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An interview with outgoing EU Ambassador George Edgar

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Outgoing EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar speaks about EBA, development assistance and trade. Hong Menea

An interview with outgoing EU Ambassador George Edgar

Outgoing EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar took up his post in September 2015. He is set to bow out this coming September as his successor, Spaniard Carmen Moreno, takes office. Here he speaks to The Post’s Niem Chheng about his time in the Kingdom.

What would you say has been your most important achievement during your time in Cambodia?

I have been EU Ambassador in Cambodia since September 2015. During my time here I am pleased to have overseen the conclusion of our cooperation programme under the 2007-13 budget – working to support the government’s reform programmes in education, agriculture and fisheries, public financial management reform and decentralisation – and the launch of action in similar areas under our 2014-20 programme.

Last year saw our highest ever level of financial commitment and disbursement, and we look forward to seeing significant practical results from our current cooperation, which is worth over €410 million over seven years in grant funding, and over €500 million if we include thematic and regional programmes directly benefiting Cambodia.

The majority of that is implemented as budget support, meaning that funds are paid directly into the national budget through the Ministry of Economy and Finance in support of national reforms.

On August 21 we officially launched a programme of support for the fisheries sector worth €87 million, working with the Cambodian government’s Fisheries Administration, with international partners including the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and UN Industrial Development Organisation (Unido) to support the sustainability and modernisation of capture fisheries in Cambodia and to ensure that the sector plays a significant role in reducing poverty.

Having worked in Cambodia in the late 1990s, I have seen for myself how far the country has come in terms of social and economic development, and in overcoming the legacy of the terrible experiences of the 1970s. I’m pleased that the EU has played a part in that progress.

I am glad too that the EU has continued to support the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in their work to provide accountability for the crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge period.

We have also been a consistent supporter of Cambodia’s work to address the challenges of climate change, as the biggest funder of the Cambodian Climate Change Alliance. There is no more important issue facing humanity today, and it’s an issue on which we all need to work together.

On the trade side, I have worked to encourage further European investment in Cambodia and to support a healthy trading relationship, including through facilitating the granting of EU Protected Geographical Indications to Kampot Pepper and recently to Kampong Speu Palm Sugar.

We are also about to launch a trade project, Arise Plus, which will contribute to greater connectivity and economic integration between Cambodia and the rest of Asean, particularly in support of Cambodia’s endeavour to reach upper-middle-income status by 2030.

I hope that through the delegation’s activities here and my engagement in public diplomacy I have been able to convey something about the EU, what it is and what it stands for in terms of policies and values.

I have particularly enjoyed my meetings with students and other young people – at universities, through our Erasmus alumni network, through civil society organisations.

Cambodia has a lot of very talented young people, and I encourage them to use their abilities to the full, to achieve their ambitions in life and for the benefit of their country.

What were your greatest challenges?

At one level, the biggest challenge is time – there is never enough time, even in four years, to do all that one wants to do. There is always more to do, more to find out and more to understand. I’m very grateful for the opportunity I have had over the past four years to learn more about Cambodia, its history, culture and politics.

But the more you know, the more you realise what you don’t know.

Not all aspects of the relationship between the EU and Cambodia have been easy, and our concerns about political rights, the space for civil society, and some labour and land issues have led to the launch of a procedure that could lead to the suspension of Cambodia’s access to preferences under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme.

But it is important and positive that the EU and the Cambodian authorities have continued to engage at the working level and at the political level to seek a solution.

And I would like to thank my Cambodian interlocutors for their graciousness and unfailing warmth at a personal level, however tricky the issues we have had to discuss.

What are your expectations regarding EBA?

The six-month monitoring period, which is the first part of the EBA suspension procedure, concluded on August 12. Under the EU’s GSP Regulation, the European Commission now has a maximum of three months to draft its conclusions. Those will be shared with the Cambodian authorities, who will have one month to respond.

Following that, the Commission will make a decision, by February 12 next year, as to whether or not to suspend part or all of Cambodia’s access to EBA. Should there be a decision to suspend preferences, a transition period of six months will be granted before the suspension takes place.

The decision itself will depend on an analysis of actions taken by Cambodia to address the human rights and labour rights issues that were at the basis of the decision to launch the procedure.

I want to emphasise that suspension of preferences is not inevitable and is not the EU’s desired outcome.

The point of the EBA engagement is to work with the Cambodian authorities to improve the situation and to arrive at a position in which Cambodia is in line with its obligations under the 15 core UN and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, and its access to EBA remains in place.

What are your expectations regarding the development of human rights and democracy in Cambodia?

Respect for the rights of the individual is something that is at the core of the EU’s identity and the European vision. That reflects the origins of the EU in response to the horrors that Europe witnessed in the first half of the 20th century.

That centrality of rights is also a key part of the EU’s approach to its external relations, including with Cambodia. We believe that democracy, respect for the rights and dignity of every individual and a strong civil society are a force for stability and good government.

Cambodia has a strong record in some areas, including reducing poverty and improving access to basic health and education services.

We have seen remarkable achievements in ensuring decent working conditions in Cambodia’s garment industry, with the support of the ILO Better Factories Cambodia initiative and of many of the European garment brands. And we welcome the government’s efforts to combat problems such as trafficking in people.

I hope over the coming months and years, we will see a further strengthening of democratic systems and the space for dissent, for a critical discussion of policy, and constructive advocacy by civil society and others.

Human rights are always a work in progress – in Europe as in Cambodia. We are ready to work with the Cambodian authorities in all these areas.

What do Cambodia and the EU need to do to ensure further good relations?

The EU is very ready to work in partnership with Cambodia. Our extensive programme of development cooperation is evidence of that, and on global political issues, we have many positions and priorities in common – in the need for action to address the crisis of climate change, in addressing international crime, in our belief in the importance of a rules-based and cooperative international order.

The EU is Cambodia’s biggest export market, and there is significant European investment in Cambodia – though I would like to see more. European companies can offer the highest standards in terms of technology, management and social and environmental responsibility.

I hope that we can see a resolution of the issues that have led to the launch of the EBA suspension procedure, so that Cambodia’s access to EBA need not be called into question, and so that we can take full advantage of the great opportunities that exist for cooperation that benefits Cambodia, the EU and our peoples.