Legacy of the EU Ambassador

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EU delegation
EU Ambassador George Edgar and Paola Pampaloni attend a meeting during their visit to the Kingdom in March. KT/Chor Sokunthea

In evaluating an ambassador’s capacity, one would question the frequency, quality and level of communications that the ambassador has with the host government. At both good and bad times, the ambassador always acts as a bridge for relations and communication, and if he/she does not have any communication, then one would question his or her role.

The term of the EU Ambassador to Cambodia, George Edgar, has just ended. He has enjoyed good communication with the Cambodian government. Unfortunately, he has not utilised such opportunity to uplift the relations between Cambodia and EU.

His mission to Cambodia has been influenced by the “White Men’s Burden”, which has created a certain degree of distrust between Cambodia and the EU, culminating in the worst legacy of all, which is the official launch of procedures to withdraw the trade preferential treatment called Everything But Arms (EBA) from Cambodia.

Compared to the US, which has worse bilateral relations with Cambodia, Ambassador William Heidt in fact did not undermine trade relations. He was the ambassador who brought about the expansion of trade preferences under the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) for travel goods.

The GSP expansion gives Cambodia access to the $10 billion U.S. import market in travel goods. Such expansion has created thousands of jobs for Cambodians, diversified Cambodia’s economic base, spurred economic growth, and alleviated poverty.

Even the US ambassador can pull some commercial relations despite political differences. On the contrary, this courteous and polite European Ambassador is killing both political and commercial relations altogether with Cambodia. Ambassador George Edgar has missed the opportunity to maintain vibrant bilateral commercial relations.

EBA is a unilateral provision of trade preferences, but it does not mean that Cambodia is winning unilaterally. It is mutually beneficial. The EU also gains as its people can enjoy cheaper products and consumer goods from Cambodia. The EU also gains international recognition in terms of its commitment towards the Goal 17.12 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which provides the importance to “Realise timely implementation of duty-free and quota-free market access on a lasting basis for all least developed countries, consistent with World Trade Organization decisions, including by ensuring that preferential rules of origin applicable to imports from least developed countries are transparent and simple, and contribute to facilitating market access.”

Talking about democracy, if one follows the Bangkok Post, one can grasp easily articles related to the irregularities of election, but no one complained anything about election in Thailand. The EU and other countries critical of Cambodia did not say anything when Thailand dissolved Pheu Thai Party and Thai Raksa Chart Party. Thai Raksa Chart Party was dissolved simply because they involved the name of a Royal family, which is not even as serious as the case of Cambodian politicians that colluded with foreign governments.

Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who wears a scary face against Cambodia, showed a wide  smile  with grace and audacity when  she set her foot in  Vietnam to sign the free trade agreement. How could one be convinced when this same person said she does everything to save the principle of human rights and democracy? What kind of human rights that she is promoting? Are there any rights that are so important that the livelihood of 800,000 Cambodian workers and the other two million depending on those workers are sacrificed?

It is totally unfair for Cambodia if the EU decides to revoke EBA. Such practice of double standards will harm the international image and role of the EU.

Since the EU notified Cambodia about the Enhanced Engagement on EBA in May 2018, the EU has never issued any statement in recognition of Cambodia’s progresses despite some acknowledgements made by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia. Not even once. The EU does not give any clear benchmark as to when the procedure can be stopped, leaving space for manipulation and interference intro Cambodia’s domestic affairs.

Some local analysts have argued that the EU wants to punish Cambodia for being the symbol of China’s vassal state. If it is so, Ambassador Edgar is probably the symbol of EU’s failure to listen to and respect  Cambodia’s sovereign rights to choose its partners. Cambodia  is not the EU’s enemy and the EU has no right to dictate whom Cambodia should be partners with based on its own national interest and sovereign decision.

One official of the European Commission said that the EBA issue of Cambodia is part of his daily routine. However, for the Cambodian officials in charge, they cannot sleep well at night because they are concerned that tens of thousands of workers could abruptly lose their jobs and decide to migrate to neighbouring countries.

Ambassador Edgar and the Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström will not  be remembered positively in  Cambodia’s history as they have failed to secure bilateral relations between Cambodia and the EU and the fear falling upon Cambodian workers.

Leap Chanthavy is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.

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