If you have spent time on the island of Cyprus you are likely aware of locals’ predilection for salty, squeaky halloumi cheese, eaten grilled, pan-fried or occasionally fresh. Mostly made from sheep and goat’s milk, it appears on nearly every menu across the EU-member Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), where it is called hellim.
More than one in five Turkish Cypriots are financially dependent on halloumi, which accounts for 36 per cent of TRNC exports despite a block on shipments to the EU. This month the European Commission moved to change that by registering halloumi as a protected designation of origin (PDO) for all producers on the island, which has been divided since a 1974 Turkish military invasion sought to head off an Athens-backed coup.
As with Prosciutto Toscano, champagne or Parma ham, products given this status can only be labelled as such when made in their designated place of origin. Turkish Cypriots are seen as the main beneficiary, as the Republic of Cyprus has long been exporting halloumi to its fellow EU members, including 33,000 tonnes in 2019. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell welcomed the move as a positive step in advance of next week’s talks in Geneva, to be attended by TRNC, Cyprus, Greece, the UK, and Turkey, with the UN as observer.
Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean have been high since at least 2018, when Turkey began sending drill ships accompanied by naval vessels to drill for natural gas in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece. Ankara’s moves brought it to the brink of war with Athens last summer. Tempers had cooled in recent months as Turkey kept its boats in port and the two neighbours began exploratory talks.
But at a joint press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias warned of EU sanctions “if Turkey continues violating our sovereign rights”. Mr Cavusoglu later said his counterpart had “crossed the line”. The two agreed to talk more in Geneva, but did not announce the widely anticipated summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, hinting at lingering agitation.
Next week’s informal Cyprus talks will mark the first since 2017, when hopes for a resolution were high following the election of TRNC President Mustafa Akinci, who had long advocated for reunification. When talks broke down, most observers blamed Greek Cypriot negotiators for an unwillingness to budge.
Turkey is the only country that recognises the TRNC, and keeps some 40,000 troops there. Last October, TRNC voters elected a new president, Ersin Tatar, who shares Ankara’s view that a two-state solution is the only way to resolve the nearly 50-year-old dispute.
Cyprus, Greece and the EU advocate a bizonal federation, a single state with significant autonomy for the north. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has said he is ready to resume talks, but Cyprus and Greece have both rejected the possibility of a sovereign northern Cypriot state.
Long-time Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas was among those who initially proposed a joint federation in the 1d960s, years before the island’s division. Mr Denktas later became the first TRNC president. He and successive Turkish Cypriot leaders advocated and negotiated for some form of federation for more than half a century, with little result.
A decade ago many observers thought the discovery of natural gas around the island might help resolve the dispute, as investors would require a stable and prosperous state. But following a price decline, the market for eastern Mediterranean gas is widely seen as limited.
One way to boost that market is collaboration: Cyprus has joined Greece, Israel, Egypt and others in a regional gas forum; and there’s talk of Ankara joining as well if it is able to improve ties with Cairo. At landmark talks with Israel, the UAE and Greece on Friday in Paphos, Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides said the eastern Mediterranean had begun to shift away from its narrative of conflict thanks to an “evolving web of regional co-operation.”
Greek Cypriots have, however, resisted co-operation with the TRNC, perhaps out of fear that any concession might further encourage Ankara. A Greek Cypriot petition launched this month urges residents to support reunification or face the “risk of the whole of Cyprus falling into the hands of Turkey.”
This has echoes of the far-right Alternative for Germany party warning of Muslim immigrants turning Europe into “Eurabia”. Little surprise, then, that the Cyprus branch of a former Greek neo-Nazi party has begun to emerge, and many Turkish Cypriots and Turks see Nicosia as in thrall to an orientalist EU and Greece.
"They never ever wanted to share the resources of the island, power and sovereignty with the Turkish Cypriots," Turkish columnist Yusuf Kanli wrote in a recent column for pro-government Hurriyet Daily news. "The Greek Cypriots refused to treat the Turkish Cypriots as their political equals".
An article in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies this month argued that Ankara’s Cyprus policy had become intertwined with its domestic efforts to shape a nationalist-Islamist identity. On the weekend, Mr Erdogan rebuked the TRNC’s top court for barring the country’s religious affairs office, which is heavily influenced by Ankara, from organising Quran courses. The Turkish president warned of repercussions, while his Communications Director Fahrettin Altun called the move “a judicial coup against freedom of religion”.
Despite such pressures, Turkish Cypriots have mostly come to share Ankara's view that Nicosia has been unwilling to compromise, leading many to take a harder line. Negotiations have never seriously considered a two-state solution, but that does not mean they never will. “We will no longer waste time on the federal solution," Mr Cavusoglu said of the upcoming talks after meeting with Tatar on the weekend. “New ideas and new vision should be discussed.”
A January 2020 poll revealed more than 81 per cent support for a two-state solution among Turkish Cypriots. Around the same time, 28 per cent of Greek Cypriots expressed a willingness to tolerate such a solution, which suggests it’s not a total non-starter.
What about the power of halloumi? Mr Christodoulides has said PDO status could encourage reconciliation. Due to bureaucratic hurdles, trade across the UN-monitored Green Line is just 6.3 million euros per year. But the halloumi market has been growing steadily and the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce agreed that PDO status could enhance economic cooperation between the two sides.
Not so fast. TRNC Foreign Minister Tahsin Ertugruloglu described the halloumi move as “a disgraceful attempt...to dominate the political will” of TRNC. Under the measure TRNC-based producers will be able to sell to EU states, but only by first sending their hellim into Cyprus.
What’s more, the Cyprus Turkish Chamber of Industry pointed out that the UK, the colonial power in Cyprus until 1960, accounts for more than half of EU imports of halloumi. No longer an EU member, the UK already receives shipments of TRNC hellim, so the north’s gains from PDO status may be minimal.
Europe’s stab at cheese diplomacy may have spoiled, but the Geneva talks still offer a real opportunity to inch closer to a resolution.
David Lepeska is a Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National