The EU's talks with Cuba this week on normalizing ties set up a potential rivalry with the United States as businesses on both sides of the Atlantic eye the island's post-thaw potential.
The talks were the third round in a nearly year-old series of meetings on normalizing relations, which the European Union suspended in 2003.
But they were the first since the historic US-Cuban rapprochement announced on December 17 after more than five decades of Cold War isolation.
US President Barack Obama's declaration that "it's time for a new approach" toward the communist regime followed in the footsteps of the EU's own rapprochement with Cuba, which the bloc launched in April 2014, aiming to persuade Havana to improve its human rights record.
The EU welcomed the US-Cuban thaw as "historic," but is now faced with a situation where its own talks risk taking a back seat.
That was underlined when Cuba postponed the latest round of EU talks in December, when its secret negotiations with Washington were in full swing.
Some of the 28 EU members reacted to the US rapprochement by demanding that the bloc accelerate its own Cuba talks.
Spain, which counts Cuba as a key trade partner, urged fellow members to "give EU businesses the chance to compete with American companies" on the island.
"It's clear the Europeans see the United States as an ally but also as a competitor in terms of investment and trade with Cuba. It's about political interests, but it's clearly about economic interests too," said Peter Schechter, Latin America director at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank.
Speaking at the talks in Havana, the EU's chief negotiator, Christian Leffler, denied the bloc was in a race with the United States.
"It's not a competition between the United States and the European Union. A more active (American) presence... can contribute to reinforcing the positive atmosphere," he told journalists.
But in a sign of Europe's eagerness to keep pace, French President Francois Hollande announced this week he will visit Cuba on May 11, the first visit ever by a French president and the first by a European or American leader since the US rapprochement.
- EU says 'differences' remain -
The EU appears to have fewer obstacles in its path than the United States, where Obama needs the blessing of the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the crippling trade and financial embargo slapped on Cuba in 1962.
While Washington and Havana have held two rounds of talks on reopening embassies, among other matters, thorny issues remain untouched, such as compensation for American property nationalized after the Cuban Revolution and Cuba's removal from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.
But as the talks wrapped up in Havana late Thursday, Leffler said the EU faced obstacles, too.
He said the EU and Cuba had to overcome "differences of interpretation" on key issues, including Havana's refusal to sign certain human rights treaties and its reluctance to open up "cooperation with all components of Cuban society."
- Mexicans get there first -
The parallel negotiations "complement rather than contradict each other," said Marc Hanson, a Cuba specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
"The important thing is that these conversations with the Europeans show Washington that a serious dialogue with the Cubans is perfectly possible."
In a sign of the international rush to get a foothold in Cuba, the Havana port authority said Friday that it had received hundreds of applications from foreign businesses seeking to invest in projects at the new Mariel mega-port outside the capital, which opened a year ago.
Assistant director Yanet Vazquez said the first two projects had been approved, but declined to name them, according to news magazine Cubacontemporanea.
Other media reports said the first project to get the green light was Mexican meat-packer Richmeat's proposal to build a plant in the port zone.