EU to resume political contact 'at all levels' with Thailand: statement

BANGKOK (Reuters) - The European Union will resume political contact “at all levels” with Thailand, its foreign affairs council said on Monday, after putting relations on hold following a 2014 coup by the Thai military.

The move comes after Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced in October that a general election would take place in November 2018 - the most precise date the junta has given after many delays since the 2014 coup.

The government, however, has yet to end a political ban that would allow political parties to campaign ahead of the vote.

The EU is Thailand’s third trade partner after China and Japan. Thailand is the EU’s third-largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Thailand exported goods worth €19.6 billion ($23.11 billion) to the EU in 2015, according to the European Commission.

“The Council decided to resume political contacts at all levels with Thailand in order to facilitate meaningful dialogue on issues of mutual importance, including on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the road towards democracy,” the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council said in a statement.

In June 2014, the EU said it would keep its relations with Thailand under review and put on hold the signing of a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which was aimed at closer economic and political ties with Thailand.

It has expressed concerns over freedom of expression in the country and has called for a swift return to democracy.

The signing of PCA and talks on EU-Thailand Free Trade Agreement (FTA) could resume with a democratically elected civilian government under the new Constitution, the statement said.

The United States also downgraded ties with Thailand following the coup, scaling back joint military exercises, among other things.

According to the European Commission, the EU exported goods worth €13.4 billion ($15.80 billion) to Thailand in 2015, including machinery and transport equipment.

($1 = 0.8480 euros)

Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Matthew Mpoke Bigg