Cambodian relations with the European Union have not fully improved since the Supreme Court dissolved the opposition CNRP last year, which led to a strained relationship. However, cooperation with the government and civil society organisations for certain projects remains in place. EU Ambassador George Edgar sat down with Khmer Times’ Editor-in-Chief Cheang Sokha to discuss relations, the upcoming election, trade and regional issues.
KT: What projects does the EU have ongoing in Cambodia with the government as well as civil society organisations?
George Edgar: We have a large program of bilateral cooperation with the government. At the moment in the EU’s current seven-year budgetary period, from 2014 to 2020, the total value of that cooperation program is 410 million euros. That mainly covers four areas. First of all, we have been working for more than ten years to support the Ministry of Education in their efforts to reform and improve the system of primary education and lower secondary education in Cambodia. We share the view of the Royal Government that every child has a right to a good quality education, and that a strong education system is essential to underpin sustainable and equitable development. Secondly, we are working in the area of natural resource management and agriculture. In the current budgetary period that specifically means support for the development of aquaculture and fisheries in Cambodia. We see that as very important given that a large number of Cambodian people rely on fisheries both in terms of employment and in terms of nutrition – fish is a key source of protein in Cambodia. Thirdly, we work with the Ministry of Economy and Finance to support the public financial management reform program, which is important to ensure that the government is able to collect sufficient domestic revenue and spend it effectively. Fourthly, we work with the Ministry of the Interior in support of the decentralisation reform. We also support the work of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and we provided support to the National Election Committee in the run-up to last year’s commune and Sangkat council election. Apart from that, we support various projects through a range of other budgets; regional budgets for example at the Asean level, and, thematic budgets for example in our support for civil society. We have a lot of projects with civil society, including with organisations working on human rights, in the area of natural resources, or in areas that complement our bilateral cooperation.
KT: The EU follows the political situation in Cambodia closely, so what is its stance on the current situation?
George Edgar: We follow as closely as we can the development of the political situation in Cambodia. It is no secret that the EU has serious concerns about some recent developments. Those were set out in the Conclusion of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council at the end of February. They relate in particular to the situation of the political opposition and of civil society in Cambodia.
KT: The national election is on July 29. What is your prediction for its outcome without the participation of the former opposition CNRP party?
George Edgar: I am not going to speculate on the outcome of the election.
KT: After the dissolution of the CNRP, the EU issued a statement urging the government to restore it, but it did not happen. Then, the EU decided to suspend funding to the National Election Committee. What is the next step for the EU in this regard?
George Edgar: These issues are covered in the Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions of February 26. I have nothing to add to that.
KT: The US has issued sanctions against the head of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit General Hing Bun Hieng. The EU previously threatened such sanctions and now that the US has taken that step, will the EU follow suit?
George Edgar: The official position of the EU is set out in the Foreign Affair Council of February 26. I do not wish to comment on the decision of US authorities.
KT: Regarding the export of Cambodian products to the EU, will there be changes coming either before or after the election?
George Edgar: Under the Everything But Arms scheme, Cambodian goods have tariff-free and quota-free access to the EU market. The only exception – as the name of the scheme implies – is the theoretical case of arms exports. EBA is provided unilaterally by the EU to Least Developed Countries. We believe it’s important because those countries can develop their economy effectively by building industrial and agricultural production for export. So free access to a major market like the EU contributes to development and to the fight against poverty. For Cambodia, access to the EU market, particularly for garments and footwear, has helped make it possible for the economy to develop quickly and successfully. This is something we are proud of. The EBA system falls under the EU’s GSP (Generalised Scheme of Preferences) regulation and is based on the country concerned abiding by a number of international conventions on labour standards, and human rights. One of the elements of the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that I’ve already mentioned, in response to concerns about the current situation, was a request to the European Commission to enhance its engagement with Cambodia in the context of those elements of the GSP regulations.
KT: Will the EU be deploying observers to Cambodia for the national election?
George Edgar: There is no plan at the moment for the EU to send an election monitoring mission.
KT: The recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, do you see it having any kind of impact on the region?
George Edgar: I am not an expert on Korea, but I think the fact that they had the meeting is very positive. The fact that the meeting produced an agreement in positive terms is a good thing, and if that leads to a decrease in tension in the region, that is very welcome.
KT: Relating to the growing Cambodia-China relationship, what is your take on the Kingdom warming up to China?
George Edgar: It is up to Cambodia how it develops its relationship with different parts of the world. We don’t see our relationship with Cambodia as one in which we are competing with other countries or regions. We would hope that Cambodia can have a productive and friendly relationship with different countries and different groups.