Interview with Ms Florencia Van Houdt, Head of the Unit for Sport at the European Commission
Ms Florencia Van Houdt has been working for the European Commission for the past 25 years. Currently, she is the Head of Sport Unit (in charge of EU Sport Policy). Prior to this position, she worked on EU policies in the field of youth, research, entrepreneurship and maritime affairs. Before joining the Commission, she studied law and European Studies in the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium, and worked as a European affairs consultant.
ENGSO talked to Ms Florenica Van Houdt to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on grassroots sport, the new Erasmus+ Sport programme, equality policies and more.
Grassroots sport proved to be of great importance during the Covid-19 crisis but still, a lot of sport clubs across Europe had to close their doors permanently (because of the financial losses). What is the EC Sport Unit’s response to this crisis?
Sport is essential for people as a means to enjoy themselves and for the positive effects it brings in terms of health and well-being. The promotion of sport and physical activity is among the sport priorities in Erasmus+. The Commission thereby recognises the important role of Europe’s many grassroots’ sport organisations.
Generally speaking, the EU supports the Member States to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic with an unprecedented support package. NextGenerationEU is a €750 billion temporary recovery instrument to help repair immediate economic and social damage brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. One of its largest programmes, REACT-EU will support cohesion policy, regional development and cater for social needs.
To explore the specific needs and how to cater for support for the sport sector at the grassroots in this crisis and during the recovery from it, the Commission has set up a dedicated Expert Group composed of experts from all EU Member States.
Also, funds available to Erasmus+ sport actions, which have nearly doubled compared with the previous programme period, can bring support to grassroots organisations and help them regain their European activities or engage anew in European cooperation. We can thereby draw the attention to the “Small Cooperation Partnerships” that specifically cater for the needs and interests of small organisations and that could assist grassroots sport organisations regain or enter anew into European cooperation projects.
The Erasmus+ programme has been improved and revamped, and its budget increased: what are your expectations from the new Erasmus+, especially in the field of sport? What are you hoping to see the programme will achieve in 6 years from now (2027)?
The Erasmus+ budget in the field of sport increased significantly from EUR 265 million to EUR 470 million for the next seven years. With this increased budget, we want to achieve two main goals.
Firstly, we want to reach the programme’s full potential and support projects addressing the priorities in the field of sport and the horizontal priorities in Erasmus+. The sport priorities aim to boost physical activity in Europe, promote integrity and values in sport, promote education in and through sport and combat violence, racism, discrimination and intolerance in sport. The horizontal priorities of Erasmus+ have three core aims: promote social inclusion and improve outreach to people with fewer opportunities, raise awareness about environmental and climate-related challenges and support the digital transformation.
Secondly, we aim to launch new actions in the field of sport, with the mobility scheme for sport staff as the most visible novelty. Such mobility, known in Erasmus+ as Key Action 1, would allow sport to be fully integrated into the three Key Actions of Erasmus+ and be more on par with opportunities on offer in education and youth.
The pandemic exposed inequalities in sport. Why do you think equal and inclusive access and opportunities in sport are important? How are you planning to tackle the issue of inequality in sport?
I am well aware of the persistent challenges that disadvantaged groups face when it comes to participation in sport – which regrettably reflect the widespread obstacles that some people have in fully participating in society on an equal basis with others.
In line with our European values and the Commission’s priority to promote our European way of life, there is no place for inequality or discrimination in the EU. President von der Leyen mentioned in her political guidelines that “A prosperous and social Europe depends on us all. We need equality for all and equality in all of its senses.”
The Commission takes action to improve this situation through its “Union of Equality”. In this context, in 2020, the Commission presented its EU anti-racism Action Plan, recognising the role that sport can play in countering stereotypes and promoting social inclusion. Next, the Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030 highlighted the participation in sport as an important element for the empowerment of people with disabilities.
As for refugees, both the European Parliament and the Commission share the ambition to support their participation in sport as a way to support their active involvement in society.
The new Erasmus+ programme has actually raised its ambitions to be more inclusive and will devise a more strategic inclusion and diversity framework. Through the sport chapter of the Erasmus+ programme and specific funding schemes such “Sport as a tool for integration and social inclusion of refugees”, the Commission can fund sport projects in the field of diversity, equality and inclusion. Reaching equality depends on us all and we look forward to the civil society projects that strive to make real change on the ground.
The new Erasmus+ programme will be “greener”. What are the Sport Unit’s priorities in terms of climate action and environment protection in sport? Are you planning any initiative in this field?
Apart from being a horizontal priority in the new Erasmus+ programme in general, the sport field will adopt a specific green focus. In line with the EU Work Plan for Sport 2021-2024, the Commission is setting up an expert group in the field of Green Sport.
Member States have nominated their experts and the first meeting is scheduled this spring. We intend to discuss and exchange best (green and sustainable) practices in the field of sport: we will consider the impact from across a broad range of sport activities; from grassroots and outdoor sport to the impact of major sport events. In doing so, we look forward to receiving relevant contributions from representatives of the European Sport movement.
ENGSO would like to express special appreciation to Ms Floor van Houdt for taking the time to answer our questions.