The UK is pushing to water down its obligation to recognise valuable EU regional food trademarks for products like Parma ham and Champagne, in a move that risks souring trade negotiations between London and Brussels.
EU and UK officials confirmed that Britain wants to use talks on the future relationship to negotiate looser rules on the protection of geographical indications — or GIs — than those agreed by Boris Johnson in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK’s move comes as the negotiations on the UK-EU future relationship have been largely stalled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, with pressure growing on Mr Johnson to request an extension to the Brexit transition period, due to expire at the end of the year.
Under the Withdrawal Agreement signed last October, the UK agreed to recognise the entire “stock” of GIs currently on the EU’s books in a move that trade experts warned would limit its negotiating options with the US on a future trade deal.
The GI protections cover more than 3,000 products ranging from feta cheese to Vinagre de Jerez sherry vinegar, meaning that imitations with the same name cannot be sold in the EU single market.
One senior EU official warned the British attempt to put the issue of GIs “back on the table” was in effect calling into question the UK’s commitment to the entire Withdrawal Agreement. Brussels insists they are not up for renegotiation.
“Under the deal, the UK has to cover current GIs under UK law, but now the UK is gently threatening to revisit arrangements agreed under the Withdrawal Agreement, an approach which puts the entire agreement in question,” the official added.
According to an EU diplomat the UK is relying on a clause in the Withdrawal Agreement that notes the protection of GIs would persist “unless and until” a different deal was negotiated to supersede it.
Britain has also suggested that the current protections could be open to legal challenge, for instance from food and drink producers based in the UK.
David Henig, a former UK trade negotiator now director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy, a think-tank, said there was no prospect of the EU giving up one of the biggest prizes of the negotiation.
“EU geographical indications are the number one ‘ask’ of the EU in all trade talks, which is a problem for the UK in a US trade deal, since the US top priority is also food exports,” he said.
The European Commission declined to comment on this aspect of the future-relationship talks, but a spokesman said that “the Withdrawal Agreement is clear as regards the protection of GIs”.
A UK government spokesperson said the Withdrawal Agreement made it “entirely possible” that the GI system could be superseded with an alternative”, adding that it was important that the UK retained the ability “to set its own laws and regulations”.
With the talks hobbled by the pandemic, significant gaps remain between the two sides, with the UK only submitting a partial set of draft treaty texts. The British texts cover issues such as trade, aviation and nuclear co-operation.
UK demands so far include mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) for manufacturing practices for medicines, which EU negotiators have in the past ruled out.
Other UK requests include a New Zealand-style veterinary agreement to smooth the flow of agricultural products and a highly flexible approach to so-called “rules of origin” governing the manufacturing content of goods.
Both are understood to have had a negative response from the EU’s negotiating team, headed by chief negotiator Michel Barnier, much to the frustration of British negotiators.
On two other crucial areas — fishing rights and security co-operation — the UK has not submitted any draft texts.
The two sides are also at loggerheads over an EU request to open a diplomatic office in Belfast to manage the implementation of the Irish Protocol which requires special trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
The UK turned down an initial request from the EU in February, but the commission has resubmitted the proposal which the UK is now considering — but is not expected to grant.
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