Flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Francois Lenoir
Flags flutter outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 28, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Francois Lenoir

However one wants to describe Thailand’s general election in March (the terms “bizarre” and “shambles” come to mind), “democratic” isn’t an adjective close at hand. Attempts by the largest political party, a pro-democracy group, to form a coalition government were rebuffed, while the leader of the military junta that came to power in a coup in 2014, and who didn’t even stand as a member of parliament in the ballot, was voted in as prime minister largely thanks to the support of a Senate that is appointed by the armed forces.

Yet the election was an important step in “restoring pluralism and democratic governance in Thailand,” reckoned Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign-affairs chief, as she prepared to attend summits in Bangkok last week. Such an opinion, while not necessarily reflecting how many Thais perceive what happened, is useful as the EU wants to reopen talks about a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) that were suspended in 2014, just a year after they began, because of the military coup.

It was Thailand’s second military putsch to oust a democratically elected leader in a decade. It also appears, according to Thai media, that the EU is now ready to sign a draft Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (COPA) with Thailand on investment and trade.

“Yesterday’s peaceful holding of the first fully contested parliamentary elections in Thailand since 2011 constitutes an important step towards restoring a democratic form of governance. Thai citizens have participated in large numbers to this exercise, to shape the future of their country,” a spokeswoman for the European External Action Service (EEAS) said in a press statement the day after the election, though 45 days before the results were finally announced, a delay that raised understandable questions about fairness.

Brussels hasn’t changed its tune since. “It’s clear the March election and the swearing in of a cross-party coalition cabinet are important steps towards restoring pluralism and democratic governance in Thailand. We want to work closely with the new government to reinforce our cooperation and build an even stronger, deeper partnership,” Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, told Nikkei Asian Review before attending Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits held in Bangkok last week.

She went on: “In 2017, the EU foreign-affairs ministers explicitly mentioned the holding of credible elections and the installation of a democratically elected civilian government as preconditions for resuming negotiations on a free trade agreement.” In other words, trade talks can now justifiably restart as, in the eyes of the EEAS, preconditions for restoring democracy have seemingly been met. With a not-so-subtle enticement, Prayut Chan-ocha, the unelected prime minister, reassured Mogherini in a meeting over the weekend that “democratic rule is being promoted” in Thailand.

So why is Brussels so keen to adopt the rosiest interpretation of events in Bangkok? One reason is that the EU foreshadowed its conclusion before the event. In December 2017, three years after cutting off contact with Thai officials, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council announced it would “resume political contacts at all levels with Thailand.” That statement came just months after the military junta finally announced that it would hold elections, which were initially scheduled for November 2018 before repeated delays. It might have been more sensible to commence the process after elections took place.

Another explanation, though, is that Thailand is the only remaining Southeast Asian country that shows any great enthusiasm about signing a trade deal with the EU. Brussels still claims its long-term goal is to sign an FTA with the entire 10-member ASEAN bloc, the EU’s third-largest trading partner. However, this is increasingly unlikely. Instead, the EU has focused on bilateral trade deals with Southeast Asian nations. Deals with Singapore and Vietnam, its two largest trading partners in the region, were signed in quick succession this year. But momentum is stalling over the four other FTAs that began earlier this decade.

Talks with Malaysia stalled in 2012, just two years after they began, and they are unlikely to reopen any time soon given Kuala Lumpur’s anger over the EU’s planned ban on palm oil. Talks for an FTA with Indonesia are ongoing and the next round is set for December, but they will also be stalked by the palm-oil dispute; Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil. Both Malaysia and Indonesia have threatened to report the EU to the World Trade Organization over what they perceive as a discriminatory ban.

Trade-deal talks with the Philippines, meanwhile, are at least progressing, though Brussels is said to be queasy about doing business with President Rodrigo Duterte, who has overseen a brutal and illegal war on drugs that has now left more than 12,000 people dead. Manila, meanwhile, shows little interest in trade talks with the EU.

So with Malaysia and Indonesia recalcitrant (and the green wave that swept European elections earlier this year means Brussels is less likely to backtrack on a major environmental policy) and the Philippines not interested, the EU-Thailand FTA remains the best hope for Brussels expanding its free-trade policy in Asia. And Thailand is certainly willing. Its bilateral trade with the EU has contracted in recent years, while it has major concerns that the EU-Vietnam deal will now siphon off its incoming investment, as manufacturers move operations to Vietnam to make use of planned zero-tariff exports to Europe.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanavisit said in parliament in late July that the country wants to revive the EU talks, and Auramon Supthaweethum, director general of the Trade Negotiations Department, later reiterated to Thai media that the green light had been given by Bangkok for them to resume. An EU official told me that Mogherini will now discuss the Thai situation at the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council in September or October.

A second reason for the EU’s lenient attitude toward Thailand is that, since the European Commission approved the EU-Vietnam FTA (although the European Parliament still needs to accept it), concerns about human rights and democracy have become less delicate. Thailand’s election might not have been the most democratic, but Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party has never even considered holding an election in decades. And Thailand might be repressive, especially when it comes to perceived criticism of its monarchy or military, but Vietnam is arguably the worst abuser of human rights in Southeast Asia – and conditions there have worsened over the last three years.

So now that the EU has signed a free-trade deal with Vietnam – and on Monday it even signed a new defense pact in Hanoi, Brussels’ first with a Southeast Asian nation – it has given itself a contortionist’s wriggle room when it comes to judging the domestic political standards of Asian partners. Indeed, when compared with events in Vietnam, even the slightest morsel of political progress could be described as “restoring pluralism and democratic governance,” as in the case of Thailand.

Small wonder, then, that the EU is gaining a reputation in Southeast Asia for being hypocritical. In February, it began an 18-month review of whether Cambodia should remain part of its preferential Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which grants Cambodian exports tariff-free status. This came after the ruling party dissolved the country’s largest opposition party in late 2017, arrested its leader for treason, and then last year rigged a general election. Brussels is also weighing up whether to remove Myanmar from the EBA scheme after widespread human-rights abuses (or what some call genocide) against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

Yet at the same time, the EU has rewarded sparkling new trade deals to Vietnam and Singapore, whose ruling parties are the longest-entrenched in the region. Singapore’s People’s Action Party has been in power since the city-state’s independence in 1965, and the Vietnamese Communist Party since 1975 (though the communists have reigned for decades longer, if one counts before Vietnam’s reunification in 1975).

European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström is fond of saying: “Our EU trade policy must be led by our values.” Three years ago, the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy stated that “principled pragmatism will guide our external action in the years ahead.” Clearly, now, pragmatism is coming before principles, and values are to be provisional to trade policy. But if the EU wants to get far more influence in global affairs – which almost every senior European official now says it does – then this is a course it will often have to take.

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