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The Amsterdam Declaration

The Amsterdam Treaty entered into force in 1999. It is an amending Treaty: it amends the founding Treaties of the EU. Its primary preoccupations were rather technical and addressed detailed matters of institutional design. Sport was certainly on the distant outer margins of the political negotiation on the text and garnered little attention or visibility. However, homing in on the particular matter of sport, the negotiation of the Amsterdam Treaty was informed by the delivery of the Bosman ruling in 1995. Any hint that the Treaty might be revised to allow sport to escape the consequences of Bosman lacked political momentum.[1] [2] What instead emerged from the political negotiation was the so-called Amsterdam Declaration on Sport—to be more precise, a Declaration on Sport annexed to the Treaty of Amsterdam. It was short:

The Conference emphasises the social significance of sport, in particular its role in forging identity and bringing people together. The Conference therefore calls on the bodies of the European Union to listen to sports associations when important questions affecting sport are at issue. In this connection, special consideration should be given to the particular characteristics of amateur sport.

In legal terms, a Declaration is not binding. Its significance is predominantly political. Weighing in at just fifty-eight words, the Declaration displays the virtue of brevity, but it scores less well on clarity. Sport has ‘social significance’, but precisely what this entails is left unspecified, save for embrace of the vague but cheerfully expressed notions of ‘forging identity and bringing people together’. The Declaration calls for the bodies of the EU to ‘listen’ to sports associations—but it is what they do that really counts. And the Declaration helpfully suggests that amateur sport is different from other forms, but offers no fuller articulation of what might be at stake in such differences nor what are or should be their implications.

The Amsterdam Declaration is not helpful at the level of detail. However, it vividly reveals the surrounding political sensitivity. It in no way subverts Bosman. It falls spectacularly far short of the absolute exclusion from EU law for which governing bodies in sport would earnestly wish, and which would have been the very pinnacle of strategic success in protecting their autonomy. There was not the political will to support such a plea. Nor is the Declaration in even the faintest sense a grant of legislative competence to the EU. The Declaration is soft in effect, intent, and tone. It is scarcely any more than a recognition of the tension between the reach of EU law and the sporting thirst for autonomy. It does not even begin to provide any resolution of that tension.

The Declaration, though not legally binding, is capable of providing guidance in j udicial decision-making and in broader policy articulation. The Court acted accordingly. In both Delieges and in Lehtonen[3] it referred to the Amsterdam Declaration. However, it simply treated the Declaration as a confirmation of its own case law, not as a basis to call it into question. Given the anodyne terms of the Declaration, the Court’s approach was entirely understandable. From the perspective of the quest for sporting autonomy, this served only to highlight that the Amsterdam Declaration had done nothing to nudge EU law into a more generous place. The Declaration was attributed no transformative effect. But the Declaration’s embrace of the ‘social significance of sport’ also reflected the notion that sport is to some extent special, though this too was not transformative. In Bosman itself the Court had, after all, already acknowledged ‘the considerable social importance of sporting activities’.[4] [5]

  • [1] cf M Fernandez Salas, ‘De la possibilite de renverser l’arret Bosman par une modification du Traite.Perspectives juridiques’ [1996] RMUE 155.
  • [2] Cases C-51/96 and C-191/97 Deliege v Ligue de Judo [2000] ECR I-2549, paras 41—42.
  • [3] Case C-176/96 Jyri Lehtonen and Castors Canada Dry Namur-Braine ASBL v Federation royalebelge des societes de basket-ball ASBL (FRBSB) [2000] ECR I-2681, paras 32—33.
  • [4] Bosman (n 2) para 106.
  • [5] The full text of the Nice Declaration is at accessed 29 November 2016.
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