Salty, grillable halloumi cheese from Cyprus is the unlikely star player in the country’s reunification process.
The European Commission is weighing whether to award a special legal protection to the rubbery delicacy on account of the centuries-old techniques used to make it on the divided island. With talks on reunification expected to resume later this month, Brussels’ decision on awarding halloumi a so-called geographical indication turned into an unexpected point of EU leverage in bringing the Greek and Turkish communities together.
While designating protected food names in the EU, from Cognac to Roquefort, is normally left to middle-ranking agricultural officials, the halloumi dossier went right to the highest political echelons of the Commission.
Two senior sources involved in the talks on reunification and halloumi said questions about the cheese are being handled by the cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has grasped its geopolitical significance and believes halloumi has the potential to help reunite the island. The big idea is that the Greek Cypriots could finally be pressured into a deal thanks to the potential dividends of a lucrative GI designation as a reward. No deal, no GI.
If there is one thing that both the Greek and Turkish communities can agree on, it’s the financial boost that would come with a geographical indication for the cheese, putting their product into the same elite group as Bordeaux and Cava wines.
Officials close to the file say even the tiniest of movements on the GI authorization for halloumi — from dealing with statements of objections to holding consultations — are being micro-managed by Juncker’s cabinet.
This infuriates Cypriot officials who want to see politics taken out of the decision.
“It’s the political point of view that has been put forward and put in front of the legal one,” said Sozos-Christos Theodoulou, first vice president of the European Communities Trademark Association, which is providing legal advice to producers of halloumi. “The Commission is instrumentalizing the issue. There is no reason to stall the examination of any application.”
“As long as this application is not approved then there are disadvantages to everyone concerned … Things are being stalled in a financially damaging way for Cypriots,” he added.
Divided for more than four decades, talks in recent years to unify the two sides have stalled over matters such as exploration rights for oil and gas off the island’s coast. Other stumbling blocks include the national curriculum and the security and guarantees system that gives Turkey, Greece and the U.K. the power to intervene to protect the island’s independence.
For the Commission, reunifying Cyprus would represent a major coup for the EU project at a moment when further integration and and expansion is being halted by stern resistance among large parts of the population for more Europe and decision-making from Brussels.
Asked if halloumi’s protected status was being used as a carrot in the talks on reunification, a Commission spokesperson said that the “application process for the registration of the names ‘halloumi’/’hellim’ as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is following its normal course.”
A protected label would give halloumi producers power to demand a greater premium for their wares and mount legal challenges against what they see as inferior imitations. They could, for example, block non-Cypriot producers in the U.K. and Denmark from marketing halloumi.
Producers from Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state recognized only by Turkey, would win access to the European market as long as they meet Europe’s health and safety standards. They are now limited to selling only to Turkey. GI status for halloumi would apply to producers all over the island of Cyprus.
Cyprus first applied to protect the status of halloumi in 2015 and included the Turkish name for the cheese, hellim, in the application in an effort to officially recognize producers in the north.
In the North, halloumi represents 24 percent of exports, amounting to roughly €30 million per year. The cheese business also employs 16.5 percent of the workforce, thanks to domestic demand as well as exports to Turkey.
Cyprus’ permanent representation to the EU declined to comment.
Fikri Toros, president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, said the decision on the GI has been complicated by an attempt by the Greek side of the island to make sure that any Turkish hellim is exported through ports in the south. Such demands “are not acceptable to Turkish Cypriots,” he said.
The Greek side, however, says it is essential that halloumi produced in the north is properly cleared for health and safety standards.