Ali Çıralı, president of the Cyprus Turkish Chamber of Industry (CTCI) has appealed for help from the Turkish Cypriot Diaspora and the British Government to ensure the impending protected status for hellim/halloumi will benefit all Cypriot producers. His request came during a three-day visit to London last week where he met with community leaders, business owners and the British authorities to brief them about the latest developments and to share the concerns of his 50 hellim-producing members.
In March this year, a unilateral application by South Cyprus to secure protected status for Cyprus’ traditional cheese was suspended by the European Union (EU) following protests from Turkish Cypriot producers who had been deliberately excluded from the process. The situation also threatened Peace Talks aimed at uniting the divided island.
On 16th July, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, brokered a deal between the two Cypriot leaders, Mustafa Akıncı and Nicos Anastasiades, enabling the application to proceed. As a result, a draft of the Protected Designation of Origin [PDO] for hellim/halloumi was published in the EU’s Official Gazette on 28th July. Affected parties from around the world have a three month period to register their objections, which ends at the end of this month. Should the EU grant PDO status, only producers in Cyprus fulfilling the PDO criteria will be able to call their products ‘hellim’ or ‘halloumi’.
Many British Turks involved in the UK food business are keen to learn more so they can benefit from the new developments and help create new markets for hellim. However they, like Turkish Cypriot producers, remain concerned about how the PDO process will be managed, with only Greek Cypriots enjoying representation in the EU.
On Monday night, Çıralı told Turkish Cypriot community representatives and business owners attending a roundtable briefing organised by Embargoed! in central London: “We want to see hellim achieve protected status as it will help maintain standards and increase the value of our cheese. The EU’s hellim deal wasn’t perfect – there were many safeguards our members demanded that weren’t included. Nevertheless, we are keen to make the process work as it will bring lots of benefits to the entire island in the long-run.”
Hellim plays a vital role in the Turkish Cypriot economy: it accounts for 25% of all exports, with 17% of the TRNC workforce relying on the sector. Due to the embargoes on the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – which many world leaders accept as unfair and unjust – Turkish Cypriots are currently unable to sell any animal products to the EU. Instead, their hellim cheese is sold in Turkey, the Turkic republics, the Middle East and North Africa.
Mr Çıralı added, “It’s imperative the delicate balances agreed by our president [Mustafa Akıncı] when Mr Juncker visited Cyprus [in July] are respected. We cannot afford to allow the authorities in South Cyprus to solely control such a vital trade for Turkish Cypriots – indeed our members would rather see the PDO suspended or dropped if it did not adhere to the Juncker deal. That’s why we call on our allies in the UK to register these concerns with the Commission via your government, so they are acted upon, and the PDO works fairly and transparently for all producers.”
His comments were backed by Fahri Zihni, chairman of Embargoed!, a human rights group campaigning to end the international isolation of North Cyprus. In recent years, Embargoed! has spearheaded UK efforts to protect Turkish Cypriot rights over hellim by making representations to the EU Commission, British government and politicians.
Mr Zihni said: “We also welcome the EU’s hellim deal – it is an important step in facilitating more international trade for Turkish Cypriots. However, politicians cannot ride roughshod over EU rules governing the PDO process. Turkish Cypriot producers were not consulted [about the hellim PDO], nor have they been given the funding and support that South Cyprus producers have already received to bring their sector up to EU standards, putting producers in the North at a serious disadvantage. This is compounded by proposals to appoint Bureau Veritas – a company with a clear conflict of interest and definitely not an ‘independent’ inspection body for the North.”
Embargoed! has been lobbying the Commission about the company since learning that it holds major contracts to inspect shipping in South Cyprus, creating a natural bias towards Greek Cypriots. The group want a new, neutral inspection body to be appointed instead.
British Turkish Cypriots also spoke of their dismay at news reports that, just weeks after signing the Juncker deal, the Greek Cypriot leader is trying to unilaterally alter the terms. Among the changes Nicos Anastasiades wants to the Common Agreement is for all PDO-certified hellim from the TRNC to be exported via South Cyprus ports, even produce intended for markets such as Turkey and the Middle East. He also wants to dispense with the Commission’s involvement in administering the PDO in North Cyprus until a permanent political solution is found, arguing this undermines the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.
Kenan Yaman of the British Turkish Cypriot Association said, “If these news reports are true, Mr Anastasiades’ behaviour is truly outrageous. It runs counter to the efforts of cultivating a positive climate island-wide and totally undermines his credibility: if he can backtrack on a hellim deal after a few weeks, how can Turkish Cypriots trust him with a political settlement? It’s up to the EU to send a firm message to the Greek Cypriot side by refusing to dilute the Juncker deal.”
Over the weekend, some Turkish Cypriot owned businesses in the UK have applied to the British Government to register their objections and concerns over the hellim issue.
Embargoed! and Cyprus Turkish Chamber of Industry joint publication