Relations between Cambodia and the European Union remain stable, despite the possible suspension of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status. Outgoing EU Ambassador George Edgar speaks to Khmer Times Editor-in-Chief Cheang Sokha about EU projects with the government, trade, the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the EBA. Mr Edgar, who served for four years, will return to the United Kingdom in August to work for the British Foreign Affairs Ministry in London.
KT: What are your achievements as EU Ambassador in Cambodia?
Mr Edgar: I will leave Cambodia in late August, at the end of my term as EU Ambassador. It has been a great experience, and a privilege for me to represent the EU here over the last four years. Having worked in Cambodia before, almost 20 years ago, it has also been a great experience to be able to come back and see how the country has developed. When I arrived, I could see the changes, the scale of economic and social change. It’s not just a question of economic growth, but of the impact of growth on the level of poverty and the situation of poor people in Cambodia, particularly in rural areas. Those changes are also visible in the improvement of the services the government provides to the people. And they are reflected in Cambodia’s performance against the Millennium Development Goals, where Cambodia has one of the best records of any country in the world. There has been a remarkable improvement in access to education, in key health indicators, in access to clean water. There is certainly much more to do, but these achievements are remarkable.
In terms of what the EU does, and what I have done here for the last four years, I would single out our programme of development cooperation, which is designed to support the government in implementing its development strategies. We aim to support equitable and sustainable development in Cambodia, a development that can benefit all parts of the population. Our programme of development cooperation with the Cambodian government is worth €410 million in the current budget period. Through that, we have played a part in supporting the development of the country. In particular, we have focused on education, where we have worked with the government for almost 20 years, supporting the reform and strengthening of primary and lower secondary education. And I see very good results there, under the leadership of Minister Hang Chuon Naron. Similarly, we have provided support for public financial management reform. Cambodia has a lot to be proud of in terms of mobilisation of domestic financial resources and of the creation of systems for better management of the government budget. We have also provided support for agriculture reform, with a focus now on fisheries – developing aquaculture and strengthening community fisheries. I am pleased that we have been able to give effective support to these important reforms and to improve the lives of many ordinary Cambodian people.
KT: After the dissolution of the CNRP, a review of the Kingdom’s access to the EBA was launched; do you think the government is willing to fix things to salvage the EBA?
Mr Edgar: I’m not going to comment of what the government’s intentions are. That is something you have to ask the government. The launch of the EBA procedure reflects concerns in relation to Cambodia’s record against some of the United Nations and International Labour Organisiation conventions that form the conditionality for the EU’s Generalised System of Preferences scheme, including EBA. Those relate primarily to the perceived shrinking of the political space and restrictions on political rights. We are continuing to discuss these issues with the Cambodian authorities.
KT: The government says they will survive without the EBA, do you think the government is ready for that scenario?
Mr Edgar: We have been very clear from the beginning of this procedure that the outcome we want to see is not the withdrawal of Cambodia’s access to EBA. The outcome we want to see is one in which the issues I have mentioned related to the UN and ILO conventions are addressed, and Cambodia’s access to EBA is maintained. That way, EBA access can continue to contribute to Cambodia’s growth and the creation of employment.
KT: The government claims the EU uses double standards on Cambodia, they say why not other countries in the region like Myanmar and others. What is your response to that?
Mr Edgar: Cambodia in many ways has had, over the years, a good record in terms of democratic processes, the environment for civil society, press freedom and labour rights. However, developments, particularly in the latter part of 2017, were seen as a significant step backwards, and that is why there has been a particular focus on Cambodia in this context.
KT: When will the EU issue a decision for the EBA?
Amb Edgar: This is an extended process. At the moment, we are in a six month period of monitoring and engagement, which finishes in middle of August. The European Commission then has three months to draft its conclusions, which will be shared with the Cambodian government for their comments. A final decision by the European Commission is expected in February next year.
KT: The EU has sent a team to Cambodia to meet senior government officials, GMAC and members of civil society. Do you think the dialogue is going well?
Mr Edgar: If we look for example at the last EU fact-finding mission, which took place in June, I think the atmosphere of the discussion was very good. That is very important in this kind of dialogue, and it is important to build up trust so that each side has confidence in the other in view of reaching a good solution.
KT: So you’re confident that the EBA will remain?
Mr Edgar: That is the outcome we would like to see.
KT: Do you have something else to add? Something you have done to share with the Cambodian people?
Mr Edgar: I’ve already mentioned the work we do with the government in terms of development cooperation. The majority of the funding we provide comes as budget support, which means we pay funds directly into the government budget through the Ministry of Economy and Finance. That is important because it means that we are directly supporting the government in the implementation of its own strategy, and that strategy is the basis of all the work we do. We also focus now, following the end of the period of the Millennium Development Goals, on the new set of global targets, the Sustainable Development Goals. Those are the framework for the EU’s development cooperation work throughout the world.
One of the big changes in the international context over the last few years is the growing recognition of the urgency of addressing the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. I’m pleased that, along with the UNDP and Sweden, we have been able to support the Cambodian Climate Change Alliance, which has been working to mainstream climate issues into government policy and to pilot new approaches to climate resilience in agriculture and infrastructure. We have also supported a number of projects through civil society organizations to work with forest communities, to improve their livelihoods and to protect Cambodia’s rich natural heritage.
I would also mention our support to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – the Khmer Rouge tribunal. It has played an important role in bringing justice for the people who suffered under Khmer Rouge rule and ensuring that their experiences are put on record. For me it has been a moving experience to attend the sessions of the ECCC and to listen to the testimony of what people went through during that period. It has also helped me to better understand some of the challenges that Cambodia still faces.
I am very pleased to have been able to travel to many parts of Cambodia – I think I have been to every province in Cambodia in the last four years. It’s been a great privilege to have the chance to get to know the country, a fabulous country, and to meet so many admirable people. I would like to wish all Cambodia’s people a happy and prosperous future.