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EU to Launch Political Talks with Havana

European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton pauses before speaking during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Feb. 10, 2014.
The European Union has agreed to launch talks with Cuba aimed at forging closer political and economic ties, with human rights central to any discussions. The decision could mark a turning point in EU-Cuban relations.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Monday she hoped Cuba would take up the EU offer to launch negations and the two sides could begin working soon on building a closer relationship.

The announcement was made during an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels. The 28-member block wants to forge a new bilateral agreement with Havana, underscoring the warming relations between the European Union and Cuba in recent years.

In 2008, Brussels lifted economic sanctions it had imposed on Cuba more than a decade ago, following a crackdown there against dissidents. The United States also lifted travel restrictions against Cuba in 2011, and there are other signs relations are thawing.

During a visit to Cuba last month, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans urged the European Union to reconsider its relationship with Cuba, saying the country's economic reforms are encouraging.

On Monday, Timmermans expressed satisfaction with the EU decision to reach out to Havana.

"I am very happy that we now have a different position on Cuba," he said. "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. I mean to have a more inclusive dialogue in Cuba and with Cuba."

EU officials say human rights issues must be central to the talks. The European Union remains a major foreign investor in Cuba and has given the country about $110 million in development aid since 2008. Havana is also a popular destination for EU tourists.

EU officials downplay chances that EU-Cuban relations will change dramatically in the short term. Some member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, remain skeptical about Havana, but officials say the talks are symbolically important.