GMAC chair questions EU in Brussels over EBA withdrawal

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Garment workers in a Phnom Penh factory. Post pix

The chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) said that in Brussels on Wednesday, it questioned the EU’s grounds for launching the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement withdrawal process.

GMAC had also presented information about Cambodia to the EU Commissioner in the Belgian capital.

With Vietnam having recently signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, one analyst said he believed the EU cared more about economic gain than human rights. Another said Cambodia was already prepared to lose EBA access.

“On Wednesday in Brussels, there was an open forum for public opinion and for representatives from every interested party to raise their concerns and discuss the Cambodian government’s actions in regards to the suspension of access to EBA."

“GMAC is an interested party in this process. We made a presentation to the EU Commissioner. We asked on what grounds the process had been launched, and we submitted the facts to respond to any potential claims,” GMAC chairman Van Sou Ieng said.

The EU in February launched the official procedure that could lead to Cambodia’s access to EBA being suspended.

In June, an EU fact-finding team visited Cambodia and will produce a report on its findings in mid-August. The final decision on EBA will be made in February next year.

The EU said the June mission had looked at some of the major issues of concern in Cambodia, including the potential violation of political rights and the freedoms of expression and association.

Possible infringements of the right to organise and collective bargaining were also looked at, as was the dispossession of land due to economic land concessions, particularly in the sugar sector.

While Cambodia was on the way to possibly losing its access to the EBA agreement, its neighbour Vietnam signed a Free Trade Agreement with the EU on June 30.

The deal was described by EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom after its signing as “the most ambitious trade agreement the EU has signed with a developing country”.

The EU said human rights improvements had been attached to the deal with Vietnam.

However, analysts have said they believe economic gain was the end goal of the agreement.

Kin Phea, the director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said revenue was the ultimate topic of discussion in trade. Therefore, the EU and Vietnam would do what they could to benefit their economies.

“It is a message to Cambodia that we must care about our national interests. The EU’s real concerns about human rights and democracy are something we don’t know, but they do care about economic gain,” he said.

He said politicians from the former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party wanted to see EBA withdrawn, while the government had tried to keep access to it.

However, he said Cambodia could not exchange such agreements for its sovereignty so the government had opted to diversify trade by exporting products to markets outside the EU.

Bradley J Murg, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Seattle Pacific University, said it was his view that the EU withdrawing EBA for Cambodia would be devastating for its reputation in having human rights consistently in its trade policy.

“I just don’t see how Brussels squares inking an enormous trade deal with China – a country engaged in cultural genocide against its Uighur population – and a more recent deal with Vietnam – which ranks lower than Cambodia in Freedom House scores – and maintaining any credibility with the contention that it is applying any sort of consistent set of standards.

“To a political economist such as myself, such an action reads as “the EU cares about human rights but only if the economic gains are not so large – noting the much larger European economic footprints and markets in China and Vietnam compared to Cambodia,” Murg said.

He said it was essential that the Cambodian government continued its already serious efforts in preserving EBA access in order to ensure strong continued economic growth.

Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the government’s successive statements on EBA and its measures to cut production costs indicated it was prepared to accept the eventual withdrawal of access to the agreement.