EU to open trade talks with Cuba
By Benjamin Fox
EU foreign ministers on Monday (10 February) agreed to open talks on a trade and political relationship with Cuba, raising the prospect of a new era in relations between Brussels and Havana.
The talks on a so-called "Bilateral Political Dialogue and Co-operation Agreement", which could start as early as next month, are expected to focus on increasing trade and investment, as well as human rights on the Caribbean island.
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"These negotiations will help consolidate our engagement with Cuba," EU foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton said in a statement.
However, she warned that human rights remained "at the core" of any future EU-Cuban relationship.
"I hope Cuba will do what is necessary on its side, especially on ... human rights," she said, adding that "the pace of our negotiations will reflect this."
Negotiators aim to agree a deal by the end of 2015, but the mere prospect of dialogue signals what could be a major change in the future relationship between the EU and Cuba.
Since 1996, the EU has restricted its ties with Cuba to encourage multi-party democracy and progress on human rights.
The EU froze its diplomatic relations with Havana in 2003 after Cuban authorities threw 75 dissidents in jail. Limited contacts resumed five years later in 2008 following the release of the prisoners, but a number of former Communist EU states, including the Czech Republic and Poland, remained sceptical at any prospect of deepening political and economic ties.
But despite limited access, the bloc is Cuba's second-biggest trading partner after Venezuela, accounting for 20 percent of total Cuban trade, while more than half of EU member states already have bilateral trade agreements with Cuba.
Europeans also make up one third of the thousands of foreign tourists who visit the island each year.
Since 2008, Cuba has also received over €80 million in development aid and emergency support in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
For his part, Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, who last month urged the EU to reconsider its relationship with Cuba during a ministerial visit there, expressed his satisfaction with the result.
"I am very happy that we now have a different position on Cuba," he told reporters.
"That does not mean we have a different judgement on the situation in Cuba, but we have a different approach to engage Cuba in a dialogue, to try and bring about political change, to stimulate economic reform and political change."