EU-Cuba talks unlikely to conclude before December deadline

Coming out of the cold: Raul Castro (center) with Dilma Roussef (left). [Fotos GOVBA/Flickr]

The European Union and Cuba opened a new round of talks on normalizing ties yesterday (9 September) in Havana, taking on the sensitive subjects of politics and human rights.

Cuban state media said the two sides were expected to “conclude negotiations on cooperation and trade and open discussions on political dialogue” during the two-day talks.

The EU suspended relations with Cuba in 2003 over a crackdown on journalists and activists.

It began talks on restoring them in April 2014, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its rights record.

> Read: EU, Cuba to speed up talks, seek deal by end of 2015

The two sides have moved to accelerate the process since Cuba and the United States announced a historic rapprochement in December and reopened embassies in July.

Brussels and Havana have now set themselves a deadline of 31 December. But a high-ranking European official told AFP last week that the deadline would be hard to meet, despite progress on trade and economic issues.

The thorniest question remains human rights, European officials said after the previous round of talks, in June.

“Our differences aren’t new and we didn’t just discover them in June. We agree on a lot of points, but on other issues we are so far agreeing to disagree,” the EU’s top diplomat in Cuba, Herman Portocarero, told AFP.

He said he hoped to “find the right formulations and vocabulary for a framework deal that will allow for evolving positions.”

Cuba wants the EU to scrap its nearly 20-year “common position”,  which makes restoring European ties with the island contingent on democratic reforms.

The 28-member bloc for its part is pressing Cuba to sign a slate of international human rights treaties.

>> Read: EU-Cuba talks progress on trade

Since 1996, EU policy toward Cuba has been guided by the so-called Common Position, which rules out full relations with Havana until it makes reforms in areas such as more diverse political participation and freedom of expression.

The EU suspended talks with Cuba in 2003 after Havana launched a crackdown and jailed 75 dissidents in a direct response to calls for liberalisation and greater respect for human rights.

It was only in 2008 that the EU started lifting some sanctions unilaterally, the year Fidel Castro retired from the presidency permanently and power passed to his younger brother Raul.

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