11 July 2024

It has taken 18 years for Thailand and the EU to sign the Thailand-EU Comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). The reason it has taken so long has been the EU’s lack of consistency and erratic response to Thailand’s domestic situation. Thailand is an imperfect country. Obviously, the country’s political turmoil should not have been used as a single barometer to deter and delay,whatever both sides had on their to-do lists in their bilateral relations. Of late, common sense among the EU policy makershave prevailed, which has led to the current level of momentum.

In retrospect, the EU should have given more credence to Thailand’s continuous efforts to eradicate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, including issues related to human rights and slavery. Currently, grievances are running high both among trawler owners and fishing tycoons who believe that the Prayut government has been too soft in responding to EU pressure. Thailand wants to follow international standards in all areas and domains, as it looks ahead to a post COVID-19 era.

Apparently, the EU prefers closed and pseudo-democratic societies to open and malfunctioning democratic societies,which have domestically-driven forces, including inputs from civil society organisations. It is a hypocrisy that has deep roots in the organisation in Brussels.

It must be noted that Thailand, as a non-colonised nation in Southeast Asia, was the strongest supporter of the EU when Brussels wanted to become a strategic partner, while other ASEAN members were opposed to such an elevation, due to agricultural disputes with key ASEAN members. During its role as coordinator of ASEAN-EU relations, Thailand pushed for all-round cooperation with the EU, including issuing a joint statement on climate change in 2017, the first between ASEAN and the EU, as well as backing the EU’s desire to become a member of the East Asia Summit.

Of late, Thailand has also supported the Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which shares commonalities with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Thailand also responded positively to a leading member of the EU, France, to attend the recent APEC 2022. France was the first EU country to interact with Thailand after the EU ended its boycott in December 2017.

The PCA represented a great leap forward in the 44-year-long Thailand-EU diplomatic ties, which began when the first European Community mission in Southeast Asia was established in Bangkok in 1978. At the time, the ties were excellent, with better awareness and understanding among the EEC staffers of the local conditions. For quite some time, Thailand’s narratives and optics within the EU have been lop-sided, unlike those of yesteryears. It is hoped that the PCA will remind the EU of so many significant things that could have been achieved over the 18 Rip Van Winkle-like years.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PCA strengthens cooperation in political, economic, social and environmental matters, including capacity-building and the exchange of experts. The agreement also enables each side to learn best practices, especially initiatives related to health and the Bio-Circular-Green economy model.

It is hoped that the PCA will accelerate the conclusion of Thai-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations in the near future. Otherwise, it could be another opportunity lost – once bitten twice shy.

Kavi Chongkittavorn