Asean-EU ties: seeking a middle path

Asean-EU ties: seeking a middle path

Joseph Borrell, the new EU foreign minister, revealed down-to-earth pragmatism in a recent article, writing: "We Europeans must adjust our mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as we hoped it would be." If this is the fresh path that the EU is following, Europe may become the most respected and powerful grouping of nations in the world. And it could all start right here in this region.

The EU decision last week to partially withdraw from the Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential tariff scheme with Cambodia was inevitable following nearly a year of waiting patiently for Prime Minister Hun Sen to improve his record on basic human rights as well as civil and political liberties. The EU did recognise that some progress had been made on these issues, but not enough in European eyes.

Mr Borrell showed a slightly different side in his statement on Cambodia, noting: "The EU will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced. Today's decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights and the country's sustainable development." That shows the EU can be assertive towards a small and less-developed country.

In response, the Cambodian government issued a two-page press release focused on three important points.

First, the EU punishment was about misperceptions and misunderstandings of the realities in Cambodia. Second, Phnom Penh accused the EU of practising "double standards" in extending preferential trade treatment to foreign countries. Finally, Cambodia said thanks but no thanks to the EU's offer of trade privileges in exchange for better rights protections.

The EU's 27 active members have different views on whether this was the right time to take action on Cambodia, bearing in mind that the country is hardly an isolated case. After all, there are 49 countries mainly from Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands that benefit from the EBA arrangement. In comparison with Cambodia, the political situation in some of EBA recipient countries is no better. This is not by any means to defend the dismal record on rights-related issues of the region's longest-reigning prime minister, at 35 years. But it is important to put Cambodia's unique situation in perspective.

When Cambodia refers to "misperceptions" or "misunderstandings", Phnom Penh means the Western prejudice against the once war-torn country. After the end of the Cambodian conflict in 1992, the UN and international community treated Cambodia as a poster-child for democratic rejuvenation under good governance.

But the realities are different inside this agrarian society, and three decades later Cambodia is still aspiring to become a modern, more democratic and open country. In the past, EU decision-making was simpler because the bloc acted and spoke with one voice. But as new members joined, each wanted more say in decisions on foreign affairs or topics that affect their interests. Often, EU factions also join hands to defend their positions.

Within the EU, sympathy for Cambodia came from the Eastern European members known as the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia). They are not on the same page as the Scandinavian faction, which has more liberal views on human rights and democratic values.

The former wants the EU to maintain EBA trade privileges while the latter wants to cut them regardless of the political consequences.

It is worth pointing out that Cambodia has strong and longstanding relations with Hungary dating back to the Kampuchea period, when the country was ruled by the Heng Samrin regime. Hun Sen made a strategic visit to Hungary in June last year to tip the balance against the more hostile EU members.

Indeed, he knows what he is doing -- including what is good or harmful for his country. Look at the way he handled the Westerdam cruise ship: while other, richer countries turned the liner away over coronavirus fears, Hun Sen personally welcomed all its passengers ashore at Sihanoukville.

Other influential EU members such as France, Germany and Spain are caught in between these two groups. While they are still firm on EU norms and values, the picture is no longer as black and white as it once was. The EU, as a community of powerful Europe, still exists, but in recent years key members have become more practical in their assessment of the realities in trade partners such as Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. They prefer to manage ties with whatever form of government exists in Southeast Asia and quietly work on improving overall rights. Thailand offers a good case study.

Truth be told, the EU misjudged its relationship with Thailand under five years of military rule (2014-2019), when Brussels became over-reliant on the one-dimensional perspective of certain groups of stakeholders. But the EU learned valuable lessons, discovering that a regime it once condemned and despised could ironically make major improvements on rights issues if there were proper consultative processes and mutual respect. For example, Thailand's success in engaging with the EU over illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing from 2015-2019 showed that bilateral negotiations and strategic patience are key to amicable solutions.

Cambodia is no exception to that rule. Yet somehow, EU and Cambodian officials have failed to hit the right notes.

Another case in point is Thailand's years-long squabble with the US government over the annual assessment of human trafficking. After years on the tier two watch-list, which brings with it US trade penalties, Thailand's status was last year upgraded to tier two, a significant improvement.

Both the EU and US learned that in engaging a military regime or, for that matter, any authoritarian regime in Southeast Asia, they had to be open-minded and fair.

That might sound absurd, but it was necessary.

In the case of Thailand, making radical improvements amid strong bureaucratic red tape and resistance -- not to mention powerful people in uniform and big business embedded in all strata -- required a lot of trust and a leap of faith. Now, Thailand is sharing its experience combating illegal fishing practices with other Asean members.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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