The EU's position on Cuba will be discussed at the upcoming Foreign Affairs Council, and the debate is likely to be heated. But beyond the arguments the EU can learn lessons from its relations with Cuba: strong-arm tactics don't work, realism is important, and the EU's approach is out of date.

EU-Cuba relations under the Spanish Presidency must really have hammered home to Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos the truth in the old adage ‘look before you leap'. His announcement in January that he wanted to move relations with Cuba up a gear has repeatedly come back to haunt him, and as the Presidency draws to a close, he doesn't look any closer to making this a reality.

Events haven't helped him. The EU's strong reaction to the untimely death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo in February has thrown any possibility of meaningful reflection on the priorities of the relationship off course. The Cubans, who are very nervous about what Zapata's death has done to their international standing, and have battened down the hatches in response, have not been willing to hold the next round of political dialogue - which has been taken place each year since 2008 - with a Spanish co-chair in the first half of 2010. 

Moratinos' public announcement on the need to change the finely balanced EU position has also angered his foreign minister colleagues in capitals around Europe, exposing, to Cuba's advantage, the fact that the 1996 EU position isn't really as common as it claims to be. The debate on the issue at next week's Foreign Affairs Council is expected to be heated, as many member states feel their strongly held views are being dismissed by the Presidency. Spain will now be lucky if it comes away with Council conclusions which satisfy all 27 member states but don't induce Cuba to call off political dialogue altogether.   And all this fallout on the international stage has inevitably brought Moratinos under heavy fire from his political opponents in Spain.

What lessons can we draw from this slightly messy state of affairs? Firstly, and somewhat obviously, it shows that strong arm tactics don't work in foreign policy decision making: one player in Council - even one with stronger economic ties with the country in question -  cannot lead EU policy towards a third country if they do not have the support of a quorum of member states in doing so. This message will have a lot of resonance with Baroness Ashton, and seems to be one that she buys, from her approach to her role so far.

But the debacle also shows the need more generally for the EU to inject a bit more realism into its approach to Cuba. If its priority really is improvement in respect for human rights on the island it needs to ask itself exactly what leverage it has on this. Even if Cuba will come to the table with the EU to a dialogue on human rights, there is no tangible progress as a result of this. If the Cuban government doesn't want to move on prisoner release; prison conditions, or freedom of expression, the EU cannot make it do so.  For very good reasons, the EU has declined to use increased tourism and trade flows with the island as bargaining chips in its relationship with Cuba. Now the task in front of the EU is to identify, quite simply, how it can encourage Raul Castro's government to care what it thinks.

The EU has to accept that it needs others' help to impact on human rights protection in many of the third countries with which it works, and this is especially the case in Cuba. Ironically, given the Cuban government's staunch atheism, it is in fact the informal dialogue between the Cuban government and leaders of the Catholic church on the island on the welfare of a number of political prisoners in Cuba that currently looks more likely to bear fruit than the EU Cuba dialogue. There are also other, more natural, partners for the EU that the Cuban government appears to listen to. President Lula has significantly developed trade relations between Cuba and Brazil - perhaps the EU could be more effective by encouraging Lula to play a more responsible role in the global arena on human rights, rather than only engaging directly with the Cuban government on this? Mexico is another potential influential partner that has recently stepped up their co-operation with the Caribbean island.

Sometimes being more effective in achieving an objective means focussing on what you do well, rather than continuing to plug away at things that maybe others could do better than you. Beneath all the high level fuss, a quite significant working level success in EU-Cuba co-operation went relatively unnoticed last month. The first ever Country Strategy Programme (CSP), setting out development co-operation with Cuba, which funds programmes supporting food security, tackling the effects of climate change on the island, and expertise exchanges, training and funding, was signed off between the EU and Cuba. These programmes have important potential, if a rights based approach is used, to positively impact on some areas of human rights in Cuba. A recent hearing in the European Parliament linking bloggers from Cuba with MEPs, highlighted that one of the major challenges to greater freedom of expression on the island is the basic question of accessibility to the internet. Perhaps the EU could do more in terms of provision of IT equipment, as part of the expertise exchange objective of the CSP, that would help to establish a greater network that would be harder to repress. 

The EU certainly shouldn't stop trying to promote human rights in its relationship with Cuba, but it should perhaps think differently. While Ministers have been busy with their public row over whether to update the common position on Cuba, they have failed to notice that it is not only the document that is out of date: it is also their approach.  


You can listen to a podcast with Susi Dennison and Jose Ignacio Torreblanca discussing the EU's approach to human rights in Cuba by clicking here

Read more on: Human Rights

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.