Image: Chanel

From “Swiss Made” Cartier and Rolex watches and Scottish tartan prints (such as the ones that appeared in Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 1995 collection) to native Shetland wool (a textile used by the likes of Celine, Prada, Pringle of Scotland, Acne, and Chanel, among others), and a slew of food products and spirits, including Champagne, prosecco, parmesan and feta cheese, and Bavarian beer, the European Union is fiercely protective of commodities that bear legally-protected geographical indications.

Far from arbitrary terminology, these types of products – which are protected by way of a legal framework that dictates that certain products can only be produced in certain regions – often come with big market shares in the United Kingdom, with consumer loyalty being built up and consolidated through the use of these reputable geographical names. With this in mind, and given that many British products are protected under the EU’s designation regime, thereby, helping to protect both their quality and value, these particular products and their labeling are expected to be impacted in light of the impending withdrawal of the UK from the EU.

To be exact, when the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer be governed by the laws of the now-28-member union, including the protective status of these products, and while a July 2018 white paper from British prime minister Theresa May, outlining the UK’s plans for Brexit, declares that Britain will set up its own protection of geographical names to provide for continuous protection of UK products within the UK, it does not mention any continuation of the EU’s protection scheme within British borders, leaving room for questions and concerns. Some in Brussels, for instance, have expressed fear that British producers will start exploiting previously protected European names.

More than that, the European Commission – which put forth its own proposal suggesting that the UK continue protecting EU geographical indications – fears that after Brexit, the high level of protection that European products currently enjoy in the UK under EU law may evaporate.

Rather ironically, British products are notexpected to lose their protected status in the EU post-Brexit (and could still seek new EU registrations in the future), since the EU allows for the protection of geographical names from non-EU countries, an imbalance that seems to please British negotiators.

But the EU’s desire that post-Brexit Britain keep its protection of geographical indications is bound to collide with US strategic interests. The US position is an important factor to take into account in the Brexit negotiations. If the UK signs a trade deal with the US, it will likely clash with a lot of EU regulations – including provisions governing the use of geographical names for food and beverages.

The US plays by different rules when it comes to the protection of these names. There are numerous US food companies that freely use European geographical expressions (including parmesan and feta for cheese) to identify products that have not been produced in the relevant European locations. In the US, these are considered to be generic names that describe the products and that cannot be monopolized by anyone, not even by the producers coming from the relevant European geographical area. In this vein, the US is lobbying the UK to abandon the EU’s protection of geographical indications, namely to allow US food and beverage companies to enter the British market by freely using European names.

A US-UK trade deal would likely be contingent on the UK dropping the EU-level protection of geographical indications. But this, in turn, would put a damper on the prospects of a trade deal with the EU – an even bigger trading partner for the UK.

The EU has continuously placed great emphasis on the protection of its geographical names during trade negotiations. It proved to be a big sticking point in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. France and Greece, for example, threatened to veto a deal with the US unless it upheld their geographical indications. More recently, Italy’s minister for agriculture noted that Italy may not ratify the EU’s trade deal with Canada because, in his view, it does not adequately protect Italian geographical names.

It is, therefore, not a stretch to say that at least some of the Brexit deal could very well hinge on the issue of geographical indications.

Enrico Bonadio is a Senior Lecturer in Law, at the City University of London. Marc Mimler is a Lecturer in Law at Bournemouth University.  (Edits courtesy of TFL)