The European Union has announced a “dedicated” mission to Cambodia to monitor its Generalised Scheme of Preferences, the agreement under which Cambodian goods reach the crucial European market tariff-free.
In a response to questions by parliamentarians about the political situation in Cambodia, European Commission Vice President Federica Mogherini, also the bloc’s top foreign affairs official, said on Thursday that “respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms is part of the EU’s trade policy and underpins the legal basis of our trade preferences”.
“A dedicated GSP monitoring mission is foreseen in 2018,” she wrote.
The GSP currently grants Cambodian exports tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
A question submitted by Parliamentarian Ramon Tremosa i Balcells in response to Mogherini’s statement, not yet published but obtained by The Post on Monday, indicates that the mission is scheduled for June, and asks whether results of the “June fact-finding mission to Cambodia” would be made public.
The question also asks the commission to confirm that the European Union delegation in Cambodia was denied access to jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha.
Multiple European Commission representatives and the EU delegation in Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
A participant present at a closed-door meeting between the European Commission and European Parliament on April 25 said the commission had told participants they would first conduct a fact-finding mission in Cambodia in June, and that further steps could be taken after elections.
“After the elections, and also depending on the process, they will consider targeted restrictive measures,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the session was not public. “I think [the European Commission] is feeling that business as usual [is] no longer acceptable.”
Though the attendee said the commission did not mention any concrete measures, a previous European Parliament resolution had called for, among others, visa sanctions and freezing assets of high-ranking government officials in response to an ongoing crackdown on the opposition , civil society, and media in Cambodia.
Under the GSP agreement, the tariff preferences can be temporary or fully withdrawn in the case of human rights abuses.
According to the European Commission’s 2016-2017 report – published in January – Cambodia is the second-biggest beneficiary of the EBA scheme after Bangladesh, accounting for 18 percent of all EBA imports to the EU.
Also in January, the EU announced enhanced scrutiny in the form of GSP monitoring missions over the following two years for countries in which “strengthened efforts are required due to more serious shortcomings”.
Another January press release indicated that the EU had started the “enhanced EBA monitoring process” for Bangladesh and Cambodia.
Astrid Norén-Nilsson, an expert on Cambodian politics at Lund University, said a partial suspension of the agreement was possible. “I would be surprised if the EU entirely suspended the EBA scheme,” she said. “But it is possible that the EU could partially suspend the scheme after the elections.”
Political commentator Meas Nee said the agreement was tied to human rights and could be suspended in case of breaches. However, he said, timing was important. “They have to wait until after the election,” he said. “In case the government will not be legitimised, then sanctions could be their preference.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay, however, warned that imposing EBA sanctions may not have the intended effect.
“To suspend EBA would be tantamount to punishing the innocent workers, producers and exporters and let go those responsible for the present political situation of the country. It would not be right and ethical to do so,” he said in a message. “The real culprits should be punished. They should blamed and shamed, and shunned in international fora.”