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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 03:53 GMT
Historic deal leaves no stone unturned
Balloons at international gathering of balloonists
National cultures resist the grey hand of uniformity

"Unity in diversity" is the European Union's little-known official motto.

Hours of negotiation have been spent not only on monumental questions, but on bizarre trivialities

But as accession talks for 10 new members near their conclusion this week, many people in those countries are finding the grey hand of uniformity reaching out from Brussels.

Bird-catchers in Malta, fishermen in Latvia and gypsy chefs in the Czech Republic are among those who have had to fight to keep their traditions.

EU regulations occasionally have unfortunate side-effects when applied too rigorously, so the guardians of national traditions have been keeping a sharp look-out for levelling, harmonising tendencies.

Goulash rules

Polish food-producers (whose produce already adorns the shelves of West European delicatessens) fear that the distinctive taste of their home-grown foodstuffs will be sacrificed to over-stringent health standards, resulting in bland, pan-European food.

Lynx
Latvians may hunt one lynx per week on average
In some cases - as already happens in existing EU member states - national authorities have over-reacted to avoid the displeasure of Brussels eurocrats.

In the Czech Republic, for example, traditional gypsy goulash is allowed to stand overnight, to improve the flavour.

This runs foul of EU food safety regulations forbidding the preparation of food more than three hours in advance.

The rule in fact applies only to canteens and hospitals, but in some places restaurateurs have been told to comply.

Sprat lovers' success

The potential clash of local custom with Brussels injunction has meant that hours of negotiation has been spent not only on the monumental questions of farm subsidies and transitional payments (problems which may be picked over until the final moments of the Copenhagen summit), but also on some bizarre trivialities.

Champagne bottles
Champagne must be French, Palinka Hungarian
Malta won an exemption from EU rules to allow the continuation of finch-catching.

Baltic sprat-lovers won the right to catch undersize herrings, and Latvians will be allowed to preserve their "ancient practice" of hunting for lynx - but only up to 50 a year.

The EU had originally wanted to ban lynx hunting.

Protecting national specialities from being copied was as much of a concern to the new members as was protecting the right to continue with practices banned elsewhere in the EU.

Thus the Hungarians won the exclusive right to call their cherry, plum and apricot brandy "Palinka" - just as the French have the exclusive right to the word "champagne" - dashing the hopes of all those would-be Palinka-counterfeiters around Europe.

Scotch whisky producers, rather late in the day, have just demanded that Poland's accession be blocked

Poles were granted the right to give a drink "made from fermented grape juice" the appellation "Polish wine".

Such is the stuff treaties are made of, and now, after four years of haggling, deals have been struck to balance the needs of the most fastidious traditional manufacturer and the most over-zealous bureaucrat.

Whisky quota

A few little details remain to be tied up.

Scotch whisky producers, rather late in the day, have just demanded that Poland's accession be blocked unless it renounces import tariffs and quotas which make it harder for Scotland's national drink to compete with Poland's, vodka.

"It would be a disservice to Polish consumers," the Scotch Whisky Association selflessly argued, "and destabilising for the entire EU single market if Poland were, at the last minute, allowed to retain a tariff and quota regime that has already protected domestic producers for too long."

Could this be the fly in the ointment that prevents EU enlargement?

Thankfully, probably not.


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