BRUSSELS -- The European Union on Tuesday moved to recognize halloumi, or hellim in Turkish, as a protected cheese from both sides of the Greek-Turkish divided island of Cyprus and lauded it as a symbolic step toward further reunification.

The salty, chewy cheese is perhaps Cyprus' greatest gift to world gastronomy and the 28-nation bloc took a major step toward full name protection by publishing its official application for the status, which would mean only cheese made in Cyprus could be called halloumi in EU countries.

The island nation was forcibly divided in 1974 into a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north. It joined the EU in 2004, but only the south enjoys the benefits of membership.

Decades of attempts to reunify the island have been unsuccessful despite attempts by both the EU and the United Nations.

Perhaps underscoring the challenges ahead, even a deal on the cheese took months of difficult negotiations.

Yet on Tuesday, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the cheese unification drive shows the commitment of both sides "to work together on projects unifying the whole island." The breakthrough came two weeks after Juncker's visit to the island, where he met the leaders of both Greek and Turkish communities.

"Halloumi/Hellim cheese symbolizes the shared heritage of the island of Cyprus," Juncker said. Once the protection procedure is complete, Turkish Cypriot cheese producers could export their product to the EU through southern Cypriot ports.

The full approval of the halloumi procedure could still take over 5 months. It is extremely unlikely the island will be close to unification by then.

Peace talks resumed in May after an eight-month pause triggered by a feud beteweenn the Cypriot government and Turkey over gas and oil exploration.


Menelaos Hadjicostis contributed from Athens.