The European Union and Cuba: The Common Position

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The Obstacles of Collective Governance

In 1996 the European Union (EU) outlined a “common position” on Cuba, which has guided relations between the two political entities ever since. Each June, the EU stages a review deciding to amend its common position or to maintain the same stance. On June 10, 2010, the EU decided to postpone this year’s review until the fall. This action was spurred by the recent negotiations that were undertaken between the Cuban government and the Cuban Catholic Church along with Spain, concerning the recently announced release of political detainees in Cuba. While the Spanish Prime Minister pushes for a new common position on the island country that will allow for a more amplified relationship between the two sides, there are still several large obstacles to making Spain’s conciliatory goal a reality.

The European Union and the Contentious Island

The current EU common position on Cuba was established in 1996 under the influence of the Spanish Prime Minister. The policy establishes a unilateral relationship with Cuba on the basis of human rights and political openness. Unlike United States policy, the EU outlines a procedure that excludes coercive means for encouraging political change in Cuba. The EU aims to open the Cuban economy through increased trade and cooperation. The common position encourages peaceful change in Cuba through increased dialogue between the government and the Cuban people, and also allows EU countries to push for freedom of the press and of association.

Most importantly, the common position on Cuba encourages reform of internal legislation that will guarantee greater respect for human rights, which the EU will continue to evaluate based on the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. EU members are allowed to give humanitarian aid to Cuba, but all such assistance must be funneled through non-governmental organizations, as opposed to Cuban government itself. Unlike the U.S., the EU hopes to encourage reform and change in the country while at the same time minimizing negative side effects that could worsen the living standards of the Cuban population. Like the U.S., the EU policy has been condemned for its interventionism, but it defends itself by insisting that it is merely maintaining internal standards regarding democratic rights.

The EU’s common position also outlines how it will react to any progress on democratic reform in the country. The EU’s reaction to perceived democratic progress can include increased political dialogue, intensification of economic collaboration, and a possible cooperation agreement with Havana similar to EU pacts with other Latin American countries. The EU’s common position on Cuba is the only such normative unilateral relationship that the EU has in the Latin American region.

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the relationship between the EU and Cuba was comparatively close. For example, over half of the tourists traveling to Cuba were from EU countries. Trade between Cuba and Europe increased substantially and cooperation on development issues skyrocketed. By 2001, the EU was Cuba’s largest trade partner, with sixteen member countries having diplomatic missions in Havana. This relatively cordial relationship showed that Cuba could and would trade with developed, democratic entities even though their ideological colors differed.

Souring of Relations between Cuba and the EU

While the relationship between Cuba and the EU seemed promising, the Cuban government still maintained that the European common position was based on an intolerable interference in Cuban internal affairs. Havana further upholds that the common position was used to pressure and discriminate against Cuba. For the EU, Cuba offered relatively small economic returns and held only passing economic interest. Nevertheless, the economic relationship, on the EU side, was a useful opening for encouraging political dialogue and political openness in Cuba.

An important additional factor affecting the importance of EU-Cuba ties was the fact that the economic relationship between Cuba and Venezuela grew exponentially beginning in 2002, allowing the Cuban economy to be far less reliant on the EU as a major trade partner. While the EU was readying a delegation to be dispatched to Havana in 2003, Cuba was gravitating away from traditional democratic principles. In 2002, Cuban hardliners condemned the Chinese for their movement toward capitalism. At the same, time EU investments stalled and development projects were denied. Finally, in 2003 Fidel Castro rounded up seventy-five political dissidents and put them in jail.

Upon the imprisonment of these political dissidents the EU imposed stiff sanctions on Cuba in 2003. High-level visits to Cuba were reduced and Fidel Castro stopped European aid from entering the country. European embassies were encouraged to invite both government officials and political dissidents to cultural events. Shortly, the Cuban government officials declined to attend any events held at the European embassies as long as Cuban dissenters continued to receive invitations. Between 2003 and 2005, Cuba and the EU experienced a time of tension and animosity.

Rocky Road to Relations

In 2005, relations between the EU and Cuba began to warm up again with Madrid’s encouragement. The Cuban government released fourteen political prisoners in 2005, an encouraging sign for anxious EU hopefuls looking to discern any sign of progress. After this, the EU suspended sanctions and gradually repaired the economic ties between the two entities. Between 2005 and 2008, Cuba released another six political prisoners, which was enough to bring about a complete removal of previous EU sanctions. The 2008 change of power from Fidel Castro to Raúl Castro produced optimism in the EU regarding future relaxation of tension.

