Thailand, Europe forge sense of unity
EU urges elections but wants to bolster trade connections
Thailand and European countries are reaching out more to each other in seeking cooperation after the upgrade in Thai-EU relations which allows high-level political contact to resume among the countries.
The EU Foreign Affairs Council on Dec 11 last year opted to resume political contact at all levels with Thailand, which has been ruled by a junta government since a bloodless coup in 2014, citing the political progress of the kingdom towards returning to democracy.
While European countries emphasise that Thailand must hold democratic elections soon, at the same time they want to beef up trade and investment cooperation as the kingdom promotes opportunities in its megaprojects in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) and regional connectivity linking China and India as well as the development of the digital economy -- an area of expertise in Europe.
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai late last month visited Europe to meet with his German and Finnish counterparts. He also chaired a meeting where the Thai ambassadors and consulate-generals in European countries were asked to discuss how to better work as part of "Team Thailand" -- a public-private sector initiative also involving Thai communities in respective countries.
"The European countries have been saying they hope Thailand is returning to the democratic path. We always realise that and we are already on the way to that goal," Mr Don said.
Thailand ranks 23rd among EU trade partners with US$41.8 billion worth of total trade last year with a small trade surplus. In terms of investment, the Europeans put $6.5 billion investment in Thailand while Thais put $11.6 billion of their money in Europe last year.
The Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations were held up by the coup in 2014. The signing of such agreements can only be done when Thailand has an elected government.
"We can look into opportunities and cooperation [between Thailand and European countries] in the mega projects of the EEC, Thailand 4.0 innovation and also other areas that we can help each other," he said adding that other platforms including Asean which is to be chaired by Thailand later this year, Ayeyawady Chao Phraya Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (Acmecs) as well as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) are also alternative channels.
Eksiri Pintaruchi, Thai ambassador to the Netherlands, said, "The Netherlands monitors Thailand's democracy and human rights while showing readiness to engage more with Thailand."
There have been exchanges of high-level visits to discuss economic relations -- which she said were very practical -- especially on agriculture, precise agriculture and greenhouse management as well as water management, she said.
She said more than 300 Dutch companies are operating in Thailand. Trade between the Netherlands and Thailand is already vibrant and the regional outlook is bright as the Dutch are looking to invest and trade more with Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and Myanmar, she said, adding that the Netherlands' economy is quite strong with more than 3% GDP growth and a low unemployment rate.
Thailand-Netherlands trade was worth $3.3 billion in the first six months of this year, and increased by about 18.2% compared to $2.7 billion in the same period of last year. From January to June, Thailand exported $2.7 billion to the Netherlands while importing $548 million, according to figures form the Department of Trade Negotiations.
Pisanu Suvanajata, the Thai ambassador to the UK, said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's visit to the UK in June was evidence of the new chapter in the Thai-UK relations.
"From then, Thai diplomats and related agencies are trying to increase the visibility and awareness the potential for cooperations with Thailand.
"One million people from the UK come to Thailand each year; they should know further than just tourist attractions," he said.
Meanwhile, Nopporn Adchariyavanich, the Thai ambassador to Finland, said Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini during a meeting with Mr Don in Helsinki last month showed no concern about Thailand's political situation. Rather, the minister expressed an interest in the regional situation as well as Thailand's role, ahead of its the Asean chairmanship next year.
"While Finland will take the lead of the EU Council next year, environmental cooperation is expected to be a high priority," he said.
At the same time, Thailand sees potential in further cooperation from Finnish expertise including in digital economy, smart electronics, bio technology, agriculture and education, he said.
Finnish Minister of Economic Affairs Mika Lintila last month led a group of Finnish business people to see the development of digital and information technology as well as energy in Thailand.
Sirilak Niyom, deputy director-general of the European Affairs Department, said the EU must have seen the importance of political drive in helping to promote trade investment and cooperation with Thailand.
Thammasat University's political economist Somjai Phagaphasvivat said lots of changes have been seen after the upgrade of Thai-EU political ties.
However, Thailand should make the most of the improving relations by connecting the right industries, gradually pursuing technology transfer, learning and developing from cooperation, and focusing on efficiency and effectiveness as well as economic stability. More importantly, it must keep a good balance and not depend too much on any country in particular.