The United States isn’t the only country in negotiations with Cuba. The European Union also has opened a dialogue and hopes to forge a political and cooperation agreement with the island by the end of the year.
Christian Leffler, chief European negotiator at the EU-Cuba talks, has a bit of advice for his American counterparts as they work to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba and work toward normalization: “Have a clear vision, steady nerves and tons of patience.”
“We have no illusions there will be a sudden radical transformation of Cuban society and government structures,” Leffler said in a conference call from Brussels on Wednesday that was facilitated by the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
Leffler was joined on the call by Arnaldo Abruzzini, secretary general of Eurochambres, one of the most influential associations of chambers of commerce in Europe.
Last April, the EU opened negotiations with Cuba with the goal of setting up a framework for engagement, which it hopes will support ongoing reforms and development on the island. Among the EU’s goals are promoting governance reform, respect for human rights, encouraging economic reform and supporting development and modernization.
EU members have chosen engagement as the best way to realize such objectives and to widen the space for public debate and dialogue in Cuba, said Leffler, the EU’s Americas director.
While the EU can share experiences and encourage Cuba to undertake steps it thinks might be helpful, he said, “We can’t tell them what to do.”
Rather than negotiating change with Cuba, Abruzzini said the EU is negotiating a framework in support of change.
In December, the United States unveiled a new policy of engagement with Cuba that included support for the Cuban people through more commercial ties with private entrepreneurs and expanded travel to the island by Americans.
Federica Mogherini, EU high representative for foreign affairs, likened the policy breakthrough to another Wall falling and said the new U.S.-Cuba relationship represented “a victory of dialogue over confrontation.”
“The U.S. policy is now much more similar to what we have been pursuing,” said Leffler. “We’re in a stronger position to work together to achieve these objectives.”
During congressional testimony last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said the new policy had increased the number of countries willing to work with the United States in promoting change and respect for human rights in Cuba.
“We were alone,” she said. “We’re more effective with allies.”
Abruzzini said EU members see market potential in Cuba since two-thirds of EU members have populations that are similar to or less than Cuba’s.
Still, he said, Cuba represents less than .1 percent of EU foreign trade and European companies are reluctant to put forth significant resources in opening the Cuban market. But he said Cuba is still important in terms of a normalization process that can benefit its citizens.
Last year, Cuba updated its foreign investment law and announced 246 projects worth $8.7 billion that are open to foreign investors. The government hopes to attract as much as $2.5 billion annually in foreign investment but its plans have gotten off to a slow start.
Abruzzini said there needs to be a clear legal framework for potential investors. He said the new investment law doesn’t go as far as potential European investors would have liked. “We hope there will be some adjustments in the future,” he said.
The Cuban government also emphasizes that investors in the special economic zone in Mariel would get fast-track treatment for approvals. But Abruzzini said, “We need much more than that” for companies to invest.
If the pace of economic reforms in Cuba accelerates, he said, “businesses will be more motivated to go in and invest.”