Cheese row between Costa Rica and Italy delays EU association agreement approval

Citing brand infringements, an official communiqué from the European Union (EU) on Wednesday notified Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Ministry (COMEX) that Italy has blocked implementation of a trade association agreement between Central America and the EU set for Aug. 1.

Italy is protesting the use by Costa Rican cheese producers of four Italian geographical names: Provolone, Fontina, Gorgonzola and Parmigiano Reggiano. Under the agreement, member countries submit a list of regional names that are forbidden by companies in other countries from using. Italy argues, for example, that only cheese produced in Parma, Italy, can be called Parmigiano. Costa Rica’s list contains names like Queso Turrialba, for example.

But in order for the agreement to be implemented, not only would Costa Rican companies be forbidden from exporting products with these four regional names, but also Italy is demanding they not be used in brands for sale in Costa Rica. Some of those brands are already trademarked by the Costa Rican National Registry and can be found in Costa Rican supermarkets.

The EU demanded two requirements to enforce the association agreement: the approval of the agreement in each Central American country’s legislature and the registration of 114 geographical indications negotiated in the treaty.

Costa Rica’s Foreign Trade Minister Anabel González said she “regretted that specific interests delayed the entry into force of the agreement for Costa Rica, […] because we were looking forward for the entry into force [of the agreement] on August 1.”

It is unclear if the two sides will reach a compromise on the issue, but currently the standoff threatens to jeopardize the entire trade deal. 

The EU is the second most important destination for Costa Rican exports behind the United States. Costa Rica’s trade with the bloc increased in the last decade, doubling in value from $ 1.6 billion in 2002 to $ 3.3 billion in 2012.

The European Commission already had recommended the treaty’s approval, but Italy’s position prevented the EU Council from unanimously adopting it, as established by official procedures.

The next meeting of the EU Council is scheduled for September.

Negotiations towards an Association Agreement between Central America and the European Union began in October 2007 in San José and concluded in May 2010 in Madrid.

Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly approved the Association Agreement with the European Union on July 1, and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, confirmed that it does not violate any articles of Costa Rica’s Constitution on July 21.