Brussels, 6 March 2019
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Honourable Members of the European Parliament,
Dear First Vice-President Markkula,
Dear First Vice-President Nilsson,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am very happy to be here. Sport is important to me, and I am pleased with what we have achieved together in this policy area during the past four years of my mandate. In particular, I am proud that we have managed to highlight and more strongly promote the role of sport in building communities. Physical activity connects us. It brings us closer together in ways that would be otherwise impossible. It also helps us achieve goals we might have thought unattainable. And this link between the individual and the community shows why the natural place for sport is at the local level. Grass roots organisations are close to people, operating in a familiar environment. They are the key to ensuring that sport and physical activity can benefit everyone.
Local institutions know the specificities and strengths of their communities. Indeed, many cities and regions already ‘think sport’ in their strategies. You will hear some inspiring examples in the second part of this conference.
This is a good basis to build on. We want to do more to support our towns and cities in making the most of sport. And we have the resources to connect them so that they can do what they do best – strengthen communities through sport and physical activity.
First, we need to break down boundaries between policy areas. I am proud that the European Commission leads by example here. Together with my fellow Commissioners responsible for Agriculture and Health, I launched an initiative, the Tartu Call, to foster healthy lifestyles that spans actions across a number of areas such as sport, food, innovation, research and transport. We are making good progress, and will host a conference in June to discuss the results and how we can take this project further.
A second way of supporting cities and regions is by highlighting and promoting the different ways in which their initiatives reach citizens, particularly those who face disadvantages. Local sport builds a shared sense of belonging – and we should support and connect projects and organisations that work towards this. That was the reason why I launched the #BeInclusive EU sport awards in 2017, and I am very happy to see how this initiative has been evolving, celebrating and reinforcing the great work done in our communities to build cohesion and relationships through sport.
For example, one of last year's winners is the ‘Sport & Refugees’ programme. Involving 238 towns and cities from the German state of Hesse, this programme enables almost 300 sport coaches to network and establish contacts between refugees, the asylum service and local sports clubs. Imagine the wealth of knowledge that would be lost if we did not promote projects such as this one – a wealth of knowledge that would never be created if it were not for the efforts of our committed citizens and stakeholders, on the ground.
Projects such as these not only support individuals, but also contribute to development at the local and regional level. Therefore, our third task is to better leverage our financial programmes, such as the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund, to empower localities. At EU level, we have collected evidence from more than 200 sport-related projects supported by the Structural Funds.
Take the example of the Mikkeli cycling and walking project from Finland. With a budget of EUR 109,800, 70% of which came from the European Regional Development Fund, the city of Mikkeli ran this project in 2015 and 2016 to assess how it could re-design its transport systems. The objective was two-fold: to encourage people to engage in healthier activities in urban spaces while reducing their dependence on motorised transport. Together with local stakeholders, the city tested options, for example by reserving the main city road for pedestrians for several months – with a view to achieving lasting change in the longer term.
Fourth, the Erasmus+ programme is another important source of funding for sport projects. And we have ambitions to do more. For the EU’s next long-term budget, we want to double funding for Erasmus to EUR 30 billion. This would also mean doubling the sport strand of the programme to EUR 550 million for 2021-2027.
Ladies and gentlemen,
To boost sport and its contribution to development, we need to work together with national governments and local authorities. It takes shared commitment and teamwork between different policy levels, but this effort is worthwhile.
Because a lot of potential remains untapped. Despite the obvious added value of these investments, sport is often underestimated and underfunded. And governments often struggle to make their voices heard, when acting individually.
This is why the Commission created the SportHub Alliance for Regional Development in Europe, or SHARE. The initiative raises awareness of the role of sport in driving local and regional development and promotes the use of Structural Funds for sport infrastructure and projects.
I am also glad that, last November, the Committee of the Regions and UEFA co-organised a conference on “The role of sport as a tool for promoting growth, social inclusion and solidarity in European regions”. These kinds of events show that the European Institutions are engaged in addressing this issue together with the sport family.
Indeed, sport can and should contribute to the development of a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy. The sport sector accounts for over 2% of the European Union’s total GDP. Over 5.5 million jobs depend on it – this is equivalent to 2.72% of total EU employment.
I strongly believe that sport has an important role in building a resilient, cohesive Europe for the future. But it can only fully play that role if we keep working together to support, promote and celebrate its power to create communities and a sense of belonging. This is a project for the long term, and I count on all of you to keep it going.