Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Ministry called the decision an "extreme injustice" that ignored steps the government has taken to improve civil and political rights. It said it "is committed to continue enhancing the democratic space, human rights (and) labor rights."
In announcing the measure on Monday, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom charged Cambodia with "severe deficiencies when it comes to human rights and labor rights." The European action begins a six-month monitoring process, and the withdrawal of privileges could be decided upon in a year.
Cambodia is one of several developing nations with which the EU has an "Everything But Arms" — EBA — scheme granting preferential access to the European market for things other than weapons. Momentum to review Cambodia's privileges grew after last July's general election, in which Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won all 125 National Assembly seats. The EU and others charged the election was unfair and unfree because the sole credible opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, was dissolved in November 2017 by Cambodia's Supreme Court, generally seen as being under the government's influence.
Cambodia's statement Tuesday accused the EU of being "narrow-mindedly focused on the existence of the dissolved CNRP and the fate of its leadership." In a clear reference to the opposition group, it accused the EU of choosing to believe "a handful of dishonest politicians who continuously try to find every means to destroy their own country and their people rather than respecting the voices of those who are legitimately elected."
It also said the European move "takes the risk of negating 20 years' worth of development efforts" that have helped pull millions of Cambodians out of poverty. Earlier Tuesday, Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page a softer response to the EU announcement.
He boasted of Cambodia's economic development and said the country does not rely solely on foreign aid, and would not give up its independence and sovereignty for it. "But we want to be good friends with all the partner countries that want to see Cambodia make progress, without foreign interference in the country's internal affairs," he wrote.
The U.S. Embassy in Cambodia also took note of the European action. "We share the EU's concerns about serious violations of freedom of expression, internationally recognized labor rights, and freedom of association. The United States calls on Cambodian leaders to restore a true, multiparty democracy, as enshrined in Cambodia's Constitution," it said in a statement.
It suggested that Cambodia still could avoid European action that could harm its economy. "We urge Cambodian leaders to put the well-being of the country before personal and political interests," it said.