Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

No Likelihood of EBA’s Full Reinstatement For Now, Says EU Ambassador to Cambodia

Igor Driesmans, the new EU ambassador to Cambodia speaks to the press in Phnom Penh, October 25, 2023. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)
Igor Driesmans, the new EU ambassador to Cambodia speaks to the press in Phnom Penh, October 25, 2023. (CamboJA/Sovann Sreypich)

There is no confirmation that the EU would fully reinstate its preferential scheme, Everything But Arms (EBA), for Cambodia, said newly-appointed EU ambassador to Cambodia Igor Driesmans, while identifying four priorities in his mandate.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Driesmans explained that the partial EBA withdrawal was a result of “serious concerns”, noting that the decision was made when those concerns were raised.

However, there has been no improvements since then, he said, adding that the EU has noted some new concerns of political restrictions, including a decline in political space and citizens’ rights.

“I don’t think there is any further discussion on the withdrawal of any part of EBA,” Driesmans confirmed. “However, I think we will continue to discuss with the authorities, but I do not see any change [on its reinstatement], especially now.”

The EU ambassador highlighted that the EU is Cambodia’s second largest market after the US. Last year, the EU imported goods worth 5.5 billion euros from Cambodia, which enjoys a duty-free and quota-free access under the EBA scheme. In the last few decades, the scheme has helped to develop the manufacturing sector, which is the country’s largest employer.

Although Cambodia currently benefits from EBA, it has also embarked on a journey to graduate from Least Developed Country to middle income country. “It means that Cambodia is developing and it will lose the EBA [scheme],” he said.

Recall that one-fifth of tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the EBA scheme was suspended by the European Commission on February 12, 2020, which allegedly found “serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles” enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

According to Pen Bona, spokesperson of the government, EBA is a right of the EU and can make a decision on it. “Cambodia would be happy if the EU returned it.”

However, he mentioned that the EBA would “end anytime” because Cambodia has moved from being a “poor country to a middle income country”. “We are a developing country with a [goal to become] high middle income. The government has maintained this position.”

Analyst Em Sovannara said there is no way Cambodia would regain the full EBA from the EU as freedom of expression has declined at an “alarming rate”. “Respect for human rights, freedom of expression, the political freedom and freedom of the press have not improved,” he added.

“However, I want to see the will of the new ambassador, the EU and relevant leaders from [Western] countries help promote democracy in Cambodia and preserve our rights,” said Sovannara. 

Meanwhile, Driesmans shared that as an EU partner country, Cambodia is expected to “respect human rights, the rule of law and democratic principle”, which are fundamental principles of the EU’s relationship with its partners.

“When I say human rights, it means human rights in a broad sense. It includes the freedom of expression, the right to political participation, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, labor rights and independence of the judiciary.”

Speaking about his new plans, Driesmans said he will work closely with the government, civil societies, the press, political parties and academia to put in motion four priorities in Cambodia.

The priorities include climate change and deforestation, sustainable trade, technical education for youths, and improving governance.

In terms of sustainable trade, he said, the EU would support agricultural programs, green energy and value-add in the garment sector so that Cambodia remains competitive, integrates with ASEAN and increases trade with the EU in the long run.

Youths would be supported with technical education to raise employ ability, Driesmans said, while being trained to become productive citizens in the economy and politics.

More scholarships for higher education would be also offered to Cambodian youths. “We want to promote the ability of students within ASEAN and with the European Union for education and research.”