Investing in the future of Cambodia-EU relations

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In the coming two decades both the EU and Cambodia should base their relationship on an equal partnership, with a focus on robust trade and investment and stronger people-to-people ties with common respect for democracy and human rights, taking into account the nuances of each country, writes Chan Kunthiny.

Cambodia and EU relations are currently being clouded by the issues of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preference scheme. The fact that EBA withdrawal would affect the livelihood of 800,000 garment workers, mostly women, remains unchanged but it would surely not go to the point that it will derail the whole sector or economy.

In fact, even without the EBA threat, Cambodia is currently struggling to maintain its competitiveness owing to the ever increasing minimum wage and generous social security schemes. Also, the garment and textile industry is not supposed to be an industry that stays forever. The country needs to climb up in its industrialization phase and move away from dependence on the garment sector, which is often marred by labour exploitation that even in Europe itself they were once known as “dark factories” – a throwback to the Dickensian era in Britain.

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From the Cambodian side, the accusation that the EU might be involved in fomenting a Colour Revolution, with the withdrawal of the EBA, is based on paranoia. From the EU side, the use of EBA to exert pressure on issues related to the sovereign decision of Cambodia is nothing short of neo-colonialism, hypocrisy and double-standard.

As Cambodia is determined to move ahead even without EBA, the EU seems to be losing negotiating power and will no longer be a dialogue partner in the discussion of Cambodia’s democracy and human rights.

To look at it from a positive light, the current EBA dialogue should be treated as means to promote equal partnership between Cambodia and the EU.

Cambodia should start to negotiate equally in terms of trade with the EU and it is high time for the Cambodian and European business community in Cambodia, as well as government officials, to get their act together to enhance Cambodia’s competitiveness in the region.

Cambodia should seize this opportunity to move boldly towards internal structural reforms. The elimination of CAMCONTROL from border check points, the price reduction of container clearance are cases in point, which are almost like “missions impossible” if there was no threat of EBA withdrawal. More drastic reforms are needed to ensure that Cambodia will not be eliminated from regional economic and trade competition.

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For the EU’s part, it should know clearly by now what the red line is in terms of Cambodia’s sovereignty and independence.

It is true that Cambodia’s democracy and human rights are far from being perfect, but both Cambodia and the EU should not be too naïve by forgetting the past lessons of disengagement in the 1980s and ignoring the collective fundamental human rights of 16 million people.

Indeed, Cambodia-EU relations are not totally about EBA. So what then does the future hold for Cambodia-EU relations?

Despite the EU’s withdrawal on funding to support governance projects in Cambodia, the EU has made it clear that it will continue to support Cambodia in other areas of socio-economic development and also help the country cope with climate change. The promotion of business and investment still has room to grow.

Cultural ties, education and people-to-people exchange can be mutually beneficial in terms of investment in the future generation of Cambodians and Europeans that can help bridge Cambodia–EU ties.

The past 20 years of the EU’s assistance did provide many tangible benefits for the 16 million Cambodian people and no one can deny this fact. Cambodia shall be grateful for the assistance. However, to ensure equal partnership, Cambodia should start considering to phase out its dependence on the EU’s development assistance in the next 10 or 20 years.

Cambodia should stop receiving scholarships for its students in the field of human rights and the EU, including other Western nations, should be more open-minded in providing scholarships in the field of business management, engineering or technical expertise that can promote self-reliance and entrepreneurship. It is a hazard for Cambodian recipients of EU human rights scholarships because they would be hamstrung to just rely on EU funding for their projects, which in turn is reliant on “exposing” violations in the host country and writing scathing reports against the government. Frankly, the EU should avoid being trapped in the “political human rights porn.”

Politically speaking, both Cambodia and the EU should start to work on their trust deficit.

The EU should not obstinately confine themselves in a radical utopia and demand perfection from Cambodia by ignoring the collective interest of 16 million Cambodian people.

Both sides should also enhance cooperation to strengthen multilateralism and curb protectionism. Protectionism has no ground in a multilateral rules-based world order. The EU should know that Cambodia is not an isolated nation anymore and that the latter’s role and voice is being respected in various regional frameworks such as Asean and ASEM among others. Communications should be both ways. The EU needs to respect Cambodia’s voice as an equal partner.

On the other hand, Cambodian politicians should not stay in their comfort zone by laying blame on the EU for trying to hatch a Colour Revolution in the country. Both sides should make a conscientious effort to reach out to each other. Cambodia should start to build trust and personal rapport with European politicians that are moderates – not to ask them for favours, but rather to keep them informed so that they understand the nuance of Cambodia’s democracy and the prevailing human rights in the country.

Let’s be proactive about this and not wait for the EU to reach out to Cambodia, first. Both sides need to bolster exchanges so that ties with future leaderships are on the right footing and any misunderstandings and trust deficit can be mitigated in the best possible way. In the coming two decades both the EU and Cambodia should base their relationship on an equal partnership, with a focus on robust trade and investment and stronger people-to-people ties with common respect for democracy and human rights, based on the nuances of each country.

From now on, both sides should interact between each other not in the context of EBA. Rather, they should shift to the new paradigm by focusing on how to build future relations of equal partnership in the next 20 years.

Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.

 

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