Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union, has called on Cambodia to take “immediate action” to reinstate democratic freedoms with less than two months remaining until the bloc decides whether to suspend the Southeast Asian nation’s tariff-free access to its markets.
Borrell, who is also the Vice President of the European Commission—the EU’s executive branch—spoke Sunday with Cambodian Minister of Foreign Affairs Prak Sokhonn, as part of several bilateral meetings with Asian counterparts on the margins of the 14th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) ministerial in Madrid, the European External Action Service said in a statement.
“The High Representative reiterated the importance of Cambodian authorities taking immediate action to open the political space in the country, to establish the necessary conditions for a credible, democratic opposition and to initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue,” the statement said.
Borrell’s comments followed a Nov. 12 preliminary report in which the EU warned that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its Everything But Arms (EBA) status—which gives developing nations tariff-free access to the EU’s markets for all products except arms—noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February.
Last week, in a statement accompanying its official response to the report, which was not made public, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that, ahead of an EU decision on the matter in February 2020, it expects that the bloc will take into consideration “the government’s good faith efforts to implement all the relevant international conventions under the EBA regulations.”
The ministry also reminded the EU of the impact that the loss of EBA status would have on Cambodia’s “nearly one million female workers and the indirect effect on families and relatives supported by these workers’ wages,” but also suggested that it’s decision should “[respect] the principles of sovereignty and non-interference into Cambodia’s internal affairs.”
The ministry’s statement, which was not made public, was in stark contrast to recent comments from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who despite warnings from civil society that loss of EBA status would devastate Cambodia’s working class, has said he has no interest in meeting the EU’s demands.
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences, accounting for more than 18 percent of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people—account for around 75 percent of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation.
Impact of loss
The EU launched the process to strip Cambodia of its preferential trade terms following the arrest of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha in September 2017 and the Supreme Court’s decision to ban his party for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government two months later.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun said that withdrawal of EBA status would not only cause Cambodia to lose hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars annually, but it would shatter the country’s economy and social system.
“If the country suffers from an unemployment crisis, tax collection will fall short and the banks will run out of money, leading to the government’s inability to pay civil servants,” he said.
“Cambodia could see unrest that could seriously affect social security,” he added, urging the government to heed the EU’s demands on improving human rights and democracy.
Koul Panha, director of the advocacy group Comfrel, told RFA that Cambodia cannot expect to rely on China—which Hun Sen’s government has pivoted to from the West in the wake of last year’s controversial election—to make up for the shortfall that comes with an EBA withdrawal, because “China also benefits from the EBA through many of its investments in Cambodia.”
“Chinese investors probably want to see Cambodian government do its best to negotiate with the EU to retain the EBA so that they can continue to benefit from it, particularly as the Chinese are involved in their own trade issues with the U.S.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.