National rights in a postnationalist Europe


Since its inception, the European Union (EU) has sought to mediate between the seemingly antithetical goals of facilitating supranational integration and protecting national traditions. This approach was necessary to ensure the support of nationalist elements within member states during the first decades of the European project but it has had a lasting effect on the nature of EU legislation. Namely, the EU persistently privileges states as administrative units to the detriment of transnational regions. The EU’s application of Protected Geographical Indications and Designation of Origin (PGI/PDO) [9] legislation is a case in point.

Legal Protections

On October 25 2005 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) backed an earlier decision by the European Commission’s to confer PDO status on of feta cheese to Greece. This controversial ruling meant that only Greek producers of feta would be able to sell their cheese on the European market using the “feta” name. The court justified its stance by citing the Commission’s “opinion that special breeds of sheep and goats and the fauna in Greece gave Greek feta a specific aroma and flavour” that distinguishes it from generic non-Greek versions.[2] That the standard the commission has set is dubious should be evident to even the most casual observer. It is doubtful that the Greek borders perfectly encompass a distinct ecosystem that is necessary to produce feta. Feta cheese may evoke images of Greek pastures but it is not intimately tied to a certain region in the way that Champagne and Cognac are to their respective departments. If that had been the case Greece would have applied for a geographic indicator. The ruling discriminates against Cypriot, Macedonian, and Bulgarian producers of feta cheese and is indicative of the nebulous direction in which PDO claims are headed. To cite another – more egregious example – in making its case against South African use of the term “grappa” Italy only cited historic and etymological ties to the product. [16] EU standards are looser than those of the WTO. [8, 10]

The prevailing concern for producers is not to guarantee high standards or to reward research and development. They are far more interested in protecting themselves from potentially superior foreign competition. In their struggle for PDO status producers have taken various steps to wrap their product in the mantle of national history. Even a drink as pedestrian as grappa can be lifted to the status of gastronomic masterpiece provided it mimics the etiquette of upscale rivals.[16]

(image: palinca distilled from apples)

Typically, this entails adopting an unnecessarily complex process of distillation (wooden barrels, airtight flasks, and stainless steel tanks galore) and creating a glorious and ancient “tradition” ripe with myths, festivals, newsletters, and trade organizations. [16] At the end of the day this kind of mighty modern day apparatus can make the difference between protection and competition but it cannot turn grappa into prize-winning pinot noir. The rush to protect agricultural products seems unstoppable but has raised important questions about the role of the EU.

(image: palinca distilled from apples)

The Problem

The EU’s recent enlargement has raised questions about the wisdom of resolving transnational disputes within a national or international framework. One worry is that this means of arbitration is impeding European integration. Anthony D. Smith has pointed out that there is “little warrant for regarding recent ethnic nationalisms as inimical or irrelevant to the ‘major trends’ of economic development or world history, as long as most of the world’s trade, production and consumption is still organized in terms of relations between sovereign (if increasingly interdependent) national states.” (64) [13] Unfortunately, this argument fails to appreciate the qualitative difference between ethnic to civic forms of nationalism and the triumph of the latter over the former during the course of the twentieth century Europe. Nevertheless Smith’s overarching observation that the ordering of the EU along national lines reinforces differences stands. European technocrats are also worried is that the current system of arbitration is simply unjust and could lead to reinforce nationalist sentiments within the agrarian sector.

Palinka is a fruit distillate produced in Austria, Hungary, and Romania. This cultural product could serve as a symbol of shared culture, a rallying point for supranational unity, a lasting bridge to a postnational era.[7] Its appropriation by a signle state can also threaten to reify national divisions. [7] This was the case when the Hungarian government requested and was granted exclusive rights to produce palinka during its agricultural negotiations for admission to the EU.[6]

(image: palinca made from pears)

Austria and Romania both protested the EU’s decision and any move to register palinka, which they consider a “regional product and a generic name” as a brand. [6] The move would have cost Austrian and Romanian producers hundreds of millions of dollars every year.[14, 15, 11] Early in 2003 in anticipation of Hungary's accession the EU's Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler remarked – in poor taste considering the ongoing dispute – that he “sincerely hope that on 12 April we will be able to raise a glass of fine Hungarian Palinka which the EU has now expressly protected as a geographical designation - to toast Hungary's 'yes' vote to a Europe of peace, prosperity and solidarity.” [1] This remark should give a sense of the importance attached by the Hungarian government towards appropriating palinka as a national symbol.

