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On June 30, the EU and Cambodia’s neighbour, Vietnam, signed a groundbreaking new trade agreement that was hailed as the “most ambitious free trade deal between the EU and an emerging economy to date” by Vietnam’s Minister of Industry and Trade,Tran Tuan Anh. Considered a positive development by many the deal nonetheless leads to questions around the EU’s long-standing strategy of linking free trade agreements with human rights objectives. Even the EU’s own lawmakers within the European Parliament — whose approval is required before the deal can go ahead — have raised concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record. Eyebrows have also been raised elsewhere, particularly when one’s perspective incorporates the EU’s recent equivocation on Cambodia’s preferential status under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. By a range of objective standards, Cambodia’s admittedly sometimes difficult relationship with human rights and democracy still stands above that of its neighbour.

It is perhaps no accident that the EU-Vietnam deal was signed only days after America’s president, Donald Trump, threatened Vietnam with new tariffs. The EU is arguably and fairly in a hurry to gain a global competitive edge through its trade deals. In Asia, the EU has trade agreements with South Korea and Japan and a deal with Singapore is due to come into force this year. Negotiations have also been initiated with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

All of this is can and should be viewed positively. In Vietnam’s case, the new deal is expected to boost exports from to the EU by 20% and imports from the EU by over 15%, and these are just the most visible benefits for both parties. But, whichever way it is oriented, the playing field should be level. Standards applied (or not) to one country should not be used to punish another. Such a principle of fairness is at the heart of the European project as we have always understood it.

As some have described it, the EU is offering carrots to Vietnam, while only the stick is available for Cambodia. However, it is our view that understanding and advancement come from partnership, partnership comes from engagement. The EU is still Cambodia’s most important export market. It is thus still a voice to be heard and heeded here. To close, or reduce, the channel through which that voice can be heard is to close, effectively definitively, the opportunity for creating any of the outcomes the EU desires for the people of Cambodia.

In essence, we would like to see an independent trade deal proposed for Cambodia that would eventually render the Kingdom’s EBA status — which may run out soon in any event — defunct.

We see this in connection with the idea that true democracy cannot be imposed from outside a state. It comes from within, and it comes from the ground up. But for that to happen, certain conditions must prevail and one of those is that the people should not be so poor or hungry that they themselves cannot fight for the things that are their right. Ultimately, economic sanctions are a blunt weapon that falls most heavily on those that can least afford it. For many Cambodians, this will not be a rhetorical issue, but a matter of life and death. They will not really be in a position at the end of the day to question whose fault it really is.

Moreover, economic sanctions imposed by the EU and USA in countries such as Zimbabwe, Belarus, Russia, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Syria have yielded almost none of the desired results. Indeed, political leadership in some of these countries is even more firmly entrenched and all available evidence points to the fact that Cambodia would be no different. Just as importantly, Europe’s voice within the region as a whole will be diminished. Which raises the question of what the EU might hope to gain by going ahead with the withdrawal of EBA.

We congratulate and are pleased for Vietnam and the deal it has signed with the EU. It will strengthen the country, and by extension the region. We only ask that some of the same considerations that lead to the creation of this deal also be extended to Cambodia.