Open Europe Blog

The B-EU-tiful game?

As we never tire of pointing out, the Lisbon Treaty has made sport an EU competence, which means various EU initiatives, decided on by majority voting, in this area are sure to be coming our way soon. The Commission is due to carry out a consultation with member states and relevant organisations in the first half of 2010 regarding the implementation of the Treaty’s sports provisions, with the first ‘sports programme’ expected in 2012.

The UK’s Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe visited Madrid only this month to meet with his Spanish counterpart to discuss what might be on the agenda for sports regulation this year. Some may remember that in 2008 he managed to resist French plans – launched under its EU Presideny – for an EU-wide ‘super’ regulator for football, and other sports, which would have seen European football association UEFA able to enforce guidelines on the English Football Association. Then French Sports Minister Bernard Laporte said provocatively that the EU should help address the dominance of English teams in the Champions League.

FIFA was lurking in the background trying to establish its 6+5 rule, which would have made it compulsary to field six domestic players, which would have hamstrung the big English clubs.

However, the UK managed to convince the EU that its free movement rules should apply and the proposal subsequently died a death, although UEFA’s watered down ‘home-grown’ rule was accepted. A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said at the time, “We support the special nature of sport but cannot support block exemption from EU law.”

Up to now the European Court of Justice has used EU free movement and competition law to rule on cases concerning professional football, treating it as any other economic activity. In it’s Bosman ruling it denied authorities the right to set player quotas by nationality and allowed players the freedom to move clubs for free once their contracts had expired.

However, the introduction of the Lisbon Treaty changes the game. It allows the EU to take into account “the specific nature of sport” and potentially exempt it from the rest of EU law, including free movement and competition provisions laid down under the Single Market. The UEFA President has long argued that football should be treated as its own entity, distinct from EU employment regulation, which would allow him to regulate as he sees fit.

And it seems that UEFA is going to test the current legal ambiguity with a new set of proposals aimed at curbing the spending of Europe’s biggest clubs by banning heavily indebted clubs from European competitions. The Premier League will once again be in its sights.

The proposal states that its aim is to “improve the financial fairness in European competitions”, which is striking similar to a clause in the Lisbon Treaty that says “promoting fairness and openness in sporting competitions” shall be an objective of the Union.

If the big clubs or the big leagues were to protest against these proposals it will be up for the EU to decide how to interpret the Treaty and the ambiguities outlined above.

The fact that Lisbon formally makes sport an EU competence only serves to strengthen the power of the EU to shape how football will be regulated in the future. The voting rules under Lisbon also mean that the UK is unable to veto EU initiatives in this area, which could prove highly significant.

And in the end, the new rules mean that the UK could be powerless if UEFA has the EU’s backing to push its new proposals through.

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