Over the last two decades, the partnership between Cambodia and the European Union (EU) has been a good force for Cambodia’s development and integration to the international community based on the principle of equal partnership with the focus on robust trade and investment, stronger people-to-people ties and respect for democracy and human rights.
Cambodia-EU relations have been considered significantly robust thanks to the Everything but Arms (EBA preferential tariff scheme under the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) Regulation since 2001 with the status of Least Developed Countries (LDCs). This trading relationship has contributed significantly to raising people’s well-being and particularly poverty reduction over the last two decades from 53.2 percent in 1994 to 13.5 percent in 2014 and to merely 10 percent in 2018.
The EU’s decision, on Feb 11, 2019, to launch the formal procedure for the temporary withdrawal of the EBA from Cambodia is an unfortunate move and is against the past achievements the EU has contributed to the economic and social development of Cambodia. In fact, to many in Cambodia, the EU’s decision is not only unjust but immoral and one that merely reflects the EU’s geo-strategic and political interests for three reasons.
First, the EU has turned a blind eye to commitment made by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to fully implement 15 UN and International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions that are the preconditions for the granting of the EBA deal, including the expansion of political and civil society spaces, the promotion of labour rights and efforts to address land issues.
The EU willingly pretends to not appreciate the vibrancy of Cambodian society, the bustling economy, the freedom to do whatever people want to do, the thriving entrepreneurship and, first and foremost, the free spirit of this young democracy with the presence of more than 5,000 civil society organisations, around 4,000 trade unions and hundreds of media entities.
Second, the EU has unveiled its double standards towards Cambodia in the name of human rights and democracy. While many countries receiving the EU trade preferential arrangement have not fully complied with conditions it has imposed, this regional grouping has always demanded the perfect implementation of the same conditions from Cambodia. Sarcastically, and in contrast, while every word spelled out from the EU representatives is all about EBA and democratic values and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, this regional organisation has undertaken and concluded, in some cases, free trade negotiations with other countries without a genuine consideration of those values and norms.
Third, the EU’s move is unethical because its decision will negatively affect hundreds of thousands of female workers and their families. The EU’s decision is immoral because the regional bloc has chosen to listen to a handful of Cambodian extremist politicians who have been continuously attempting to ignite violence and perpetrate hatred and division in Cambodian society, while at the same time the EU has ruthlessly denied the democratic values reflected by the overwhelming majority of the Cambodian population who went to polling stations to express their political choices in July 2018 elections.
The Cambodian Government has taken seriously the concerns raised by the EU not because we are pressured to do it, but for the sake of the welfare and economic livelihoods of some 800,000 workers, most of whom are young females, and their 2 million dependents – most of whom are children and the elderly. We do not want to jeopardise their future and throw them back to live in poverty and misery. The EBA trade preferences have brought hope for a better life for them and the government cares that they continue to have a decent life with unrestricted access to paid employment and ample opportunities for income growth and prosperity.
The EU’s unfair treatment towards Cambodia has drawn international criticism. On April 10, 2019, the Centrist Democrat International (CDI), whose members consist of about 100 political parties from across the globe, issued a resolution urging the EU to treat Cambodia fairly.
The CDI resolution states: “We suggest the EU to act accordingly with regards to the decision on whether to remove EBA from Cambodia. Cambodians have suffered enough; they deserve to live in peace, with prosperity and happiness. We wish to see democracy in Cambodia to thrive and consolidating the economy, with the understanding and support of the international community”.
The EU’s threat of the EBA agreement withdrawal has not precluded Cambodia from being an active, responsible member of the international community. Cambodia has also been seen as an important bridging state connecting the sub-region to the rest of the world through many cooperation frameworks, including Mekong-Langcang Cooperation, Mekong-Japan, Mekong-Korea and, more recently, Mekong-Danube Cooperation.
Cambodia and the EU, to a greater extent, have actively supported the promotion of multilateralism and particularly the strengthening of multilateral trading system. In November 2020, Cambodia will be hosting the 13th ASEM Summit, the biggest diplomatic gathering in Asia, in this capital city of Phnom Penh.
Under the theme, “Strengthening Multilateralism for Shared Growth,” the Summit will provide a good opportunity for the Heads of State and Government from 51 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) member parties as well as the Asean secretary-general and the president of the European Commission to discuss and seek solutions to regional and international issues of common concerns and to find ways to revitalise the multilateral system. Moreover, Cambodia is now preparing to assume the Asean chairmanship in 2022.
Because the EU is keen to elevate its dialogue relations with Asean to a “Strategic Partnership”, it should appreciate Cambodia’s role and voice. Therefore, the EU and Cambodia should avoid the hard ways but resort to people-centred cooperation because Cambodia is committed to continuously enhancing democratic consolidation and institutional governance.
Of course, EBA has provided certain advantages to Cambodia, especially in the country’s garment and footwear industries. However, there are two realities that must be recognised.
First, as Cambodia has constantly developed, with its graduation from the least developed countries to becoming a low middle-income country in 2015, it is a matter of time that the Kingdom is no longer entitled to preferential trading arrangements, including the EBA status.
Second, the EU’s use of the EBA deal as a geopolitical tool to force Cambodia to conform to its interests can be a positive momentum for Cambodia’s deep and comprehensive economic reforms and foreign market diversification, which are imperative for the Kingdom to achieve its development visions of becoming a higher-middle-income country by 2030 and a high-income economy by 2050.
Samdech Techo Prime Minister Hun Sen has mentioned on a number of occasions: “No matter what measures they want to take against Cambodia, in whatever way, Cambodia must be strong in its defence of its sovereignty… and that [we] don’t exchange national sovereignty for preferential treatment and [we] don’t exchange the peace of the country for aid.”
Suos Yara is a Cambodian politician who serves as a spokesperson for the Cambodian People’s Party