PHNOM PENH: The European Union has partially withdrawn the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme with Cambodia, citing a serious and systematic violation of principles in four core human and labour rights.
The suspension affects one-fifth or €1 billion (RM4.5 billion) of Cambodia’s annual exports to the EU’s 27 nation bloc and it will take effect on August 12.
The EU said in a statement that the partial withdrawal would affect selected garment and footwear products, and all travel goods and sugar.
European Commission vice president Josep Borrell said violation of human rights and political rights in Cambodia, freedom of expression and association had left the EU with no other choice than to partially withdraw the scheme.
“The European Union will not stand and watch as democracy is eroded, human rights curtailed, and free debate silenced.
“Today’s decision reflects our strong commitment to the Cambodian people, their rights, and the country’s sustainable development. For the trade preferences to be reinstated, the Cambodian authorities need to take the necessary measures,” he said.
Recognising the need to continue supporting Cambodia’s economic development and diversification of its exports, the EU said all emerging industries in Cambodia would continue to enjoy duty free, quota free access to the EU market.
High value added garments and certain types of footwear would also continue to enjoy the same benefits.
The Phnom Penh Post said the EU also acknowledged that the Cambodian government had made progress in the area of labour rights and land rights.
But many areas still needed to be resolved, including criminal cases against trade unionists, the reopening of political space, reinstatement of the political rights of members of a former opposition party, the repeal of laws governing political parties, and the Law on Association and Non-governmental Organisations.
The Khmer Times said the EU began reviewing the EBA status in February last year after the ruling CPP swept all 125 National Assembly seats during the 2018 general election.
The review was in response to the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017 by the Supreme Court and the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha over a treason charge.
The EU had previously said that despite systematic harassment, opposition party CNRP had been on track to perform well and possibly even to win the July 2018 election.
The CPP went on to win every single seat in parliament for the first time ever. At the same time, the government closed down several critical media outlets.
“In case Cambodia shows significant progress, notably on civil and political rights, the Commission may review its decision and reinstate tariff preferences under the EBA arrangement,” the EU statement said.
The affected products are estimated to be worth around €1 billion (RM4.5 billion) and will be subject to between 1.7 and 12 per cent tax.
The EU said exports from Cambodia reached €5.4 billion (RM24.3 billion) in 2018 and 95.7 per cent or €5.2 billion (RM23.4 billion) entered the EU market under the EBA scheme.
In response to the partial withdrawal, Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the EU’s decision was unjust and politically motivated.
“The decision is nothing less than the application of a double standard when it comes to the EU’s preferential practices with other trading nations,” the ministry said.
“The Government remains firm in its principled position in rejecting any attempt by external parties in their use of trade and development assistance as pretexts to justify their interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs,” it said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had said Cambodia must not bow down to such pressure and the nation will not exchange its independence and sovereignty for any aid or preferential trade scheme.