Though the European Union could succeed in withdrawing Cambodia’s EBA status, the EU also has to be prepared to accept the fact that it could fail to reverse the perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in the country, argues Kimkong Heng.
The European Union (EU) and Cambodia are now engaged in what can be seen as a tug of war for influence and sovereignty, respectively. Despite unequal power relations, both sides are apparently trying to strengthen their stances against one another.
While the EU demands that the Cambodian government reverses Cambodia’s democratic drift and improve the country’s human and political rights situation, the Kingdom wants the EU not to interfere in its internal affairs. Both parties appear not to understand or seemingly ignore each other’s calls and look set to proceed with their own agendas, understanding, and assumptions.
In response to Cambodia’s crackdown on dissent and the dissolution of the leading opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the EU announced last October that it would begin a formal process to withdraw its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme from Cambodia. On February 11, it kicked off a six-month period of intensive monitoring and engagement that could lead to the temporary suspension of Cambodia’s preferential, tariff-free access to the EU market. The EU stated that the removal of Cambodia’s EBA status is only “the option of last resort”.
Cambodia has harshly responded to the EU’s EBA threat. The country has condemned the EU’s demands, regarding it as an “extreme injustice” and “acts of interference” in Cambodia’s domestic affairs. Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly maintained that Cambodia will not “exchange national sovereignty with aid”.
As it now stands, the EU seems to have no other choice but to eventually withdraw its trade privileges from Cambodia, if no concrete measures are taken by the Cambodian government to address the EU’s concerns and demands. The Kingdom, however, is presented with limited options and the lack of willingness to manage the EU’s demands is because Cambodia views such actions as a practice of “double standards”.
Thus, while the world’s largest trading bloc criticizes the Southeast Asian nation for engaging in human rights violations, the latter sees such criticism as an injustice and interference. Each side no doubt sees the same issue from different angles, the result of which is a failure to engage in channels of dialogue at both bilateral and multilateral levels.
In this regard, it seems sensible that both parties take a step back and rethink their own approach. The EU’s coercive measures or scare tactics do not seem to yield intended results as the Cambodian government refuses to give in to the EU’s demands for improving core human rights and labour rights in the Kingdom. Cambodia’s “sovereignty-maintaining approach” does not seem to turn out to be effective, either.
If both sides proceed with their plans and stick to their own terms, it will lead to a lose-lose scenario that is in no one’s interests. Clearly the suspension of Cambodia’s EBA status will definitely damage relations between Cambodia and the EU. Cambodia will draw closer to China, its closest ally and largest economic and military benefactor, at the expense of its relations with the West. The EU, together with the United States, surely would not want Cambodia to alienate them and fully embrace Beijing.
Cambodia also does not want to break with the West, but the incumbent government led by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) seems to have other more important priorities than its diplomatic relations with the EU and the US. Political domination and maintenance of peace and sovereignty are seen as number one priorities for the CPP-led government.
As argued in a recent article in the Bangkok Post, the CPP is “willing to lose the EBA status in exchange for getting rid of the opposition party” so that its dominance in Cambodian politics will not be undermined. This statement has implications for the EU.
Rather than moving ahead with its forceful approach to suspend Cambodia’s EBA trade benefits, the EU should perhaps consider alternative measures that would have consequences for the ruling elites, not the ordinary Cambodians. It is agreeable that withdrawing Cambodia’s EBA privileges will most likely have negative impacts on nearly one million Cambodian garment workers, most of whom are women. The chance that such measures would adversely affect the financial standing of the CPP elites is slim.
Thus, it is arguably more judicious that the EU direct its actions toward the CPP leadership rather than threaten the mainstay of Cambodia’s economy. The EU should try to understand Cambodia and what Hun Sen’s government wants and is willing to lose. For the time being, losing the EBA benefits perhaps does not cause great concern for the Cambodian government in the same way as losing votes and political domination.
Whether one likes it or not, a warning by Prime Minister Hun Sen that the withdrawal of EBA scheme from Cambodia could amount to the West’s third mistake may become true, if the EU succeeds in withdrawing the Kingdom’s EBA status but fails to reverse the perceived deterioration of human rights and democracy in this Asian country.
The EU, taking into account this scenario, may consider rethinking its approach to dealing with Cambodia. Instead of jeopardizing its relations with the Kingdom and compelling this small and open economy to have no hesitation in further embracing China, the EU as a major international actor has the responsibility to bring about hope and prosperity to people of all nations, and Cambodians are no exception.
Kimkong Heng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland and a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship.