Cambodian leader willing to lose EU trade privileges

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Thursday that it is more important for his country to maintain its independence and sovereignty than to retain special trading privileges that the European Union has threatened to withdraw.

Hun Sent told government officials that even with the loss of the trade privileges, Cambodia would be able to export its products to the EU as before. It would earn lower profits, but the EU would no longer be able to threaten or put any conditions on Cambodia, he said.

The EU announced earlier this year that it would begin a monitoring process to decide whether to end duty-free and quota-free imports from Cambodia because of concerns about its poor record in human and labor rights. Cambodia is one of several developing nations with which the EU has an “Everything But Arms” — EBA — scheme granting preferential access to the European market for things other than weapons.

The EU on Nov. 12 handed over its preliminary evaluation report to Cambodia, allowing one month for a response. The report is confidential, but it is believed to be critical of Cambodia for failing to improve its rights record.

A decision on whether to withdraw the privileges is supposed to be made by February next year.

The clothing and footwear industry is Cambodia’s biggest export sector, employing nearly 800,000 people in about 1,000 garment and shoe factories. In 2018, the Southeast Asian country shipped nearly $10 billion worth of products to the United States and Europe.

Momentum to review Cambodia’s privileges grew after last July’s general election, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 National Assembly seats. The EU and others charged that the election was unfair and unfree because the sole credible opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in November 2017 by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, generally seen as being under the government’s influence.

Hun Sen charged that the conditions the EU wanted his government to follow violated Cambodian law as well as its independence and sovereignty.

He said Cambodia did not want to lose its EBA privileges, but could not accept the trade-offs involved.

“Now they (EU) have threatened us by asking us to do this and do that ... but we have responded that we can’t exchange our sovereignty to plead for their gifts or their sympathies,” he said.

Hun Sen said his government has been preparing for the loss of EBA status since March this year, and that losing it was just a matter of time because as Cambodia’s economic strength grows it will no longer be eligible under the EU’s requirements.