On the sidelines of the on-going Asean-EU Ministerial Meeting in Brussels, Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn met with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström to discuss the future of Cambodia’s access to the Everything-but-arms preferential trade agreement.
The EU last year notified the government that it was considering withdrawing the EBA scheme due to perceived democratic setbacks.
“Without clear and evident improvements on the ground, this will lead to the suspending of the trade preferences that they currently enjoy,” Ms Malmström said in October.
Daniel Rosario, an EU spokesman on the issues of agriculture and rural development, yesterday said “we have nothing to add at this stage”, telling the media to refer to a Tweet by Ms Malmström, confirming that a meeting regarding the future of EBA was discussed with Mr Sokhonn.
“Met with FM of Cambodia today,” Ms Malmström said in her Tweet. “We discussed the EBA agreement and the possibility of a withdrawal of tariff preferences.”
“[I] reiterated our concerns on democracy, human rights and rule of law,” she added. “The EU continues to keep the path of dialogue open.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Ket Sophann could not be reached for comment yesterday, but he has said in the past that Mr Sokhonn will explain to Ms Malmström the status of democracy in Cambodia.
“She’s going to be informed by the minister about the measures our government has taken – and will take – to ensure political space, press freedom and labour rights,” Mr Sophann said. “Previously, we addressed some concerns raised by the EU and His Excellency Mr Sokhonn will do further explaining.”
In a bid to improve its standing with the European bloc and the United States, the government has amended the Law on Political Parties to allow banned politicians to return to politics, attempted to improve NGO relations by ensuring dialogue and told shuttered media outlets, such as the Cambodia Daily and Radio Free Asia, that they are free to resume operations.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special advisor for international affairs at Thailand’s Naresuan University, yesterday said the European bloc is likely to relax its stance, so long as it believes Cambodia is making “solid changes”.
“The EU will be looking for some solid changes for Cambodia’s government to make with regard to improving democracy, including more institutionalised elections, more political rights, greater rule of law and more balanced checks-and-balances,” Mr Chambers said yesterday via e-mail. “If the Cambodian government successfully convinces the EU that it has advanced in these areas, then the EU will likely relax its sanctions on Cambodia.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said Cambodia will not sell its sovereignty.
“Our government values independence and sovereignty as priorities,” Mr Siphan said. “Like His Excellency Minister Prak Sokhonn says: ‘we cannot sell our sovereignty in return for something.’”
During the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Thailand last week, Mr Sokhonn raised concerns of the use of the “double standards approach” when dealing with the Kingdom.
“He also firmly emphasised that Cambodia will not trade its sovereignty for assistance,” a ministry statement said. “In the past, Cambodia went through hard times.”
Mr Siphan yesterday said the government will continue to implement the law.
“What we are doing now is strengthening the rule of law and democracy,” he said. “We only think of our national interest first.”