BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Cambodia failed on Friday to allay criticisms of authoritarianism and rights abuses that threaten the country’s duty-free trading access to the European Union, the EU’s top diplomat said after talks with its premier.
Brussels began a formal procedure this month to strip Cambodia of its special trade status, worth billions of euros a year, following July elections that returned strongman Hun Sen to power after 30 years in office and gave his party all parliamentary seats.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini held talks with the prime minister in Brussels during a summit of 51 European and Asian leaders. She said later she had not heard anything that would avert trade sanctions.
“We discussed this, I cannot say that we found solutions to any of these issues,” Mogherini told a news conference.
“There is a lot of concern in Europe ... about the dissolution of the opposition and the narrowed democratic space for political opposition and civil society.”
The bloc’s review of Cambodia’s duty-free access to the EU means Cambodian sugar, garments and other exports could face tariffs within 12 months under EU rules and make the country less attractive for retailers exporting to Europe.
EU countries accounted for around 40 percent of Cambodia’s foreign sales in 2016. Clothing factories employ around 700,000 workers.
Its exports to the European Union were worth 5 billion euros ($5.8 billion) last year, according to EU data, up from negligible levels less than a decade ago, before the trade status.
Dozens of Cambodians gathered outside the summit venue in Brussels to protest against Hun Sen’s policies.
He declined to answer questions from reporters, waving his hand and walking away when asked if he was concerned about the impending sanctions.
Mogherini also met Myanmar’s Minister for International Cooperation Kyaw Tin in Brussels and raised the prospect of similar trade sanctions to punish the country for what the West says is its ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
A recent U.N. report accused Myanmar’s military of gang rapes and mass killings with “genocidal intent” in Rakhine state and called for its commander-in-chief and five generals to be prosecuted under international law.
Myanmar has denied most of the allegations in the report, blaming Rohingya “terrorists” for most accounts of atrocities.
“We won’t close our eyes to violations that the international community sees as worrying,” Mogherini said. “Our trade preferences have the respect for human rights at their core.”
Reporting by Robin Emmott and Philip Blenkinsop; editing by Andrew Roche