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EU: What's In A Name? Plenty, When It Comes To Famous Brands

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union is taking to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a list of foodstuffs whose names it wants protected from usage by other countries. The list contains such famous brands as Champagne and Parma ham. The EU's move is sure to add to existing strains in the international trade arena, since many of the names are in common usage around the world. Brussels is inviting the incoming accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe to submit their own lists of product brands they would like to see protected.

Prague, 2 September 2003(RFE/RL) -- Let's imagine we have the good fortune to be flying around the world in search of fine wines.

Our first stop, after a 24-hour flight from Europe, is the southern Australian city of Adelaide. We rent a car and drive some 100 kilometers to the lovely Barossa Valley, one of the country's best wine-producing areas. Settled by Germans in the 19th century, the rolling countryside features grape vines nestled between stately gum trees. We sample the Chablis, Sauternes, Riesling, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and many more wines whose names we recognize from trips through France and Germany.

Surprised but satisfied, we drive to Sydney, where we catch a plane across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. We set out for the township of Paarl near Cape Town. We drive between spectacular rocky hills, the valleys clothed in vines. We savor the local offerings, including sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and among the reds, pinot noir and merlot.

As we continue our wine pilgrimage, next to California, we notice the same familiarity of European names. This is exactly what the European Union is setting out to stop.

At a conference in Cancun, Mexico, starting on 10 September, the EU will submit the names of 41 foodstuffs it wants protected against usage by anyone except the original European producing country or region.

The name Champagne is on the list, as well as Beaujolais, Chianti, Moselle, ouzo, Rioja, and Madeira. Cheeses are also included, such as feta from Greece and Gorgonzola from Italy, as well as various hams and sausages, and Spanish nougat.

The EU's list consists of products it believes are being "abused" overseas, meaning other countries are using the names for products manufactured outside the country where they were originally produced. There is a separate list of some 600 EU products whose names are registered but which are not being "abused" by foreign companies.

Brussels is inviting the 10 Eastern accession countries, which join the EU next year, to submit their own lists of products to be added to either of the two master lists.

Gregor Kreuzhueber, agriculture spokesman for the European Commission, told RFE/RL: "Once the new candidate countries or acceding countries join the European Union next year, then, of course, they will also have the right to put those products on the list which are being abused, or pirated, currently. But we are now in the process of evaluating requests from these countries because this ['abuse'] list is, of course, a list which has to be based on certain justification that there is an economic interest [at stake], that there are abuses going on in third countries. And this is something where we are now in the process of requesting and receiving the necessary information."

However it ends up, the "abuse" list will cause upset at Cancun, with objections certain from countries like the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Seen historically, emigrants took to their new homelands the manufacturing techniques and the grape and fruit varieties they knew from the Old World. Of course, they mostly preserved the original names unchanged. Today, brand recognition of these products is an important component in their livelihoods. To suddenly change long-established names is no light matter.

EU officials see it as an issue of fairness. "Basically, traditional names, which are European names, are exploited at the expense of European exporters," Kreuzhueber said. "One of the most striking examples is Parma ham, definitely. Italian Parma ham producers cannot sell their Parma ham under that name in Canada because there is a Canadian trademark on it, which means a Canadian producer is selling his Canadian ham under the trademark Parma ham in Canada. And this is, of course, a major problem."

Kreuzhueber said this represents a barrier to trade and a "free ride" for non-European companies using European traditions. He said he does not expect the coming negotiations in Cancun to be easy. "We don't expect this to go through [the WTO] without any problems, but we are trying to convince our partners that this is a very important part of our negotiating mandate and strategy. And this is something we will very much insist on in the next weeks and months to come in the WTO negotiations."

Some countries have moved to settle the issue bilaterally with the EU. For instance, South Africa has agreed to phase out the use of the names over a period of five or 12 years, replacing them with specifically South African titles.

Sophia Waggott, a spokeswoman in London for Wines of South Africa, a wine exporters association, told RFE/RL: "The South African government has done a deal with the EU to phase out [generic names] such as port, sherry, ouzo. It's a huge EU-SA duty-free agreement. And in exchange for phasing out the names, we have been entitled an allocation of so many liters of our wine to come into the EU each year, free of a tax called 'common customs tariff.'"

Waggott said the figure covered by the duty-free concession, which will last 10 years, is 43 million liters of wine, or about one-third of total South African wine imports into the EU.

The EU policy of pursuing the names issue at the WTO is not without its critics, both inside and outside the union. Agriculture expert Andreas Schneider of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies said some EU member states find it an unnecessary restriction.

"Within the European Union, there was disagreement, even though some countries may or may not really benefit from it. Take, for instance, the case of Denmark and some Danish cheese. They say they are not in favor [of the names-protection policy]. They may get some production support because they can use the name, but they may want to produce their cheese somewhere else [in the world without restriction]," Schneider said.

Schneider said that, outside the EU, some of the union's trading partners in the WTO view the move as an attempt to protect European trade at the expense of others.

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