Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday said the United Kingdom has pledged to preserve Cambodia’s preferential access to its market even after departing the European Union.
Speaking during a graduation ceremony yesterday, Mr Hun Sen said he is closely following the situation in the UK as the country prepares to leave the EU. In his speech, the Cambodian premier pointed out that the UK is the largest market for Cambodian exports inside the European bloc.
“The UK has the largest share of our exports in the bloc and the UK has a special trade policy that will continue even after the country leaves the EU.
“We want to see the UK leaving the EU. After its departure, the UK’s economy will remain strong and the country will continue to import Cambodian goods,” said Mr Hun Sen.
Trade between Cambodia and the UK increased from $500 million in 2012 to more than $1 billion in 2018, according to figures from the Ministry of Commerce. Cambodia mainly exports garments and footwear, milled rice, and bicycles to the UK.
Brexit was originally due to happen on 29 March 2019. That was two years after then Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 – the formal process to leave – and kicked off negotiations.
Under Ms May, the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected her Brexit deal – eventually pushing it to 31 October.
Despite negotiating a revised deal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed the latest deadline, after MPs failed to pass it into law.
The EU agreed to a further extension until 31 January.
During her visit to Cambodia in mid-September, UK Minister of Foreign and Commonwealth Office for Asia Heather Wheeler said that Cambodia is among 48 less developed countries that will retain trade privileges in the UK market.
“The UK will continue to provide the preferential trade scheme to Cambodia and other 48 less developed countries even after Brexit in the near future,” she was quoted as saying in a government statement.
With Brexit looming, the two countries are now striving to redefine their trade relation, according to Commerce Ministry’s spokesperson Seang Thay, who recently told Khmer Times Cambodia has already started negotiations with the UK.
“When the UK leaves the EU, the EBA will no longer apply, but the UK will continue providing preferential access to Cambodia,” Mr Thay said.
“The UK leaving the EU without a deal means returning to WTO rules. In this case, we cannot say there is no concern, but we are ready to deal with this particular situation by looking into other opportunities that could happen through the UK’s external policy concerning least-developed countries,” he explained.
Mr Thay noted that, regardless of the UK’s relationship with the EU, Cambodia has choices beyond these trading partners.
Cambodia’s current trade status with the EU, afforded under Everything-but-arms (EBA) agreement, is currently under threat as the bloc reviews the trade deal.
Since 2001, the EBA allows Cambodia’s exports to enter the bloc tariff and quota-free except for arms and ammunition.
Last month, the EU issued a preliminary report on whether the Kingdom should retain its EBA trade status.
The government has one month to respond to that report, with the EU scheduled to announce its final decision in February.
Whatever the result, Prime Minister Hun Sen has reiterated that the government cannot exchange its “sovereignty” for aid or trade preferences.
“Cambodia cannot depend on only foreign support and must not trade its independence and sovereignty for anything,” Mr Hun Sen said. “However, we want to be good friends with partner countries that want to see Cambodia grow without external interference.”