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EU’s halloumi diplomacy collides with reality of Cyprus dispute

An EU effort to use a renowned Mediterranean cheese to bridge divisions on partitioned Cyprus has run into the headwinds of a half-century old conflict.

The European bloc has stoked fierce disagreements on the island after it gave special status to the dairy product known as halloumi to Greek speakers and hellim to their Turkish-language counterparts.

The controversy over an apparently benign tweak to EU food rules highlights tensions ahead of international efforts this month to revive Cyprus peace talks after a near four-year hiatus.

“Every tiny confidence-building measure in Cyprus takes years to achieve,” said Fiona Mullen, director of the Cyprus-based consultancy Sapienta Economics. “But the bottom line is that the market for halloumi/hellim is large and growing and will benefit producers in both communities.”

This week the European Commission decided to give protected status to the versatile squeaky cheese, which is made from varying proportions of sheep, goat and cow’s milk. Products identified in this way as regional specialities — for example, champagne and Parma ham — can only be labelled as such if they are made in their designated places of origin. 

As part of the package, the move by Brussels also allows businesses from the Turkish Cypriot north to sell hellim into the EU for the first time, by sending their products across the UN-supervised Green Line separating the two parts of the island. The cheese has been registered under both its Greek and Turkish names.

Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since it invaded in 1974, an annexation it argues was justified to protect Turkish Cypriots after a Greek-backed coup. But Ankara is the only world capital to recognise the occupation and the subsequent decision by Turkish Cypriot leaders to proclaim the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus a sovereign state. 

Since northern Cyprus in turn does not recognise the EU membership the island took in 2004, it is hard for Turkish Cypriot-based companies to do business in the European bloc’s other 26 member states. Up to now, hellim has been missing from those countries’ supermarket shelves because northern Cyprus does not apply EU law.

A Cypriot woman prepares traditional halloumi cheese at her house in a village west of the capital Nicosia © Florian Choblet/AFP/Getty

The potential cost of that absence has been high: southern Cyprus shifted 33,000 tonnes of halloumi to the rest of the EU in 2019, according to bloc data. This week’s market opening thus “really unlocks practical advantages for the guys in the north”, one EU official said.

“This cheese has real political meaning,” the official enthused. 

Nikos Christodoulides, Cyprus’s minister of foreign affairs, suggested the embrace of northern cheesemakers might also help with reconciliation on the island. The registration of the product under the names of both halloumi and hellim was of “great importance” and sent a “clear message”, he added.

“It shows that mutually beneficial solutions are possible and that the EU involvement . . . can lead to the resolution of the Cyprus problem,” he said.

But some Turkish Cypriot leaders seem take a different view of the overture, which comes just before UN-convened conflict resolution talks in Geneva scheduled for April 27-29. The last attempt in decades of negotiations foundered in 2017. 

“This is a disgraceful attempt by the EU and the Greek Cypriot administration to dominate the political will of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” said Tahsin Ertugruloglu, northern Cyprus’s foreign minister. 

The Turkish Cypriot side’s main objection is that the market opening will mean accepting the authority of the Cyprus government and the EU, because hellim producers would have to submit to the bloc’s food standards. A private company, Bureau Veritas, will be able to conduct inspections at Turkish Cypriot farms wanting to sell the cheese on the EU’s single market. 

Other concerns about the new arrangements are more practical. The Cyprus Turkish Chamber of Industry said there were still many uncertainties about their implementation, adding that its hellim producers need EU aid to ensure they can comply with bloc sanitary rules. 

“Communities can only come closer when there is not only a social but also economic relationship that is sustainable and that benefits both sides,” it said.

Brexit has also complicated calculations. The UK — the former colonial power in Cyprus and home to many people of Cypriot descent — was by far the biggest EU consumer of cheese from the island before its departure from the bloc.

In 2019, the last full year of UK EU membership, the country accounted for 53 per cent of all bloc imports of Cypriot cheeses by volume. Now that slice has gone, the EU halloumi-hellim market is not quite what it was. 

“I am not aware of the Germans or the French or the Spanish deciding to eat hellim,” Ertugruloglu complained. “Who are we going to send hellim to in the EU?”


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