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Common Market plan for `all-Europe' sailboat race runs into stormy weather

For critics of the European Community, it is almost too good to be true -- a perfect target. Here is a Community project designed to promote unity among the peoples of Western Europe. Yet it is dividing them.

Here is a plan to show the European flag to the common man from West Germany to Italy. Yet it is being financed in large part by a rich businessman from Saudi Arabia.

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Here is an idea meant to involve all EC countries. Yet it would touch directly only 6 of the 10 countries belonging to the EC, and several that don't.

At issue: the first ``European'' sailboat race for oceangoing yachts measuring between 13 and 26 meters long. The race is to begin in Kiel, West Germany, on Aug. 9, and end four weeks and 3,065 miles later at one of the poshest ports in Western Europe, Porto Cervo in Sardinia. Its total cost: $600,000.

``This race is a disgraceful waste of public funds at a time of world hunger and unemployment,'' said Janey Buchan, a British member of the European Parliament, after the scheme was revealed here last month. She called on businessmen, pensioners, and others to demonstrate against the event when the 36 yachts make their nine ports of call during the race.

Race organizer Gerard Petipas did his best at a news conference to explain how the event would help foster a more united Europe, pointing out that the course and the name of the race were European. The ports of call would organize ``European days'' to coincide with the arrival and departure of the vessels. The crews of several of the boats would be multinational. And the $32,500 in prize money would be awarded in European currency units, the EC's official but so-far-invisible unit of monetary exchange.

Some journalists were not convinced.

Why wasn't Ireland among the ports of call, asked an offended Irish journalist. Because Ireland doesn't have a port large enough to accommodate 36 yachts, each measuring up to 26 meters long.

Why no stopover in Greece, the EC's newest member, a Greek journalist asked. ``Technical problems,'' Mr. Petipas replied without explaining.

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Included in the race itinerary, in fact, are two countries that are not members of the EC but hope to join by next year -- Spain and Portugal. That seemed like a nice gesture. Ironically, however, marathon negotiations aimed at concluding the terms of membership for the two (after eight years of talks) broke down just before their participation in the race was announced.

The most curious aspect of the boat affair -- revealed only after intense questioning from journalists -- was the financial involvement of Saudi businessman Akram Ojjeh, president of the Groupe TAG conglomerate.

Mr. Ojjeh's offer to contribute $325,000 toward running the event was quickly snatched up by the EC, whose budgetary problems are legendary.

This year alone the Community faces a cash shortfall of more than $2 billion -- even as the organization continues to spend two-thirds of its $20-billion-a-year budget on subsidies that encourage farmers to produce so much surplus food it has to be stored away at additional cost to the European taxpayer.

For its part, the 28-year-old Community, which keeps itself more or less afloat with contributions from member governments, is contributing a nominal $28,500 toward financing the event. Some of the money will come from the ports of call. The rest will come from the individual members of the crews -- $1,450 each.

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