BRUSSELS The European Union and Cuba signed a political accord on Monday that the EU hopes will position its companies for Cuba's transition to a more open economy and allow it to press for political freedoms on the island.
In the biggest diplomatic breakthrough since the EU lifted sanctions on the communist-ruled island in 2008, the so-called political dialogue and cooperation agreement is the first accord between Cuba and the 28-nation bloc.
Although modest in scope, it follows more two decades of EU diplomacy to set out a framework for stronger ties and comes two weeks after the death of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, whose imprisonment of dissidents long hampered better relations.
"We are starting to write a new chapter together," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said at signing ceremony with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla in Brussels, along with EU foreign ministers and ambassadors.
Offering condolences for Castro's death, Mogherini said the European Union was moving closer to Cuba as it underwent "profound change". EU officials say the deal gives European diplomats and officials the right to raise human rights issues directly with Cuba and to gently press for reforms.
She said the bloc also repealed its "common position" policy on Cuba dating from 1996 that set human rights and democracy as conditions on improved economic relations and which Cuba saw as interference in its internal affairs.
Rodriguez said the agreement would develop commercial, cultural, financial and scientific links across the Atlantic, saying the accord the proof both sides could "rise above our differences" and return to "mutual respect".
Normalization of relations has been tortuous partly because of resistance from the EU's eastern members due to their own communist past, while Havana's arrest of dissidents in 2003 led the bloc to impose diplomatic sanctions, limiting contacts.
The EU's strategy has been less trumpeted that Barack Obama's push for better ties with Havana, which culminated in his historic visit this year, the first by a U.S. president to Cuba in 88 years.
But EU officials say that given the United States economic embargo on Cuba since 1962 remains in place, Europe's new accord may do far more to end the island's isolation, with the EU already the top foreign investor in Cuba.
Rodriguez and Mogherini, at a joint news conference, dismissed any risk to the agreement following the U.S. election victory of Donald Trump, who has threatened to reverse Obama's easing of travel and other restrictions on Cuba.
"EU-Cuba relations do not go via Washington," Rodriguez said.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan)