new EU foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton is going to contact the Cuban government to explore closer ties with Havana, according to news reports today. The development is interesting because it shows how the new EU foreign policy, made possible by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, may seek in some ways to be a counterweight to American foreign policy. But there are deep divisions within the union about whether it should seek a different policy toward Cuba than the United States.
The EU has in fact had a "common position" on Cuba since 1996, but this policy has been seen by some as a NATO-crafted backing of the American position on Cuba. It says that EU member states will only normalise their links to Cuba if the country makes progress on democracy and human rights. Spain has been the leading voice for increasing ties with Cuba, and over the summer they were keen to highlight to Brussels Cuba's decision to release 52 political prisoners. According to reports, these pleas from Spain have found a sympathetic ear with Ashton.
The Cuba issue touches a nerve on several sensitive issues in the EU. Some of these issues include the closeness (some would say obedience) of Europe to US policy, the firm anti-communist beliefs of Eastern European governments versus the strong socialist traditions in Western Europe, and the wisdom of having a unified EU foreign policy in the first place. This will certainly be a minefield for Ashton to walk through, and it may be a real test of her ability to navigate a compromise path when faced with extreemly divergent opinions from different groups of member states.
trade embargo on Cuba, with no commerce or people allowed to travel between the two countries. But though the EU does not have normal relations with Cuba, trade is conducted between the two. In fact, the EU is Cuba's largest trading partner, accounting for a third of its trade, half of foreign direct investment and more than half of all tourism. Unlike Americans, EU citizens are free to visit Cuba. The EU also provides humanitarian assistance to Cuba. But, the EU imposed economic sanctions on Cuba between 2003 and 2008 and Cuba refused all EU aid during the so-called "cocktail wars" when member states' individual Cuban embassies started inviting Cuban dissidents to cocktail receptions in response to Cuba refusing to release its political prisoners. Though trade is conducted between Cuba and the EU, it is not normalised and is often on an unpredictable case-by-case basis.
Of course this is all in the context of real uncertaintly about Cuba's future. All eyes are on Fidel's brother Raul Castro, who is running the country in Fidel's sickness. Nothing will be certain about the future direction of the country until Fidel dies. There are many voices in Brussels and in Washington who say the best thing to do is to maintain the current policy until the new situation becomes clear. But other voices, notably Spain's, say the EU can do more good by opening relations now, encouraging the Raul regime to make reform.