Soccer, The European Soft Power That Politics Can Only Dream Of

The Euro 2021 Football competition is a reminder that European integration can take many forms.

A soccer player places their foot on a soccer ball
A soccer player places their foot on a soccer ball
Adrien Pécout

Whether you listen to the archived speeches of former French President Charles de Gaulle or look this week at the soccer stadiums of Europe, both will tell you that the continent spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Until recently, the European soccer championship, known as the "Euro," has been held in only one or two countries at most. But in 2021, it is being hosted by 11 different countries: from Azerbaijan (Baku) and Russia (St. Petersburg) to Germany (Munich) and Italy (Rome). The final match, slated for July 11, will take place in London, freshly and famously now outside of the European Union.

Europe's primary political existence is headquartered in Brussels and takes form in the EU, which is now made up of 27 member states, after the United Kingdom officially withdrew on Jan. 31, 2020. That number is already much smaller than the Council of Europe (47 countries), the Strasbourg-based human rights organization. And it is even smaller than the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which takes the prize for the largest "European" body. The latter, based in Nyon, Switzerland, defines itself as "politically neutral," yet it is as influential as it is independent.

The playing field is vast: 55 national federations, 24 of which are taking part in the ongoing Euro finals. UEFA's size has fluctuated over the years, particularly after the break-ups of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, which added several new entities into the mix. And Israel, originally a member, and even champion, of the Asian Confederation, fell victim to the boycott of many countries in the Asian zone and became a member of UEFA in 1994.

But the two Europes, the athletic and the political, grew up separately.

After World War II, the International Football Federation pushed for the creation of continental confederations. Thus, UEFA was founded in 1954 — the same year as its Asian counterpart and three years before the African one. The South American Confederation has existed since 1916. On the European continent, UEFA's founding in the 1950s coincided with the signing of the Treaty of Rome (1957), which paved the way for the European Union, with the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC). Another beloved symbol of "Europeanness," the TV talent show, Eurovision, began that decade as well.

But the two Europes, the athletic and the political, grew up separately. At the political level, the construction of a United States of Europe "struggled with the cohesion of people," says William Gasparini, author of the book "The Europe of Football - a Socio-History of European Construction." The sociologist explains that the European Union "remained an economic and elite affair; by the first European elections in 1979, democracy had not yet taken form."

Yet in quite the opposite sense, through its popularity, "soccer functioned as a powerful vector for the Europeanization of citizens." But it has been a complex process, as evidenced by the headline "Just like in ‘18" which appeared on the front page of the French magazine, L'Equipe, after France beat Germany in their first Euro 2021 match. The sports daily chose to play on ambiguity by referring both to the victory of Les Bleus in the 2018 World Cup, but also, implicitly, to that of the Allies in World War I in 1918.

The entrance of Camp Nou Stadium in Barcelona, Spain —Photo: Edgar Chaparro

While the EEC was limited to six Western European countries, UEFA has, from the outset, sought to free itself from the logic of the Cold War. The Euro illustrates this openness to the East: For its first edition, the European Cup of Nations brought together two rivals from the socialist bloc in the final when the Soviet Union beat Yugoslavia in Paris in July 1960. The match was "played in the rain and in front of only 17,000 spectators," noted Le Monde at the time. The sparse attendance at the Parc des Princes stadium had the privilege of admiring the "Black Spider": Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin, known for his affinity toward dark clothing.

As with the World Cup, launched in 1930 by the Frenchman Jules Rimet, then president of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), the initiative for the new European competition came from another French Football Federation head: Henri Delaunay. As its media coverage expanded, interest in the Euro would continue to grow over the decades.

"Europe is made of the member countries of the UEFA."

The Championship would end up realizing "the ancient project of a European championship that did not necessarily aim to build a European identity, but rather to distinguish styles of play based on nations' cultural conceptions, in hopes of establishing a sporting hierarchy between peoples," wrote Paul Dietschy, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Franche-Comté, in the Pôle Sud scientific journal in 2017. "The popular success of the Euro is today a sure indication of the power of national sentiment."

For Dietschy, the Euro is proof that friendly and festive patriotism exists to the same degree, and alongside, violent and aggressive ultranationalism.

Club competitions, which exist in conjunction with the UEFA, also build the European landscape. The Champions League, another French initiative, is a great example of this. Sports historian and researcher Philippe Vonnard wrote in Swiss daily Le Temps that "Europe is made of the member countries of the UEFA." He added that through soccer, the "mental representations of the geography of Europe remain very stable."

In the 1990s, the free movement of capital and goods within the single European market was followed by the free movement of professional athletes, as sanctified by the "Bosman ruling" in the European Court of Justice in 1995.

The EU today seems to still struggle to understand its role, if any, in the regulation of the sport. The UEFA's rule of "financial fair play," which came into existence in 2010, aims to prevent professional clubs from spending more than they earn. Yet, this does not prevent wage hyperinflation from continuing. Nor did it prevent the (for now) aborted attempt earlier this year by the wealthiest clubs to create a Super League just for their exclusive benefit. It was a reminder that the future of the European soccer project is ultimately as uncertain as the political one.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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