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5th Feb 2023

Brussels' first-ever move into sport area set to spark controversy

The European Commission is to make its first cautious move into the largely untouched area of sport.

A document to be tabled later today (11 July) examines highly contentious issues such as selection and transfers of players, corruption and TV rights.

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  • Sport generated €407 billion in 2004, accounting for 3.7% of the EU's GDP (Photo: European Parliament)

The so-called white paper on sport will be presented by EU commissioner Jan Figel and is first political document designed to provoke an EU-wide debate on social, economic and organisational aspects of the big-money business.

"This white paper enhances the visibility of sport in EU policy-making, raises awareness of the needs and specificities of the sport sector, and identifies appropriate further action at EU level," Mr Figel, in charge of education, culture, training and youth, said.

Currently, sport organisations and EU member states have the primary say over sporting affairs, with a central role for sport federations. The bloc's competition law and internal market rules apply to sport only in so far as it constitutes an economic activity.

The question is, however, whether those bodies will enjoy the same range of autonomy after a new EU treaty is sealed and rubberstamped by the 27-nation bloc in 2009.

According to the mandate on a draft Reform Treaty – agreed by EU leaders in late June – the EU's executive body will gain a "direct, complementary" say in the sport area, providing it with the possibility to make legislative proposals.

"The implementation of the white paper can help paving the way toward future EU supportive action in the sport sector as the recent European Council has re-opened the possibility of a treaty provision on sport", commissioner Figel noted.

But for the time being, the commissioner stops short of proposing new powers and instead sticks to his vision of "self-regulation" of the sector.

"A case-by-case approach remains the basis for the commission's control of the implementation of EU law, in particular competition and internal market rules, in this sector", Mr Figel argues in his paper.

Points of contention

Although this document is not legally binding, all eyes are focused on what Brussels has to say about some highly contentious issues regarding how sport should be run in the EU.

On many issues, the commission sounds cautious and avoids taking a firm, clear stance, with sports federations already labelling the draft paper "timid and indecisive".

For example, there is no definite judgment on players' agents – despite repeated calls for the EU to step in and regulate their activity through an EU legislative initiative.

Some agents are involved in corruption, money laundering and exploitation of underage players, the commission paper notes. However, it stops short of drawing an initiative applicable across the bloc and instead suggests launching an impact assessment.

Similarly, the commission does not spell out its preference on media rights, which are the key source of income for professional sport in Europe.

While sport associations, such as UEFA, favour media rights being sold collectively on behalf of individual clubs, the biggest clubs prefer marketing those rights individually.

The commission has limited itself to saying that either choice – be it joint or individual selling of media rights – should be "linked to a robust solidarity mechanism" and "an equitable redistribution of income" between big and small clubs as well as professional and amateur clubs.

According to UK conservative MEP Christopher Heaton-Harris, "many people involved in the world of sport are now concerned that this white paper is too weak in some areas, and too vague in others".

Mr Heaton-Harris called on the UK government to ensure that the report is shelved. "Sport should never have been included in the treaty agreed three weeks ago, but as it is, the commission should withdraw this white paper, re-consult and reconsider its conclusions", he argued.

Studies show that sport generated €407 billion in 2004, accounting for 3.7 percent of the bloc's GDP, while providing work for 15 million people. According to a 2004 Eurobarometer opinion poll, approximately 60 percent of Europeans participate in sporting activities on a regular basis within or outside some 700,000 clubs.

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