The Council of Foreign Ministers of the European Union on Monday approved opening negotiations on a political dialogue and cooperation agreement with Cuba to deepen relations, accompany the reforms undertaken by the communist regime and foster greater respect for human rights in that country.

"These negotiations will help consolidate our engagement with Cuba. I hope Cuba will take up this offer," the EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said in a statement.

Negotiations will begin on the new accord while the "common position" - the unilateral and restrictive policy that has governed EU relations with Havana since 1996 - remains in force, and so this step is not a change in direction for the European bloc vis-a-vis the island but rather the creation of a new instrument to deepen relations.

Ashton made clear that the decision is not a political change with respect to the EU's past position, but rather a move to support reform and modernization in Cuba. She added that a coherent EU approach with regard to its concerns over human rights on the island will remain a central feature of the relationship.

The Spanish government, for its part, said Monday's decision does not mean a change in the EU's policy toward the island and it will foster improvements in the quality of life for Cubans and in human rights.

"It will be an agreement that places emphasis on the principles that the EU has followed for years in the relationship with Cuba, which are to promote the improvement of living conditions, the Cubans' quality of life and to place special emphasis on human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms," Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Relations Gonzalo de Benito said.

The EU resumed its political dialogue and cooperation with Cuba in 2008 after lifting - at Spain's suggestion - the diplomatic sanctions on Havana that had been imposed when Havana had imprisoned 75 opposition members. EFE