By Olha Kosova and Sophie Fernández
(EurActiv) — The turnout at the state funeral of Fidel Castro could perhaps symbolise the state of Cuba’s international relations, as European leaders have mostly decided to stay away.
The loyalty of “friendly” countries, like Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, will be fully on show, while the absence of many European leaders could speak volumes about the generally cold ties the Old Continent had with the former Cuban president.
The only EU prime minister that will show up is Greek leader Alexis Tsipras, who said that the Cuban revolutionary had shown that “the path to socialism is not covered with roses”. France has dispatched its environment minister, Ségolène Royal, to Havana, while most other member states have merely entrusted the task to ambassadors.
Despite politicians and diplomats from the Czech Republic and the Baltic nations expressing their condolences to Castro’s family, they too will stay away from the 4 December funeral. Even the rest of the Eastern European countries, which had privileged relations with Cuba when they fell under the Soviet umbrella, have also decided not to send any representation.
Spain’s delegation will be headed by its former monarch, King Juan Carlos I. Ciudadanos insisted that Juan Carlos is too important a figure to represent Spain at the funeral.
Germany will also send a former leader, in the guise of Gerhard Schröder, the ex-chancellor. Italy has made no announcement about who will represent the country and the United Kingdom said it would find “the appropriate representative”.
The EU walked somewhat of a tightrope in its reaction to the death of Castro. European Commission and Parliament presidents, Juncker and Schulz, both used social media to mark the passing of the divisive former leader. High Representative Federica Mogherini was also very diplomatic in her response.
However, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström tweeted that she was suprised by the outpouring of grief for a man she labelled as a “dictator”.
In recent years, the EU-Cuba relationship has begun to take off and Castro’s death could be a deciding factor in their future trajectory.
The EU and Cuba formally established their diplomatic ties in 1988, against a complex political backdrop, as the crumbling of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe caused massive upheaval in international relations.
The “Special Period”, an extended period of economic crisis caused by the fall of the USSR, prompted Cuba to seek an agreement with what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Relations up to that point had been very limited and on a bilateral basis. Each European country had formed their own policy on how to approach the communist island nation.
On 24 February 1996, two ‘Brothers to the Rescue’ aircraft, operated by volunteers dedicated to helping Cuban exiles, were shot down by the airforce in Cuban airspace. This led to the passing of the Helms-Burton Act, which affirmed the United States-imposed embargo on Cuba, indirectly affecting relations with Europe.
The law was controversial in that it stipulated that non-US companies that maintained trade ties with Cuba could be subject to legal reprisals.
One of the EU’s main objectives was to facilitate Cuba’s democratic transition and to integrate the country into the global order. This was mainly driven by former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and the EU’s Common Position on Cuba was in force by the end of 1996.
However, Havana did not welcome the document and called it an insurmountable obstacle to bilateral relations and was even questioned by some of the member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic.
The conditions of the treaty were reviewed regularly. Relations between the two parties remained distant and cold, influenced greatly by the position of the US. Human rights violations committed by the regime also shaped the bloc’s approach to the island.
Havana maintained that the Common Position was only used by the member states to pressure and discriminate against Cuba.
One of the few useful tools available to both parties was economic relations. Although Cuba only offered relatively small economic returns, the EU was always an important partner for the Caribbean state. Currently, it is Cuba’s biggest exporter and only ranks second behind Venezuela in terms of overall importance to trade.
In the last few years, there have been several attempts to improve relations, but not all have been successful. Between 2003 and 2005, Cuba and the EU experienced one of its most tense periods, as Havana cracked down on Cuban dissidents in 2003, on the basis that many journalists and activists were allegedly working for the US.
In response to the violation of human rights, the EU reduced its participation in many diplomatic events organised by Cuba, invited dissidents to attend formal gatherings and imposed temporary sanctions on Castro’s regime.
In 2005, a Madrid-driven dialogue was renewed between Brussels and Havana. The government agreed to release 14 prisoners and the EU gradually withdrew its sanctions in an effort to repair economic cooperation.
Between 2005 and 2008, Cuba liberated another six political activists, which the EU saw as an important enough step to eliminate sanctions completely. The transition of power between Fidel and his brother, Raúl, also fostered more optimism that relations would improve even more.
Since 2008, high-level political dialogues, initiated by the EU’s rotating presidencies, have been maintained. Now, the Common Position, which is almost two decades old, will cease to be.
The path to normalised relations was first trod in March of this year, and in September, the European Commission submitted a proposal to the Council about signing a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA) with Cuba.
At the same time, foreign policy chief Mogherini asked the Council to formally repeal the Common Position.
The objectives of the PDCA are to promote an exchange of views and information, as well as increase mutual understanding.
In terms of individual member states, Spain has undoubtedly been the most influential player in driving the EU’s foreign policy.
In 2005 and 2008, the Spanish delegation, lead by socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, called for the suspension of diplomatic sanctions against Cuba and Spain has insisted over the last few years on the need to encourage the island nation to engage in international dialogue.
In 2015, commercial trade between Cuba and Spain totalled €1 billion, putting Spain only behind China and Venezuela in terms of commerce.
Once the Common Position has expired, Spain will have to try and continue to act as a bridge between Havana and Brussels, without losing its influence in Washington. After the victory of Donald Trump earlier this month, foreign policy and international relations may require a further rethink.