European Union foreign ministers agreed here Monday to explore crafting a bilateral accord with Havana that would permit the 27-nation bloc to go beyond the "common position" that governs its relations with the island.

The ministers, meeting in Brussels, urged top EU diplomat Catherine Ashton to prepare a plan to negotiate a cooperation agreement with Cuba, although for the moment the "common position" from 1996 will be maintained, a stance that conditions progress in relations to advances in democratization and human rights on the island.

"Starting now, what the (European) Commission is going to do is to establish some guidelines ... so that this cooperation accord may be negotiated, representing a step forward in the relationship between the European Union and Cuba," Spain's deputy foreign minister, Gonzalo de Benito, told the press.

According to De Benito, the EU sees "a positive evolution in Cuba," which - accompanied by the process of reviewing the relations that Ashton has headed over the past two years - leads to the conclusion that negotiations can be opened.

In addition, De Benito said that the "common position is being maintained" and that this agreement has a place in that framework.

According to EU sources, in the medium term the new relationship could replace that stance, which was approved in 1996 at the initiative of Spain's conservative government led by Jose Maria Aznar.

In recent years, relations between Havana and Brussels have gone through ups and downs, including a particularly low point in 2003 as a result of the so-called "Black Spring," when Cuba cracked down on internal dissent and jailed 75 opposition figures.

The EU responded by imposing diplomatic sanctions, and Havana in turn responded by rejecting European development aid. EFE