Thousands of expats who have bought or developed property in northern Cyprus could be affected by a European Court of Justice ruling that courts throughout the European Union should enforce Greek Cypriot legal verdicts.

The ECJ judgement, published on Tuesday, backed the efforts of Meletis Apostolides, a Greek Cypriot architect, to reclaim land his family abandoned when the island was partitioned in 1974, on which a British couple has since built a holiday house.

The fact that European community law is suspended in the northern part of the island, whose Turkish Cypriot authorities are recognised only by Ankara, and that a Greek Cypriot judgement cannot practically be enforced, “does not prevent the courts of another member state from declaring such judgements enforceable,” the ECJ found.

Linda and David Orams, a retired couple who invested around £160,000 in the property in Lapithos, could now face court action to seize their UK assets if they do not demolish the house and pay compensation as the Cypriot court ordered in 2004.

A UK court previously found in their favour when Mr Apostolides applied for it to enforce the Greek Cypriot verdict, but would now be obliged to follow the ECJ’s judgement, which cannot be appealed.

The decision may complicate ongoing talks to reunify the divided island, where one of the most contentious questions is how to recognise, by restitution or compensation, the rights of Greek and Turkish Cypriots forced to leave their properties at partition.

It could also deal a heavy blow to the northern Cypriot economy, already heavily dependent on trade with Turkey, since property development had been one of the main growth areas after the failure of UN-sponsored reunification talks in 2004.

An estimated 5,000 Britons live in northern Cyprus, and the judgement could pave the way for a wave of lawsuits against the sizeable minority occupying disputed property. Emine Erk, a northern Cypriot lawyer who has followed the case closely, said it could also lead to claims against Turkish Cypriots living in London or elsewhere in the EU.

“It certainly does sour the atmosphere,” she added, expressing disappointment at the ECJ’s “dismissive” attitude to the Cyprus problem or the ongoing negotiations to resolve it. The judgement would be perceived by Turkish Cypriots as a further slight from Europeans, she added.

Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and the northern leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, have been engaged since September in a fresh round of negotiations to end the island’s division, but the Turkish Cypriot side in particular is under pressure to make progress before next year’s presidential elections and before the issue becomes a major stumbling block for Turkey’s EU aspirations.

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