Regional differences in the process of distilation hurt weakens the argument that palinka is a brand. “In Hungary palinka refers to 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.”[15]
(image: Hungarian palinka made from apricots)

These differences lend themselves to Economist Intelligence Unit analyst Dana Armean statement that “like vodka, palinka or palinca are generic names -- not brands related to a geographic region.”[15]

Austrians claim to have invented the drink and theorize that it made its way east in the wake of the second siege of Vienna as part of a larger cultural exchange that included the capture of Turkish coffee.[6] While the origin of palinka continues to be contested, Romanians are the undisputed kings when it comes to annual production and consumption of the drink at over 450,000 hectoliters or 40% of the total alcohol intake.[14, 6]

(image: red cross warning about the dangers of palinka vs. claims made by the advertizement)

The solution

In 2004 the EU changed its position on palinka extending the protection to four Austrian counties. If this is indeed the case it sets a promising precedent for future disputes to be resolved in this fashion. The wine producing Tokaj region extends into both Hungary and Slovakia but only the former is scheduled to have exclusive rights to the name as of March 31, 2007. [5] The Hungarian government also decided to allow Romanian producers to use the name. Still, there are many obstacles to overcome. Sandor Font, chairman of the National Federation of Fruit Palinka Distillers has charged the government with "committing a grave betrayal of one of the leading Hungaricum (Hungarian national products) by allowing the Romanians to use the trademark name, even if with a different way of spelling."[4] This move corrects one injustice but would still leave countless wrongs.  The EU should restrain itself from the temptation of becoming a grand arbiter, withdraw the unnecessary protections, and let the best distillery win in the world market! [3]


[1] Anonymous. "The European Union offers Hungary's agriculture five advantages," says Agriculture Commissioner Fischler" [accessed 11/20/05]

[2] Anonymous. "EU backs Greece in feta fight" October 25, 2005 [accessed 11/20/05]

[3] Anonymous. "Chinese palinka expands with Hungarian master distillers" Hungarian News Agency (MTI) 26 September, 2005.

[4] Anonymous. "Hungarian body protestes Romania's use of name "palinka" for its own schnapps" BBC Monitoring International Reports

[5] Anonymous. "Hungary's 'King of Wines' feuds with namesakes in European Union and beyond" EUbusiness 29 May, 2004. [accessed 11/20/05]

[6] Sorin Cazacu. "EU Observer: The Battle over Palinka" Transitions Online 26 February, 2003. [accessed 11/20/05]]

[7] Laurentiu Ciocazanu. "Cand palinca are gust de palinka" Evenimentul Zilei 21 October, 2005. [accessed 11/20/05]

[8] Bernard M. Hoekman.“New Issues in the Uruguay Round and Beyond” The Economic Journal, Vol. 103, No. 421. (Nov., 1993), pp. 1528-1539.

[9] European Union. "Protected geographical indications and designations of origin"[accessed 11/20/05]

[10] European Union. "Definition, description and presentation of spirit drinks"[accessed 11/20/05]

[11] Senica Micu. "Vom bea vinuri cu buchet de aderare" Realitatea Romaneasca 7 August, 2005. [accessed 11/20/05]

[12] Angus Roxburgh. "Historic deal leaves no stone unturned" BBC News Online 11 December, 2002. [accessed 11/20/05]

[13] Anthony D. Smith. "National identity and the idea of European unity" International Affairs Vol. 68, No. 1. (January, 1992), pp. 55-76.

[14] Dan Straut. "Ungaria, invinsa in razboiul palincii"Curentul 31 December, 2002. [accessed 11/20/05]

[15] Eugen Tomiuc. "Hungary/Romania: Spirited Dispute Looms Over Right To Use Plum Brandy Name In The EU" Radio Free Europe 2 December, 2002. [accessed 11/20/05]

[16] Daniel J. Wakin. "S. Africa distillers grapple with Italy over glass of wine" The Detroit News 7 January 2000 [accessed 11/20/05]


Andrei Mamolea