In 2009, the EU reaffirmed the common position on Cuba, emphasizing the need to increase political dialogue with Havana over human rights abuses and Europe’s call for political openness on the island. Over the past two months, the Cuban government has been negotiating with the Cuban Catholic Church over improvement of conditions and the release of political prisoners. The EU postponed their annual review of the common position back to fall of 2010 in order to evaluate the negotiations currently taking place. The belief is widespread that the review will happen in September, although the EU delegation declined to give a specific date. On July 7, 2010, a Cuban Church official made the bombshell announcement that the Cuban government will release fifty-two political prisoners over the next three to four months, with five being given their freedom almost immediately.

Pushing for Change

The main force behind the changing perspective on Cuba within the European Union is that of Spain. It was a Spanish prime minister who proposed the common position in 1996. The Spanish delegation was also very influential in the suspension of sanctions against Cuba in 2005 and their removal in 2008. The Spanish position now maintains that the Cuban government is its own entity and cannot be pressured into what the West defines as democracy, and that the EU should interact with Cuba just as it does with almost every other nation. The Spanish expended great effort during their revolving tenancy of the EU presidency, in order to bring about significant modification of the common position. Due to the postponement of the review until autumn, the decision will now fall under the purview of the Belgian presidency.

Spain believes that the common position should be changed because there have been no real results from the current EU position on Cuba. In an interview, an official from the Spanish embassy said that there are three options for how the EU can proceed in relations with Cuba. The first is to maintain the status quo and reaffirm the common position the EU currently employs. The second option is to create a new bilateral relationship that combines political dialogue with trade and development, while still encouraging reform on such basic issues as human rights observance. The third option is for the EU to establish a bilateral agreement with Cuba mirroring the agreements that the EU has with other Latin American countries. The EU must first decide whether to change the position, and from there, discuss how to implement the change, according to the Spanish embassy official. Spain will continue to publicly call for a change in the EU common position as foreign minister Miguel Moratinos did on July 8th, after the Cuban Catholic Church announced Cuba’s decision to release 52 political prisoners. The largest obstacle, according to the embassy official, is the perception on the subject of other EU countries.

The European Union Obstacle Course

In an interview with COHA, Paul Hare, a lecturer at Boston University and former British ambassador to Cuba, postulates that the only way the EU can change its common position is if it is prepared to ignore human rights, particularly the freedom of expression. Because the EU requires certain levels of political openness for its members, it must maintain the same guidelines when interacting with foreign governments. Hare sees the release of political prisoners as a one-time event that will sow seeds of doubt in an EU that is already very divided over this issue. The only reason for the EU to change the common position, from his point of view, is if it were to advance its mission of encouraging political and economic liberalization in Cuba.

The Czech Republic, an EU member, and ancient foe of Havana due to Castro’s support of the suppression of the 1960 Prague uprising, believes that the common position can be changed only when there is progress made toward building democracy in Cuba. In an interview with COHA, a Czech Republic official emphasized the popular Czech view that the release of one prisoner is not sufficient evidence of an increase in openness in Cuba or willingness by island authorities to become more democratic. At this time, Prague sees no reason to discuss development of a bilateral relationship with Cuba. If Cuba does in fact follow through and release the fifty-two political prisoners, the Czech Republic will take these actions into account when deliberating the Cuba issue within the EU, according to an embassy official.

The Belgian delegation has an opinion similar to that of the Czech Republic. While the release of fifty-two political prisoners is a promising sign, the Belgians would like to see a further political opening before a change is made in the EU’s common position.

Public opinion within Europe is also divided over reform of the EU’s common position, although most experts would insist that a majority would call for a loosening of restrictions on Havana. Stephen Wilkinson’s editorial in The Guardian states, “the EU should now end its ludicrous ‘common position’” after the release of fifty-two political dissidents. Writing for the Madrid newspaper El País on July 13, 2010, Andres Oppenheimer noted that he believes the EU should applaud Cuba while promising a more forthcoming economic openness in return for ongoing reform of Cuban laws guaranteeing fundamental human rights. The German news source Deutshe Welle published a similar opinion by Guenter Maihold, a Latin American expert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Maihold believes, “it’s simply damage limitation, Cuba doesn’t want to be caught on the wrong foot again,” referring to the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February 2010. He also says, “there are no signs yet that releasing these prisoners means a badly needed economic reform program will get underway.” While the Spanish government believes the evidence is clear, the rest of Europe may be growing weary over the issue and only by continued reforms on Havana’s behalf, will Cuba be likely to attract major concessions from Brussels.

While Spain continues to press for warming up a bilateral relationship between the EU and Cuba, it is likely that the upcoming review will fall short of developing an entirely new position on Cuba. However, the recent promised the release of political prisoners, which is now being implemented, is likely to encourage more investment and development cooperation with the island.