Saturday, 28 May 2011

Lessons from football Europe

Watching the European Cup final is the single largest continentai shared experience that we currently experience as Europeans. (The misnomer of the UEFA Champions League is surely all the more obvious on Cup final night and everybody in the real world knows that both United and Barca are competing to win their fourth European Cup).

I imagine most people watching in England will be supporting Manchester United, though not nearly as many as ITV will doubtless tell us. I have a lot of respect for Sir Alex and the chapter he has added to the history of Manchester United, but that doesn't mean I can support them on the pitch. So I will join the sizeable minority of English football supporters in Manchester itself, Merseyside, Yorkshire, north and west London and across the country cheer on Barcelona. Similarly, much of Madrid might perhaps be seen to be demonstrating cosmopolitan transnational sympathies in cheering on the English against their Catalan rivals.

It is in that spirit that we have got the tapas and cerveza in for the evening. I should probably squeeze back into the Barca shirt I picked up on a tour of the Nou Camp which was serendipitously added to our honeymoon trip to France and Spain a decade ago. Since I had my photo taken with a replica of the European Cup, it may be an inauspicious omen not to.

I doubt it will make the difference.

So enjoy the game. And may the best team win. Tonight, let's see if we are right about which team that (probably) means.

The English game, its insularity once symbolised by Alan Hardaker at the FA trying to convince both Chelsea (successfully) and Matt Busby's United (unsuccessfully, shortly before the tragedy of Munich 1958) to have nothing to do with these fancy continental schemes, has been transformed and Europeanised in our recent lifetimes.

But I suggested that there could also be political lessons from football Europe in the Fabian Society and FEPS pamphlet “Europe’s Left in the Crisis” published earlier this year.

The traditional arguments for the EU and European integration (and perhaps those against them as well) may resonate much less for a generation for whom the first cultural image thrown up by the idea of ‘Europe’ is more likely to be the Champions League than the Second World War, or even the fall of the Berlin Wall,

But we might learn something for our politics from the shared European experience of the Champions League.

Champions League Europe reflects the transformation of Europe’s football clubs by migration across the continent and around the world, yet they remain the focus of intense local pride, community and identity.

The clubs compete at national and European level, after proposals that they exit national football to create a ‘European super league’ were rejected as they lacked public legitimacy.

The matches, played simultaneously around Europe, are the single largest shared continental experience which Europeans do together. Yet, beyond a small cosmopolitan elite, the sports pages and TV coverage primarily focuses on the national clubs’ participation in the shared European space, until the final approaches.

European football offers a policy laboratory of different approaches.

FC Barcelona – a supporter-owned mutualist cooperative – plays against PLCs and private companies purchased with leveraged debt.

Different national priorities are reflected in domestic regulation – with Germany paying more attention to the interests of its national team than the English, while trading off the ability to maximise income to keep free-to-air TV broadcasting and lower ticket prices.

But there is ongoing discussion too about the Europe-wide rules needed to maintain a fair and level playing field. New European-wide ‘financial fair play’ regulations will be introduced, ending unfair competition through billionaire oligarchs and to prevent a bubble economy imploding in football.

The political lesson to pro-Europeans is to earn permission for the multilateralism we need. The British have a reputation as reluctant Europeans. New YouGov polling commissioned for this book shows why this is, yet it also shows how the British are now very moderate Eurosceptics, with majorities perfectly open to deeper integration wherever it makes practical sense.

1 comment:

13eastie said...

That European club competitions often make for great spectacles is beyond doubt - transient Barca supporters will have enjoyed tonight's game and I'm sure you must have enjoyed Leinster's stupendous come-back against Northampton last week.

But doesn't the sporting analogy truly highlight the paradox of the left's infatuation with political integration in Europe?

This is because the assertion that joining an elite club like the EU reduces inequality is false.

This applies on two distinct levels:

1. Within the club, there will always be the "haves" and "have nots".

Manchester Utd have the means to make relatively row-risk investments to ensure they remain in the top flight and solvent. But this is not true for opponents who have bet the house on such a mission only to fail. Who'd like to guess where West Ham will be this time next year?

The people of Ireland have been truly penalised by the ECB's refusal to allow continental bond-holders to take a haircut.

The truth is that, in practice, barriers to "social mobility" continue to be put in place to protect the "haves".

2. And what about those left "on the bench"?

The great historic rugby clubs in the Scottish Borders have been terribly diminished by the Heineken Cup and they will never reciver. Where, only a few years ago, folk could stroll to their local club and see British Lions mixing it with the local plumber, they are now expected to watch foreigners play for their regional "club" (conjured out of thin air) on TV instead. The aggrandisement of the Champions League may well be affecting lower division soccer clubs similarly.

The truth is that the EU is violently protectionist. If you are not in the club, you are out. Not only that, but the more competitive you appear to be, the more the EU punishes you for it. There is free trade for all (subject to prior approval).

Before investigating how to "sell" integration to the masses, the left still needs to resolve its internal ideological dissonance whereby its espoused integration is only for the "lucky" few. Morever, somebody must justify how each new top level of the ruling hierarchy becomes progressively less democratic or accountable.

Finally, why stop at European integration?

Why not go the whole hog and make that nice Mr Blatter "President of Earth"?