#Thailand: European Commission says reopening trade talks with Thailand depends on return to democracy
By Martin Banks | March 17, 2016
Thailand has been branded a “failed state” in its failure to adhere to democratic norms.
The damning indictment came during a debate in Brussels on the EU’s trade policy with Asian countries, including Thailand.
Keynote speaker Hosuk Lee-Makiyamama, director of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), said: “In terms of democracy, yes, Thailand is a failed state.
“The Thai population does not believe in democracy and there have been almost as many coups, 11 I think, as elections in recent years.” He added: “I know of no other country where one branch of the military has been in conflict with the other.”
His withering condemnation of Thai democracy was reinforced by comments from Jaran Ditapichai, a Thai political activist who has been in exile in Paris since the 2014 coup, who said that 70% of the middle class in Thailand “do not believe in democracy”.
Ditapichai, who says he faces up to ten years’ in prison if he returns to Thailand,also predicts that the referendum on the newly drafted constitution, which has been earmarked for this August, would be “meaningless.”
The military junta that has run the country since the May 2014 coup is putting the finishing touches to a re-drafted constitution that will go to a referendum in July, supposedly paving the way for elections in 2017. But, when asked if he thought this gave hope for the future of Thailand, Lee-Makiyamama said: “It’s not leaning in the right direction.”
The debate heard that trade ties with the EU had helped some south-east Asia countries such as the Philippines move towards democratic development whereas such conditions are not yet fully met with Thailand.
Bilateral Free Trade Agreements have been signed in recent years between the EU and Vietnam and Singapore.Thailand is the EU’s third largest trading partner among the ASEAN countries but, since the 2014 coup, the EU has suspended fledgling negotiations with Thailand on the bilateral Free Trade Agreement, commenced in 2013.
The EU also refuses to sign the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) finalised in November 2013. Another panellist, Mauro Petriccione, deputy director general of the European Commission’s trade directorate, outlined some of the conditions that must be met before the EU is ready to re-start trade talks with Thailand. The EU veteran told the meeting that any re-negotiated FTA must include certain clauses about sustainable development and engaging in dialogue with civil society.
But he remains pessimistic about the prospect of such talks resuming any time soon, saying: “The current situation is not good. We see no evidence that the Thai government wants to have a dialogue with the international community. The negotiations can only recommence when we see a sign that it is ready to do this.
“If we do not get such a sign you have to ask if this (reopening trade talks) is the right thing to do, ” added Petriccione, an Italian who has worked in trade policy since joining the Commission in 1987.
The ruling junta has postponed elections since seizing power nearly two years ago and now says they will take place “sometime” next year. But, when quizzed about the prospects for “fair and free” elections in the country, Petriccione admitted: “I am not holding my breath.”
His comments were partly echoed by French EPP MEP Franck Proust, the trade committee’s rapporteur on Thailand, who said: “We know about the problems in Thailand and they are unacceptable.” He said future EU trade deals should be conditional upon a third country, such as Thailand, being able to demonstrate that it upholds human rights and freedoms, so-called “conditionality”.
“I hope Thailand can prepare for return to democracy and an improvement in human rights but the two come as a package and trade talks cannot resume until there has been an improvement.” Another speaker, Victoria Bataclan, ambassador to the EU for the Philippines, seen as a success story among ASEAN nations for its democratic development, said she believes conditionality can help raise awareness of issues of democracy and human rights.
When asked if “fair and free” elections in 2017 could be sufficient to reopen FTA discussions with Thailand, German Greens MEP Barbara Lochbihler said, “This is important but there must also be a significant improvement in the human rights situation in Thailand.”
Lochbihler, vice chair of the European Parliament’s sub committee on human rights, cited what she called “slave-like” conditions in the country’s seafood industry as one particular area of concern, adding, “There has got to be a stop to slavery on Thai boats.”
The two-hour conference, attended by EU officials, stakeholders and media and organised with the support of Debates.eu., heard evidence from an NGO of slave labour, human trafficking and “modern-day slavery” in Thailand.
Irene Vidal, of the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EIF), said, “We have identified huge problems in the Thai fisheries sector. It is important that, after next year’s elections in Thailand, the trade directorate works in a coherent way with other Commission DGs to tackle these issues.”