It came as no surprise to many government officials when the European Union launched its six month-long period of intensive monitoring and engagement period, as part of its review of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade scheme.
In order to summarise what has been going on in the country over the last few months regarding the EBA, Khmer Times speaks to government officials to see how far the government is willing to comply with the European Union demands in order for the Kingdom to be able to keep its preferential trade status with the bloc.
The preferential trade status, which can be credited with helping the Kingdom’s economy grow, is currently under the European Commission’s scrutiny due to perceived setbacks on human rights and democracy, including the dissolution of the CNRP, crackdowns on press freedom and civil society.
In September, the European Parliament passed a 13-point resolution on what the government needs to do to keep its preferential trade status, which includes for the treason charges against former CNRP leader Kem Sokha to be dropped and for his immediate and full release.
It also called on the government to work towards strengthening democracy and the rule of law and to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The move was highly condemned by senior government officials, including Cambodian ambassador to the UN Ney Sam Ol who says the move was disappointing.
Mr Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged over alleged collusion with the United States to overthrow the government. His party, the CNRP, was soon dissolved by the Supreme Court and 118 of its senior officials were banned from politics for five years.
Mr Sokha is now on bail with limited freedom after Phnom Penh Municipal Court restricted his movements to a four-block radius around his home in the capital and banned him from meeting former CNRP officials.
Without a major opposition party, the CPP won a landslide victory in last year’s National Election and swept all 125 National Assembly seats up for grabs.
Senior CPP officials lauded the results of the election and pointed to the 83.02 percent voter turnout.
However, the EU and the United States have said the election was “neither free nor fair” and that it had failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.
In October, the EU notified the government that it was considering withdrawing the EBA scheme from the Kingdom, unless the government is willing to comply with EU standards on human rights and democracy.
“Without clear and evident improvements on the ground, this will lead to the suspending of the trade preferences that they currently enjoy,” EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström says.
In response, government officials then rallied to make political, media and civil society spaces more open.
However, earlier this month the EU decided to launch an 18-month review process that could see Cambodia’s EBA trade status suspended.
Under the scheme, Cambodia enjoys unrestricted access to the European market, raking in money needed to improve the livelihoods of everyday Cambodians.
“It should be clear that today’s move is neither a final decision nor the end of the process,” Ms Malmström says in an October statement.
Can Cambodia survive without the EBA, or the aid from some western countries? CPP spokesman Suos Yara says yes.
“First, Cambodia has constantly developed, with its graduation from the least developed countries status in 2015,” he says. “It is just a matter of time before the Kingdom is no longer entitled to preferential trade agreements, including the EBA.”
“Second, the EU’s use of the EBA as a geopolitical tool to force Cambodia to conform to its interests can be a momentum for Cambodia’s economic reforms and foreign market diversification, which are imperative for the Kingdom to achieve its development visions of becoming an upper-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income economy by 2050,” he adds.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said “we do not bow our heads in exchange for trade with foreigners. With or without the EBA, we will not die”.
It is a rhetoric that is echoed by many government officials over the past few months.
During his trip to an Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Thailand last month, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn raised concerns of the use of “the double standards approach” when dealing with the Kingdom.
“[Mr Sokhonn] emphasised that Cambodia will not trade its sovereignty for assistance,” a Foreign Affairs Ministry statement said of the meeting.
Mr Yara says the EU’s decision to launch its review process that could see the EBA suspended is “unjust and immoral”.
“First, the EU has turned a blind eye to commitments made by the government to fully implement 15 UN and International Labour Organisation conventions, which are preconditions for the granting of EBA, including expansion of political and civil society spaces, the promotion of labour rights and efforts to address land issues,” he says. “Obviously, the EU pretends not to notice substantial progress that the government has made over the last eight months to meet the EU’s demands.”
Mr Yara says that many countries that receive EU preferential trades statuses have not fully complied with EU standards.
“The EU’s decision is immoral because the regional bloc has chosen to listen to a handful of Cambodian politicians and in the meantime denied the overwhelming majority of the Cambodian population who went to polling stations to express their political choices during [last year’s] election,” Mr Yara says.
Mr Yara, who is also a CPP lawmaker, says Cambodia must be strong in order to defend its sovereignty in the face of international pressure.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia and the CPP are determined to safeguard peace, stability and sovereignty at all costs,” he says. “We are committed to doing our utmost efforts to help Cambodians who might be affected by the EU’s politically biased and immoral decision.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan says “Cambodia made reforms to become a member of the World Trade Organisation”.
“The EU measure is not reflective of its own agreements,” Mr Siphan says. “EBA is not Cambodia’s constitution. The rule of law is a critical obligation and a safeguard.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International, on Monday said he does not see what the EU is doing as interference.
“I do not see it as interference on Cambodia’s sovereignty. I see it as an enforcement of the arrangement between the EU and Cambodia, which both parties have signed,” Mr Kol says in an email. “When an agreement is signed by both parties, it is normal for one party to review the compliance of such agreement and this should not be seen as interference. “
Both parties have equal chances to make their cases and provide evidence to support their conclusions. The EU also has their eyes and ears and fact-finding is a part of the process.”
“The majority of Cambodians are ready to uphold and participate in democracy – and they have good knowledge of what real democracy should look like,” Mr Kol says.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, says the Kingdom should never give up its sovereignty.
“I see that the government is committed to protecting the Kingdom’s sovereignty,” Mr Phea says.
“However, I see that the government always considers its economic interests and diplomatic policies,” he adds. “We can’t give up sovereignty nor economic interest.”