs to identify where it really can add value and focus on delivering one or two key policy proposals that will make a difference on the ground. Reform of the ERASMUS+ programme and clarification of State Aid rules as they apply to grassroots sport are, I would suggest, two possible areas to look at.

Is the EU Work Plan for Sport working?

The EU Work Plan for Sport is the cornerstone of the European policy activity on sport. Coordinated by the Commission, the current plan runs from 2014-17 and covers five key areas each of which has an Expert Group charged with delivering specific outputs: match-fixing, good governance, economic impact, health-enhancing physical activity and human resources. Each Expert Group comprises representatives from EU member states supplemented by representatives from European and international sports bodies who participate as observers.

Looking ahead to the next Work Plan beyond 2017, it became clear in discussion that there is room for improvement in working practices and processes. In particular, the current Expert Groups are unwieldy, often with large numbers of observers in addition to member state representatives. Expert Group members themselves noted that the current structures have made it difficult to achieve the right blend of expertise in order to deliver focussed, quality outputs.

In addition, it is clear that there is still some way to go to ensuring that the Work Plan and its outputs are linked clearly to activity undertaken at national level within member states. At present there is some useful coordination between member state representatives on Expert Groups and national sports stakeholders but, like all things, this could be built upon and improved for the future. In the UK context, it is vital that, going forward, national sports bodies feel engaged in the Work Plan process and understand how the outputs support their own objectives in order for its impact to be maximised.

As I mentioned at the outset, these are just some of my personal thoughts on a small number of topics covered at the Forum. For a more comprehensive summary of the event you can visit the EU Sport Forum website here.

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