It was an irony of ironies.
On October 4 George Edgar, the EU Ambassador to Cambodia, extolled the virtues of trade preferences granted to the Kingdom in the Everything but Arms (EBA) scheme, telling the Club of Cambodian Journalists that the European Union is a key economic partner in Cambodia, with preferential access to European markets a key element of the country’s robust growth in recent years. On October 5, in a complete turnaround, a sledgehammer came down on Cambodia with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom writing in the European Commission’s official blog that she and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini had notified Cambodia that the EU was launching the process for the withdrawal of its EBA preferences.
Myanmar was also put on notice by the EU Trade Commissioner who wrote that there was a strong possibility its EBA trade preferences will be withdrawn due to the “deeply worrying and worsening situation for the Rohingya minority”.
Two countries in Asean have now been accorded pariah-like status in what seems to be clear double standards practiced by the EU. Why doesn’t the EU take action against Thailand which has been controlled by a military junta for over four years, following the unpopular military coup in 2014? If the EU is concerned that Cambodia is becoming a one-party state after the July 29 general election, why then did Brussels, in June, finalise the negotiations for a free trade agreement with Vietnam – clearly, a one-party state. If the EU, as Trade Commissioner Malmstrom puts it, is concerned about “harassment and intimidation, as well as severe restrictions when it comes to essential political rights” in Cambodia, why does it still allow Laos (also a one-party state) duty free access for exports under the EBA when the Lao government has made no progress at all accounting for civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared on December 15, 2012.
Sovereign and independent states must stand up and be bold against such practice of double standards. It is totally unacceptable in modern-day international relations where imperialism and colonialism have no place in the contemporary world. Cambodia will not trade its sovereignty and independence for economic assistance. Nothing is more valuable than freedom, sovereignty and independence.
The impending question, now, is how will the withdrawal of duty free access to EU markets, under the EBA, affect Cambodia’s economy.
The EU is Cambodia’s top export destination, accounting for 40 percent of all its exports. These have risen sharply in recent years, increasing by 227 percent between 2011 and 2016, and reaching $5.77 billion in value last year alone. More than 80 percent of Cambodian garment factories ship all or part of their products into the EU, according to the Ministry of Commerce. A withdrawal of the EBA would not only impact Cambodia’s garment industry but also seriously affect third parties like logistics companies and also the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port – from where container loads of ready-made garments are shipped to Europe.
According to the German Business Group in Cambodia, duty free access under the EBA scheme helped the garment industry grow from 250,000 workers to over 700,000 workers, making it the country’s largest export sector and major employer. The majority of these garment factory workers are young females supporting their families back in the provinces. With factories closing down due to dwindling overseas purchase orders, these female workers would be forced to look for work in neighbouring Asean countries, thus disrupting the labour-balance of receiving countries. The desperate ones will seek employment through unscrupulous labour agencies and end up exploited – often abused, beaten and tortured. So is the EU preventing human rights abuses or is it going to be a guilty party perpetuating it?
The withdrawal of the EBA will also impact the ILO’s Better Factories programme. The project calls for improved working conditions in the garment sector and was established in 2001 to help the sector make and maintain these improvements. Working with the Cambodian government, Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia, and unions, the Better Factories programme has helped advocate for better labour standards and better benefits for factory workers. The government, now, has agreed to increase the minimum wage to $182. What did the EU Trade Commissioner have in mind when she wrote on the official European Commission blog that Cambodia did not “uphold and respect the values enshrined in 15 fundamental conventions of the United Nations and the ILO”? With the EU forcing garment factories to close down, good donor money put into the Better Factories programme will be wasted – all washed down the gutter by EU bureaucrats in Brussels.
What is the real motive behind this? What is the moral high ground of the EU, knowing well that such move could lead to job losses or even cause civil unrest and chaos? Does the EU care about the social and economic wellbeing of factory workers in Cambodia?
As a prerequisite, the EU has given a timeframe of six months for the government to reinstate the country’s now illegal former leading opposition party. EU Trade Commissioner Malmstrom wrote that “there will be space for negotiation and dialogue” with Cambodia throughout this process. We can only say that this is tantamount to sheer bullying of a small state. What the EU fails to acknowledge is the fact that many imprisoned former opposition members had been given a royal pardon while one was given freedom but not yet acquitted. Sadly, these positive political efforts made by the government, to reduce political tension and promote reconciliation, have amounted to nothing in the eyes of the EU and European policy makers who live in their ivory tower in Brussels.
The EU’s action is a wake-up call to all Cambodians. It is high time that they put aside all their political differences and unite together as one to fight against unfair and discriminatory international practices – especially when external powers bully Cambodia and blatantly display double standards in doing so. More than ever, national sovereignty and independence are the core national interests of Cambodia.
To quote Shakespeare: “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”. And foreign powers should not underestimate the resolve of Cambodians to protect and safeguard these core interests.