EU drops human rights condition for Cuba normalisation

Brussels (AFP) - European Union countries cleared the way Tuesday for full normalisation of ties with communist Cuba next week by dropping demands for Havana to first improve its human rights record.

Cuban and EU officials signed a normalisation deal in March as US President Barack Obama brought Havana back in from the cold after nearly 60 years, but it still needed backing by the 28 EU member states.

EU ministers meeting in Brussels agreed on Tuesday to repeal a 1996 policy containing the human rights conditions and to have the normalisation deal signed on December 12.

"We are truly at a turning point in the relations between the EU and Cuba," EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

"Through the new agreement, the EU is ready to support Cuba's process of economic and social modernisation," she added.

In 2003, the EU imposed sanctions on Cuba and suspended cooperation over a crackdown on journalists and activists and it took until 2008 to get talks going again.

Cuba was previously the only Latin American country without an international cooperation deal with the EU.

The normalisation deal will cover trade and investment, economic development, regional cooperation, environment, human rights, disarmament, migration, drugs and counter-terrorism.

Havana had rejected the human rights conditions as interference in its domestic affairs and pressed hard for its removal during the normalisation talks launched in April 2014.

The 1996 policy -- known as the Common Position -- had included the following demand: "The European Union considers that full cooperation with Cuba will depend upon improvements in human rights and political freedom."

But the EU's diplomatic service said the new agreement enshrines a human rights dialogue launched in 2015 that will allow "both sides to exchange views on basic principles of human rights and address concerns."

The pact is due to be signed by Mogherini and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla.

The deal will be submitted to the European Parliament, member state national parliaments and the Cuban National Assembly for ratification.