EU Halloumi diplomacy collides with reality of Cyprus dispute

EU effort to use renowned Mediterranean cheese to bridge divisions Partitioned Cyprus encountered the headwinds of a half-century-old conflict.

The European bloc has stoked fierce disagreements on the island after granting special status to the dairy product known as halloumi to Greek speakers and Hellim to their Turkish-speaking counterparts.

The controversy over a seemingly benign change to EU food rules highlights tensions ahead of this month’s international efforts to revive peace talks in Cyprus after a hiatus of almost four years.

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

This week, the European Commission decided to grant protection status to the versatile squeaky cheese, made from varying proportions of sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk. Products so identified as regional specialties – for example champagne and Parma ham – can only be labeled as such if they are made in their designated places of origin.

As part of the package, the Brussels decision also allows businesses in northern Turkish Cypriot to sell hellim in the EU for the first time, sending their products through the UN-supervised green line separating the two sides of the country. the island. The cheese has been registered under both its Greek and Turkish names.

Turkey has occupied northern Cyprus since its invasion in 1974, an annexation it said was justified to protect Turkish Cypriots after a Greek-backed coup. But Ankara is the only world capital to recognize the occupation and the subsequent decision of the Turkish Cypriot leadership to proclaim the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a sovereign state.

Since northern Cyprus in turn does not recognize the EU membership that the island took in 2004, it is difficult for Turkish Cypriot companies to do business in the other 26 member states of the European bloc. . Until now, hellim has been absent from the supermarket shelves in these countries because the north of Cyprus does not apply European legislation.

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

The potential cost of this absence has been high: Southern Cyprus transferred 33,000 tonnes of halloumi to the rest of the EU in 2019, according to data from the bloc. Opening the market this week “So really unlocks practical benefits for the guys in the north,” an EU official said.

“This cheese has real political significance,” enthuses the manager.

Nikos Christodoulides, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus, suggested that the embrace of the cheesemakers from the north could also help reconciliation on the island. Registering the product under both halloumi and hellim names was of “great importance” and sent a “clear message”, he added.

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

But some Turkish Cypriot leaders appear to have a different view of the opening, which comes just before the conflict resolution talks convened by the UN in Geneva from April 27-29. The last attempt in decades at negotiations failed in 2017.

“This is a shameful attempt by the EU and the Greek Cypriot administration to dominate the political will of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” said Tahsin Ertugruloglu, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Northern Cyprus.

The main objection from the Turkish Cypriot side is that opening the market will mean acceptance of the authority of the Cypriot government and the EU, as Hellim producers would have to abide by the bloc’s food standards. A private company, Bureau Veritas, will be able to carry out inspections of Turkish Cypriot farms wishing to sell the cheese in the EU’s single market.

Other concerns about the new provisions are more practical. The Turkish Cyprus Chamber of Industry said there were still many uncertainties over their implementation, adding that its hellim producers need the EU’s help to ensure they can comply with the health rules of the block.

“Communities can only come together if there is not only a social but also an economic relationship that is sustainable and benefits both parties,” he said.

Brexit has also complicated the calculations. The UK – the former colonial power of Cyprus and home to many people of Cypriot descent – was by far the island’s biggest European consumer of cheese before it left the bloc.

In 2019, the UK’s last full year of EU membership, the country accounted for 53% of all Cypriot cheese bulk imports by volume. Now that that slice is gone, the EU’s halloumi-hellim market is not quite what it used to be.

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

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