From its beginning, the process of European construction has involved the productive, financial and social activities of the populations of Europe. From an institutional perspective, efforts have focused on creating institutions and organisational structures that would make a united Europe possible. The economic agreements that anchor the current European Union have become a model of trade integration and have gradually added more and more members who act in unison towards third parties. The same thing has not happened in relation to monetary integration which involves only some of the countries of the European Union. This uniformity of behaviour is not found on the fiscal level, or in many other areas.
The peoples of Europe also differ in the area of leisure activities, especially that connected with physical activity and sport, which is one of the prioritised areas of action for the European Commission. The Work Plan for Sport 2011-2014 lays out actions that will contribute to improving the presence of sport in society and especially its social value, as well as its organisational and economic dimensions. Eurobarometer data are a useful tool in carrying out analysis and making recommendations.
Analysts frequently make reference to variations in the deeply-rooted habits and customs of Europeans as one of the factors explaining differences within the EU. In this regard the Eurobarometer data of last March is very enlightening. Some 41% of Europeans practice sport at least once a week, although this figure increases to 48% if we include those who say that they do some type of physical activity. There has, however, been a slight increase in the proportion of those who say that they never do sports. There is significant variation between different cohorts: men between 15 and 24 do more sport than women or old people. The countries in the north of Europe are the most active; there over 58% of the total population do sport or exercise. Countries of the south of Europe are at the bottom of this special league table, although France and Spain are around the European average. As in many other areas of the real economy, there are differences in the sporting habits of European countries.
However, an extremely controversial topic is the justification of public intervention in the sports system. European public policy seeks to provide access to sports and physical activity for the majority of the population, especially in the case of the more disadvantaged groups. The practice of sport mainly has the characteristics of private or quasi-public good, not a public good in the strict sense. While this is correct, when speaking of sporting goods and services it is not advisable to generalize in a market that includes elements as diverse as doing physical activity in a sports centre, purchasing sports equipment and clothing, or the subscription fee for participating in an amateur competition. What cannot be disputed, however, from the point of view of its implications for the justification of public intervention, is the generation of positive externalities linked to the practice of sports. Values associated with sporting habits have collateral effects that translate, for example, into better health, acquisition of teamwork skills and recognition of the “culture of effort”; effects which are then translated into skills and abilities in the professional and family spheres.
The aim of these public policies is to make various instruments available to European citizens, for example, ordering the provision of installations and sports equipment in EU territory, providing assistance for financing construction and maintenance costs, grants for sporting bodies (clubs, associations and federations) and competitions. These policies are only effective provided that the users of services provided by sports centres and clubs remain unaffected by changes in prices. The economic crisis and the increase in tax rates which is passed on in membership fees have reduced the purchasing power of many families while the tax increases have been, totally or partially, recovered from the sports centre service charges. Analysts have empirically demonstrated that grants for financing sports facilities and equipment have a stronger impact on the sector than prices. It can therefore be concluded that public grants make more sense when used to geographically organise the offer of sports activities, eliminating access barriers to sports, than to reduce the costs of existing sports centres since these often operate as monopsonies or even monopolies. Among the most socially and economically disadvantaged groups, the promotion of sport and a concern with encouraging people to get involved with sports, alongside better price elasticity, are some of the exceptions to the previous recommendation, meaning that public interventions, reducing the prices of services, would have a positive effect, helping us to reach the desired socially optimum level.