EU politicians should stay out of sport

IN the run up to Euro 2008 taking place in Austria and Switzerland next month, there has been an increasing amount of interest and discussions with regard to the role the EU should have in the world of sport.

Robert Sturdy MEP

IN the run up to Euro 2008 taking place in Austria and Switzerland next month, there has been an increasing amount of interest and discussions with regard to the role the EU should have in the world of sport.

In July the European Commission will publish a White Paper on Sport, the beginning of a process which, depending on who you believe, will either start the process of bringing much-needed legal certainty to the industry, or a power-grab by EU politicians desperate to latch on to the glamour and popularity of modern sport.

The White Paper is the culmination of a sort of phoney war between sport, politics and the EU courts over the last 30 years or so.

The European Court of Justice ruled back in the 1970s that European law does apply to sport, but only insofar as sport constitutes an 'economic activity.' Purely sporting rules were considered outside of the scope of EU Law - for example, the selection of footballers for national teams (by its very nature discriminatory) was not subject to EU laws forbidding discrimination on grounds of nationality.

In 1995, the face of football was changed when a legal victory meant that the transfer system was dismantled - players could now move for free at the end of their contracts, with the result that wages spiralled and clubs got little or no return for investing in training players.

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Restrictive quotas on foreign players were banned, opening the door for the best players in Europe to move freely to the richest leagues and clubs. This means that our UK players have had the chance to play for leading teams such as Real Madrid while we have also benefited from the talents of Peter Schmeichel and Thierry Henri.

However, this new transfer system which emerged, including compensation for the clubs who trained young players only to see them leave, meant that although the best players did start leaving their national leagues for richer shores.

In 2006, the European Parliament passed a non-legislative report authored by a Belgian MEP. This report was the most ambitious and interventionist text yet, proposing a formal framework between the EU institutions and football governing bodies, and advocating both a club licensing system, which would set limits on the amount a club could be in debt; and a cost-control system for clubs which would restrict spending on salaries, as well as strict regulations for players agents.

The problem is that the EU has no direct competence in sports lawmaking (yet) - that is reserved for national governments. Yet there is significant pressure from national and European politicians for the EU to get involved. However, in the Commission's White Paper, sport is branded a governing body and Member State competence, and no areas for urgent EU involvement are set out.

If the EU constitution is adopted and ratified the role of sport in Europe must be given a "strategic orientation.”

Politicians should not be interfering in sport, but the EU seems determined to add bureaucracy to anything it can. Sport should be run by the people who know it best - leagues, clubs and governing bodies - and certainly not by MEPs. Sport does have some problems, but the solutions suggested by the Parliament are misguided and far too prescriptive. Those who play sports usually have a ball.

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