Sport taking Europe to new frontiers in Baku
In 2012, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union and stated: “At a time of uncertainty, this day reminds people across Europe and the world of the Union’s fundamental purpose: to further the fraternity between European nations, now and in the future.”
The European Union was built after WWII under the premise of peace. Europe is often considered a continent that is not limited to the EU which represents 28 member states. The European Olympic Committee on the other hand counts 50 National Olympic Committee (NOC) members under its umbrella.
For some in Europe, peace (at least at home) has become self-evident. To further on Van Rompuy’s speech, “War has become inconceivable. Yet ‘inconceivable’ does not mean ‘impossible’ […] Europe must keep its promise of peace. […] But Europe can no longer rely on this promise alone to inspire citizens. In a way, it’s a good thing; war-time memories are fading. Even if not yet everywhere […] we are facing the first real post-war generation of Europe. This must remain so. In politics as in life, reconciliation is the most difficult thing. It goes beyond forgiving and forgetting, or simply turning the page.”
The European Union and its leaders have understood that peace does not just happen in the official signing between governments; it is very much about its citizens. Indeed, global leaders understand that maintaining peace requires education, dialogue and exchange, that we need to put a face on the “others” who are kilometres away on the other side of Europe, to discover that we are not all that different from them.
This year for the first time, 6,000 athletes from all 50 European NOCs are expected to gather for the inaugural edition of the European Games, beating the 48 member countries represented in the European Youth Olympic Festival.
Today will see the opening ceremony of the first edition of the European Games which are taking place in Azerbaijan until June 28. Yes, there is a poor human rights record that cannot be ignored and freedom of speech issues that need to be addressed. But not having the Games or being a bystander is not an answer; doing nothing and not collaborating helps no-one. We need to stop painting black and white images of good vs. bad and use the colours we have to build a full picture. It is by joining forces and coming together for these Games that we will catalyse change.
For this reason, I wish to bring my support to the First European Games being held in Baku, Azerbaijan as a great step forward in promoting dialogue. To illustrate this, let me mention a few examples:
In March the National Olympic Committee of Armenia (NOCA) issued final confirmation of its participation. The two Caucasus countries have been in conflict since a war in the early 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Despite years of negotiations, the two countries have not signed a final peace deal following a truce in 1994 and clashes have intensified over the past year. In this regard, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the European Olympic Committee in encouraging the participation of Armenia. The event will also be the first time that Kosovo, which was granted full recognition by the International Olympic Committee in December 2014, participates in an Olympic event. In terms of local development, Azerbaijan’s accessibility approach has taken a huge leap forward; the organizing committee has even offered people with disabilities free access to competitions and extended the offer to their accompanying person. The Council of Europe, 47 member states, have an informal networking session as a side event to the Games where they will discuss social sustainability of major sports events. And I am not even mentioning the relationships and experience for the staff, volunteers and athletes that will live this experience and how that will contribute to building Europe. This event will undoubtedly open the doors to the development of Azerbaijan and the region and impact the “post-war generation”, which must remain so.
The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU has had its share of criticism, but here again, the prize is very much about starting peace at home and with our neighbours, which is what Baku should be about. This event marks a huge symbolic step forward for enlarged European relations, for generations to come.