By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba accepted a proposal by the European Union to open negotiations on a new political accord, saying on Thursday it was willing to discuss human rights as part of discussions that would end what it considers a one-sided relationship with Europe.
On February 10, the EU agreed to begin negotiations with Cuba to increase trade, investment and dialogue on human rights in its most significant diplomatic shift since Brussels lifted sanctions on the communist-ruled country in 2008.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Cuba welcomed the proposal as it "signifies the end of the unilateral policy of the EU towards Cuba," adding that Havana was ready to start negotiations.
"On the basis of equality and mutual respect, Cuba is completely willing to discuss any topic, including human rights, about which we have many concerns about what is happening in several European countries," Rodriguez said.
The EU office in Havana said it had received Cuba's response "with great satisfaction" and negotiations would begin soon.
Cuba is eager to eliminate the European Union's "common position" on Cuba, enacted in December 1996, which places human rights and democracy conditions on improved economic relations.
To do so, the two sides will have to reach a new accord that is agreeable to all 28 member states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, which have taken a harder line on Cuba given their own communist pasts.
After more than a year of discussions, EU foreign ministers decided last month to seek better ties with Havana to support the Caribbean island nation's market-oriented reforms and to position European companies for any transition to a more open economy.
EU negotiators aim to complete the so-called Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement by the end of 2015 and say Cuba has signaled a willingness to sign.
While EU investment in Cuba and progress toward multiparty democracy are not expected to change dramatically in the near future, the pursuit of the accord is symbolic, highlighting the bloc's warmer ties with Cuba in contrast with the United States, which has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba since 1962.
Cuba views human rights differently than do most Western governments, saying its universal free health care and education should also be considered human rights and must be safeguarded through its one-party system, which inhibits dissent and free speech.
When the United States attempts to make an issue of human rights with Cuba, the Cubans often respond that the civil rights of minorities in the United States or the rights of prisoners at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should also be part of the discussion.
Likewise, in the context of discussions with the European Union, Rodriguez said Cuba was concerned about the state of human rights there.
Cuba and the European Union share "common ground" on Cuba's social and collective human rights but differ on individual rights, EU Ambassador Herman Portocarero told reporters in Havana last month.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Nelson Acosta; Editing by David Adams and Jonathan Oatis)