The EU and Cambodia share a rich history of cooperation, marked by many agreements spanning more than 26 years.

The Kingdom holds a significant partnership status not only with the European bloc but also with its powerful member states like France and Germany, yet the relationship is not without its challenges as, according to political analysts, controversies over human rights and democracy persist.

“Cambodia-EU relations have notably improved in recent times, particularly since the inauguration of the seventh-mandate government led by Prime Minister Hun Manet. Over the past four months, he has actively pursued a diplomatic policy which places a significant emphasis on the economic sector,” said Kin Phea, director of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC).

“While the EU and Cambodia face some misunderstandings, the overarching perspective highlights a mutual commitment to bolstering relations and cooperation. Both sides have demonstrated a clear willingness to strengthen their ties,” he added.

Phea noted that within their bilateral relation framework, both sides have expressed a commitment to fostering positive cooperation. And while the EU has played a significant role in the Kingdom’s development, it also serves as a vital trade and investment partner, with many of Cambodian products exported to EU markets.

“Moving forward, our aim is to enhance cooperation in mutually beneficial areas, increasing collaboration based on common interests. We must strive to narrow the trust gap between us as much as possible,” he said.

Thong Mengdavid, a research supervisor at the Asian Vision Institute (AVI), told The Post that over the past 30 years, the EU has participated in Cambodia’s development through interregional cooperation, including the ASEAN-EU partnership. Since 1994, the EU has played a significant role in advancing the nation’s socio-economic growth, social governance, democratic progress, education and other developmental areas, in line with the Kingdom’s pursuit of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Past achievements

In 2022, the EU, collaborating with UNICEF, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and OXFAM, pledged €7.4 million ($8.04 million) to support Cambodia’s social protection systems. They also launched the second Joint European Strategy for Development Cooperation with Cambodia 2021-2027, aiming to strengthen collaborative development efforts between the bloc and the Kingdom. 

“Cambodia and the EU should designate 2024 as a ‘Strategic Year’, re-examining their accomplishments from 1994 to 2024. Strengthening current ties and fostering new cooperation and partnerships are essential for building on the foundations that have been laid over the past 30 years,” said Mengdavid.

“The EU ‘Global Gateway’ initiative is a pivotal framework which promotes regional integration by bolstering sustainable agriculture and industrial supply chains, contributing to Cambodia’s post-pandemic economic recovery,” he added.

He also noted the need to strengthen public-private partnerships and drive the green transition. This includes promoting commitments to renewable energy and a green economy, with an emphasis on increasing the availability of financial and technological assistance, fostering human resources and institutional capacity building, and facilitating technology transfer from developed countries to Cambodia.

Regarding bilateral relations, the EU has committed to collaborating with the Kingdom on trade and economic reform, the green transformation, renewable energy and the promotion of human rights. 

Confirmation on social media from the EU Delegation to Cambodia highlighted that crucial meetings in early January between EU ambassador to Cambodia Igor Driesmans and Manet proved fruitful, while addressing both bilateral relations and global issues.

Notably, the EU holds the position of being Cambodia’s second-largest market, following the US.

Driesmans, during an October 2023 press conference in Phnom Penh, revealed that in 2022, the EU imported goods from Cambodia worth $5.9 billion, an impressive fourfold increase in just a decade.

The green vision

At the time, Driesmans outlined four key priorities for collaboration with the Kingdom. 

Firstly, the EU aims to support Cambodia’s green transition, envisioning a partnership in reducing carbon emissions, fostering sustainable growth and addressing all facets of environmental enhancements and the battle against climate change.

The second priority focuses on trade promotion, intending to boost Cambodia’s competitiveness and integration within ASEAN and the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). This effort also aims to enhance trade relations with the EU.

Thirdly, there is an emphasis on investing in youth, recognising the importance of supporting the new generation of Cambodians, given that 65 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.

The fourth priority underscores the EU’s commitment to improving governance. 

“More broadly, our relations will continue to be grounded in a fundamental commitment to human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles,” said Driesmans.

In 2020, the European Commission removed 20 per cent of tariff exemptions for Cambodian imports under the EU Everything But Arms (EBA) preferential scheme, citing “serious human rights concerns and democratic process issues in the country”.

The EU took this step while expressing an openness to discuss required reforms with the government.

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said the nation’s ties with the EU faced some strain following the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the suspension of EBA benefits. This impacted Cambodia’s economic growth, resulting in job losses for many workers, exacerbated by the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Russia-Ukraine war has shifted the EU’s focus away from Cambodian democracy. This diversion has allowed each EU member state to enhance bilateral cooperation with the Cambodian government,” he added.

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen said in 2022 that the withdrawal of the EBA would not impact Cambodia’s exports to the European market. 

“The EBA isn’t an issue; Covid-19 is. Despite potential EBA reductions, our exports are growing. I aim for a resilient economy because, eventually, the EBA would end anyway, but economic growth will persist,” he said.