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Could Sweden put the EU's landmark Cuba agreement on ice?

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Could Sweden put the EU's landmark Cuba agreement on ice?
A child holding a Cuban flag in Havana. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP
06:59 CET+01:00
Could Sweden put the brakes on the EU's landmark agreement with Cuba by failing to ratify the deal? A leading Swedish human rights charity thinks so, pointing to two of the country's parliamentary parties announcing that they would vote against the accord in the Riksdag.

Civil Rights Defenders has been against the EU deal with the island state since negotiations started in 2014, arguing the Cuban regime has not made any significant steps towards democratic reforms or guaranteeing human rights. The NGO praised the recent position taken by the Liberals and Christian Democrats (KD), who at present would vote against ratifying the agreement if it was taken to the Riksdag floor.

In the most recent Riksdag Question Time session with the Swedish government, both the Liberals and KD told Foreign Minister Margot Wallström that they would not back the agreement until there are significant changes in the Cuban regime's stance on human rights.

The Swedish government's opinion is that further isolation will not encourage Cuba to improve in the area, and that a common EU position is the best way to achieve that. But Civil Rights Defenders disagrees, its Latin America Programme Director Erik Jennische told The Local.

"It's not the outside world that isolates Cuba, it's the Cuban regime that does that. The Cuban government has for a long time forbidden Cubans from reading the books they want to read, travelling where they want to travel, taking in guests from where they want, organizing themselves as they wish and saying what they want," he said.

"The hardships of the Cuban people are not the responsibility of the EU but the Cuban government. If it cared about the people it would let them start the companies they want to start, employ people, import and export, start wholesalers, cultivate their land, let Cubans in exile invest in the island, set the prices they want and so on. But it's clear that the Cuban government isn't interested in improving the situation for its citizens," Jennische added.

Putting the EU's major international agreements in practice is a long and drawn-out process, and the EU-Cuba agreement is unlikely to be an exception. While provisional application of the deal began in November 2017 following European Parliament approval in July that year, it requires ratification from all 28 of the EU's member states before it can be fully implemented.

Cuba is the only country in Latin America that the EU does not already have some kind of legal agreement with, and the new deal comprised of three sections (one on political dialogue, one on cooperation and sector policy dialogue, and one on trade and trade cooperation) is seen as a European response to Donald Trump's isolationist approach to the island.

According to an EU politics expert The Local spoke to, the ratification process tends to be "torturous" and takes years – not least because individual member states can use the threat of non-ratification as a negotiating tool.

"Nations threaten to or actually fail to ratify these agreements a lot more than people think. What usually happens is the member state uses the unlikelihood of ratification as a negotiating tool in the Council of Ministers. For example, Belgium's Walloon Assembly holding up the agreement of CETA with Canada," Ian Manners, a Sweden-based political scientist for the University of Copenhagen explained.

So is there a genuine risk of Sweden failing to ratify the Cuba agreement? There is always some potential for that to happen if a decision is put to a parliamentary vote by a minority government, and as Swedish law experts consulted by The Local noted, international agreements of significant weight do require the approval of the Riksdag – a description the EU-Cuba deal fits.

"In such cases the government has to ask the Riksdag for approval, with a simple majority required. If only the Christian Democrats and Liberals vote against it – and presumably the Sweden Democrats – either the Centre Party or the Moderates (or both) voting for it would be decisive," Uppsala University European law professor Carl Fredrik Bergström noted.

So just how would the parties vote? The Social Democrat-Green government already has the backing of allies the Left Party, with its press secretary telling The Local that it thinks cooperation with Cuba is important.

But they would still need votes from elsewhere for a majority. The two potentially decisive parties flagged up by Bergström – the Centre Party and the Moderates – both told The Local they have yet to take an official position on the matter.

A number of experts The Local spoke to argued that it is unlikely either of those two parties would go against the accord however. European Law expert Bergström said he finds it "hard to imagine either would sink a prestigious EU agreement that has been negotiated over several years".

And Södertörn University political scientist Nicholas Aylott, who specializes in comparative European politics, also thinks the deal would still pass a vote. He believes that both the Liberals and KD are aware when taking their stance that they are unlikely to be decisive on the matter.

"I'm pretty confident that the leaders of the Liberals and Christian Democrats are being oppositional safe in the knowledge that they won't manage to block it. They are presumably signalling to potential voters and, just as importantly, opinion within the respective parties," he concluded.

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