The importance of the freshly awarded EU protection for halloumi cheese goes beyond its food implication: key political actors have seen it as a historic opportunity to enhance economic cooperation and bring the two national communities in Cyprus closer.
On Monday (12 April), the European Commission granted the halloumi cheese the protected designation of origins (PDO) status, one of the highest European quality schemes.
Product names registered as PDO highlight the strongest links to the place where they are manufactured and are included in the EU system of intellectual property rights, which brings them legal protection against imitation and misuse.
In July 2014, Cyprus applied to secure the PDO status for its ‘white gold’, whose exports were worth a record €224 million in 2020, according to the Cypriot agriculture minister, Costas Kadis.
However, the process, weighed down by its geopolitical implications, made little headway as the matter concerned the delicate balance between the island’s two communities.
Cyprus has been split into two parts ever since Turkey invaded and occupied the northern area of the island in 1974, as a retaliation to a Greek-led coup aiming to annex Cyprus.
The PDO application sent to the European Commission also included the term “hellim”, the Turkish name for halloumi, thereby covering the production in the whole island. The Turkish-Cypriot community called for setting up a separate production control mechanism for halloumi.
The EU executive managed to share a final proposal to settle the halloumi protection saga only in March, after almost seven years of deadlock.
“This decision should have been taken a long time ago considering that halloumi is so unique and part of the Cyprus heritage,” Cypriot MEP Demetris Papadakis told EURACTIV.
For the socialist lawmaker, one of the main reasons for this delay was the infighting between dairy producers and sheep and goat farmers over whether and how much cow’s milk halloumi shall officially contain.
“And, unfortunately, halloumi was also subjected to political expediency being stuck in the Commission’s drawers as it was linked to the discussions for the solution of the Cyprus problem,” Papadakis continued.
From being a hostage to the peace process, after the EU registration, halloumi cheese could become a factor for deepening the economic cooperation between the two communities.
For the EU executive, the registration of halloumi/hellim as a PDO is a highly symbolic step in bringing the two communities closer and working together to build confidence, since the protection scheme will be equally available to producers from both Cypriot communities.
Halloumi is the most significant economic product of the Turkish-Cypriot community, representing 36% of total exports from North Cyprus.
“The two communities in Cyprus can now reap the economic benefits of this decision, pending the reunification of the country, while ensuring that our stringent food safety standards are upheld,” said the Cypriot EU Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
Most importantly, the Commission has adopted a measure that allows the PDO product to cross the “green line”, the 120-mile United Nations buffer zone separating the two sides of the island under an existing trade and export agreement.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce said it considers the inclusion in the list of Europe’s high-quality products and the measure allowing the PDO product to cross the green line – and thus access the EU market – a positive development and an important opportunity for cheese producers.
“However, given the long-standing problems in trade across the green line, there is a general concern on how successful the trade of hellim/halloumi through the green line would be,” said Lale Şener, the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce’s Brussels Representative
According to her, although representing a historical opportunity, the new mechanisms can only function effectively in the North if there is strong and effective cooperation with the independent inspection bodies.
Turkish-Cypriot producers have to comply with all the PDO specifications, as well as with EU sanitary and phytosanitary standards.
“But the Turkish Cypriot Chamber is yet to receive these updated specifications and we do not know yet the terms of reference for the inspection bodies or how much time and which resources they will have when working in the North,” Şener explained.
The Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce also remains confident that the financial support offered by the Commission for many years to farmers and dairy producers will continue and be commensurate with the needs of the sector to meet the PDO standards.
The PDO registration also offers also the opportunity to end a legal saga started when a UK court recently granted a British company owned by a Greek-Cypriot commercial the license to use the “halloumi” brand in the UK and third-party countries.
In a separate development in January, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) dismissed the claim by a Cypriot producers’ organisation, who challenged the trademark validation of Bulgarian halloumi-sounding products arguing that they could deceive consumers.
The ECJ ruling proved that, despite being an important intellectual property tool, the EU trademark, which was the only legal shield halloumi had before, offered a lower level of protection to the Cypriot cheese compared to the PDO quality scheme.
“We believe that this final decision will put an end to this legal and intellectual property saga across Europe, where there have been many counterfeit products over the past years,” MEP Papadakis concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]