EU officials distance themselves from Gazprom stunt

08.06.10 @ 09:23

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BRUSSELS - Current and former top EU officials on Monday (7 June) denied that they have any connection with Gazprom in a yachting project which has been flying the EU flag for the past six years but which is now sponsored by the Russian firm.

  • The Russian gas giant is trying to improve its image via sports sponsorships (Photo: Joffley)

The EU-flagged boat "Esimit Europa 2" is to be launched on Thursday (10 June) in Cannes at an event hosted by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller and will take part in eight regattas this year. On its inner sail, the logo of the Russian gas company features prominently under the EU flag and the inscription "European energy."

Gazprom is Russia's largest energy company and is keen to expand in the EU.

It has a shady image, however. Run by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's circle of friends with links to the KGB, it is widely seen as a tool of Russian foreign policy. Its public profile was badly damaged by the 2006 and 2009 gas supply crises involving Ukraine.

On its website the Esimit project is said to be "under the patronage of EU commission President Jose Manuel Barroso." A video clip also includes a spoken testimonial by Pat Cox, a recent president of the European Parliament, who says the "spirit of Europe is captured at the heart of this project."

Both Mr Cox and Mr Barroso were quick to distance themselves from Gazprom when queried by this website, however.

Mr Cox said that the footage dates back to a few years ago, before Gazprom became the main sponsor of the project earlier this year. "I was not involved in any negotiations on sponsorships and have no commercial interest in the matter," he said.

He explained that his initial endorsement came about in 2004, when he was still Parliament chief, as an act of "good will" for the boat scheme, which involves flying the EU flag in various regattas and having a multi-national crew. A few years later, during a visit to Ljubljana, the Slovenian team behind the Esimit project asked him to film the video testimonial.

"I knew they were looking for sponsors, but I wasn't asked about any sponsor and I have nothing to do with Gazprom," Mr Cox said.

A spokesman for the EU commission also said that Mr Barroso endorsed the project before Gazprom came on board. "He gave his patronage to this project in November 2006. There was no money involved, it was a simple patronage like so many other EU and national dignitaries do," commission spokesman Mark Gray said.

Neither Mr Barroso or Mr Cox are considering withdrawing their support for the project over the Gazprom link, however.

Nor have they complained about having their faces and names attached to the Gazprom logo, Gorazd Mauri, the public relations manager for the yachting project, told EUobserver.

"The European Parliament and Commission's patronage is just for the yacht. It's a written support allowing us to fly under the EU flag. They were informed when Gazprom became sponsor and so we haven't had any complaints about it," Mr Mauri said.

Aware of the EU-Gazprom controversies in recent years, Mr Mauri said the sponsorship had no political agenda.

"Gazprom decided to sponsor us because of the vision it promotes – all Europeans on the same boat. We want to win, we are honoured to be have such a distinguished sponsor," he said. Asked who would benefit the most, Gazprom or the EU, if the yacht won any of the competitions it is to take part in, Mr Mauri pointed to the motto of the project "all Europeans together on the same boat."

The Esimit sponsorship, worth several million euros, is not the only sports-related Gazprom PR project. The Russian firm is also sponsoring German football club FC Schalke, for which it pays €25 million a year.

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