* Luxury German carmakers lent scores of vehicles for free
* Cars supplied to countries holding the EU presidencies
* Carmakers say they wanted to raise brand awareness
By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS, Feb 24 Some European politicians and
transparency campaigners have raised concerns about German
luxury carmakers Audi and BMW providing free cars to EU member
states while negotiations were under way over strict new
The immediate concern is sponsorship involving the free loan
of scores of luxury cars to five countries over a 2-1/2-year
period that coincided with the debate over new limits for carbon
The five countries consecutively held the EU presidency
during that time and were responsible for leading policy
EU member states and companies sponsoring EU presidencies
say sponsorship is an entirely legitimate practice, subject to
strict rules, that dates back many years.
Critics say its continuance during the emissions debate - in
which the car companies have an interest - was worrying.
"Of course, a direct conflict of interest is always hard to
prove, but it can certainly be said that some German car
producers have good timing when it comes to donations and
sponsorships," Rebecca Harms, co-president of the Greens, the
fourth largest group in the European Parliament, told Reuters.
Talks have now concluded on the proposed legislation, with a
vote set for the European Parliament on Tuesday. The parliament
is expected to back a compromise deal, but the Greens say they
will vote against it.
Transparency campaigners are also critical of the
"It is very worrying that governments, in return for
relatively small amounts of sponsorship money, are willing to
risk damaging their credibility and that of the EU presidency,"
said Olivier Hoedeman, research and campaigns coordinator at
Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels corruption watchdog.
BMW and Audi say their sponsorship was only about raising
their profile in European markets. Audi, for example, said it
regularly applied via tenders to provide cars for events because
"it helps the Audi brand to increase both reputation and
EU member states say there is nothing wrong with accepting
corporate sponsorship and several of them have proudly announced
their relationship with BMW or Audi,
mentioning the deal in press releases and publicity material.
The specific countries involved in this period were Denmark,
Cyprus, Ireland, Lithuania and Greece, which have held the EU
presidency for six months each since January 2012.
Greece, which took over the presidency in January and has
free use of 69 Audi cars, sent a message on Twitter declaring:
"Audi is Grand Sponsor of the Hellenic EU Presidency".
Spokespeople for the countries said they abided by rules on
sponsorship, including that it must not lead to conflicts of
Marcella Smyth, a spokeswoman for the Irish presidency, said
that in an effort to deliver "a cost-effective presidency" a
combination of contracts, including for the loaned cars, had
saved a total of 1.4 million euros ($1.9 million).
She added that Ireland had used public transport whenever
possible and reserved the cars for driving ministers and other
officials to and from airports.
A spokesman for the European Council, which represents heads
of state and government, said the council did not keep
systematic records of sponsorship, but the practice of car
companies providing cars for free dates back years and in the
past has included non-German as well as German companies.
A senior member of a Brussels-based public affairs
consultancy said there were benefits to sponsorship, but that
they were limited.
"It's certainly a very visible way of getting your name out
there, but I think it's a bit far to suggest that this could
influence the debate, if procurement procedures are followed,"
the consultant said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"It really depends on the circumstances and I don't think
you could necessarily say it was good publicity every time."
A representative of another consultancy, also speaking on
condition of anonymity, said: "We would not advise any of our
clients to sponsor the institutions or their activities."
Although the new EU emissions rules are the toughest so far
in the world, they are a dilution of the original proposal from
the European Commission, the EU's executive.
The Commission officially published its proposal in July
2012, seeking an existing limit of 130 grams of carbon dioxide
per kilometre (g/km) to be cut to 95 g/km by 2020.
An outline deal was first reached in June 2013, but that was
torn up, paving the way, in November last year for a weaker
agreement. That is the deal the parliament is expected to back
Although the adjustments are relatively minor, they are
enough to give breathing space to the carmakers.
While the 95 g/km target remains, manufacturers got an extra
year to reach the goal. And as long as they develop low emission
electric cars, they can go on making bigger cars that use more
fuel and therefore emit more carbon dioxide.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Andreas Cremer
in Berlin; editing by Luke Baker/Jeremy Gaunt)