A row is brewing between Romania and Hungary as Romanian alcohol producers try to block Budapest's request for the European Union to grant it exclusive rights to produce palinka, a fruit-distilled spirit. Romanians, who make a brandy with a nearly identical name, want assurances that they will also be allowed to market their product within the European Union. The dispute is raising the question of protecting traditional products made in EU candidate countries as they inch closer to membership.
As the Christmas season draws near, many people in Romania and Hungary are stockpiling sizable supplies of locally made fruit brandies, called palinka in Hungarian or palinca in Romanian. But the holidays may not be as much fun as usual for the makers of the fiery spirits following a dispute on the right to use the names.
Hungary, a front-runner for European Union membership, has requested that the EU grant it quasi-exclusive rights to use the name "palinka" within the EU once it joins the 15-member bloc, expected in 2004. The request was made more than a year ago, when Budapest opened admission negotiations on the agriculture chapter of accession.
Negotiations between the EU and 10 candidate countries are expected to conclude before a summit in Copenhagen later this month (12-13 December). Romania, which is not likely to join before 2007, has become increasingly apprehensive that Budapest will gain exclusivity over the name.
Romanian alcohol producers say they are entitled to use the same name for a product that has been manufactured for centuries in the area of the former Hapsburg Empire, whether in Hungary, Transylvania, or Austria.
Romulus Dascalu, head of the Romanian alcohol producers' association, told RFE/RL that they will launch legal action to demand compensation in case the EU rules against Romania. "Romanian producers will otherwise be forced to complain to European institutions and international courts to recover their losses. In the long run, the losses could be huge, especially for producers in [the Romanian region of] Transylvania. We have estimated that losses could be as high as 150 to 200 million euros per year only for palinca producers."
Dascalu said Romanian producers annually export some 20 million bottles of palinca, not only in the EU but also in the United States, Canada, and Israel.
Government officials in Bucharest have expressed support for the Romanian alcohol producers' position. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase last week said he instructed government members to "analyze the situation and come up with solutions."
Vasile Puscas, Romania's chief EU negotiator, told RFE/RL that Romanian authorities have a duty to defend the interests of Romanian producers. "Our government is obviously supporting the interests of our [Romanian] producers, since this product is already being distributed on the EU market and in other foreign markets."
Hungarian officials, in turn, say they are trying to protect the name of a traditional product manufactured only from fruit, in the same way two other EU members -- Greece and Italy -- have protected ouzo and grappa, two traditional distillates based on grapes.
Despite the similarities in name, certain differences do exist between the Romanian and Hungarian products. In Hungary, palinka describes any fruit distillate, and therefore, it bears the name of the fruit in front of the word, such as apricot, cherry, or plum. In Romania, palinca refers to the strong, twice-distilled plum brandy made in Transylvania, as opposed to the weaker plum spirit called tuica, manufactured in the south of the country.
Sandor Szabo, a trade-policy expert in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, says that if the EU decides to approve Budapest's request, only Hungarian firms will be permitted to export drinks under the palinka name in the member states. But Szabo told RFE/RL that Budapest's request is concerned only the Hungarian spelling of the name. "Well, I think it is still a huge misunderstanding. If Romania exports fruit spirits under the name they use, which is not exactly the same as the Hungarian palinka, they may continue [to use] that. So really, we do not understand what the problem is. They are not using the same expression. Only the Hungarian spelling will be protected. If they use a [spelling with] a 'c' [instead of a 'k'], they can use it."
Experts say such disputes are common within the EU. Analyst Dana Armean of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London points to a recent case in which a British supermarket chain was barred from selling ham under the name "Parma ham" unless the product actually comes from the Italian town of Parma.
But Armean says that, like vodka, palinka or palinca are generic names -- not brands related to a geographic region. Armean told RFE/RL that for Hungary or Romania to acquire a larger share of the European market will depend on the quality of the products the two countries sell. "Brands are identified with the product and, inasmuch as Hungary could have a head start in selling palinka in the EU -- [that] can be an advantage for them. But Romania can also brand its own drink, which is very similar to palinka, under its own Romanian name, and then, you know, free competition would lead to one of them establishing a stronger or weaker market. It all depends on the quality of the product at the end of the day."
Other such disputes regarding regional products with related names may loom in the wake of the EU's expected 2004 enlargement.
Slovaks in the Carpathians have for centuries manufactured a sheep cheese called bryndza, while shepherds living in the Romanian section of the same mountains take pride in making brinza de burduf, a similar product.
Slovakia is also poised to join the EU in 2004, and some Romanian cheese producers are afraid they will not be allowed to export it to the EU after Slovakia's accession.
But Romanian EU negotiator Vasile Puscas says Bucharest, despite being behind in EU admission talks, has also come up with a list of traditional produce. Puscas told RFE/RL, "I am convinced that we will be able to register our local products -- protected products -- on the list of EU protected products."
Officials are quick to say, however, that such cases are unlikely to develop into political disputes between neighbors, to the satisfaction of the many people who will always enjoy a glass of palinka, or palinca, and a sandwich made with bryndza, or brinza.