By WASAMON AUDJARINT
THAILAND is expected to resume negotiations with the European Union on a Thai-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA) after talks were suspended more than three years ago following the 2014 coup, according to top officials.
The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on Monday issued a statement concluding that it had decided to resume political contact with Thailand at all levels and invited the EU Commission to explore possibilities for resuming talks on the Thai-EU FTA.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha yesterday welcomed the EU’s decision while referring to the new Constitution and clearer election timetable.
But that did not mean that the ruling junta’s ban on political activities, imposed soon after 2014 coup, would be lifted soon, the premier added. “Regardless of small or big parties, the ban will be lifted once everything is settled,” he said.
Speaking at a weekly press briefing, Prayut said the junta government had been explaining to the international community how Thailand would eventually “return to democracy” in line with the junta’s so-called road map.
The explanations also included ongoing efforts to map the 20-year national strategy. Overseen by a military-dominated committee, the strategy is meant to force future governments to comply with the strategy on pain of penalty.
The election date, which has been changed several times, depended on “unexpected circumstances”, Prayut said, citing this year’s Royal Cremation Ceremonies.
“How could I allow any domestic conflicts to occur ahead of such event?” he rhetorically asked.
The election date will also depend on when essential organic laws are finished, which will depend on the charter drafters and the National Legislative Assembly, which are both appointed by the ruling junta.
“But it’s not like I can point fingers at them. Not all of them are military men. They are mixed. Can’t you see how hard they are discussing issues to come up with each law?” he said.
“It’s life or death for this country, but you [critics] need to accelerate the election date,” he added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson of the EU delegation said the restoration of talks would make it easier to effectively address issues of mutual interest, including human rights and the road to democracy, which would “figure prominently”.
“This will be of particular importance in the period leading to the election in November 2018, and beyond,” the spokesperson told The Nation in an email.
Natthanan Kunnamas, the Jean Monnet Chair and an EU expert at Chulalongkorn University, said the revitalisation of ties was a good sign that also corresponded with new events in the EU.
The new ambassador and head of the EU delegation has just unofficially moved to Thailand, while the EU foreign policy is also leaning towards political pragmatism rather than its previous focus on humanitarian values, Natthanan said.
Driven by Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the new approach tended to make the EU “realise that what they think is universal is sometimes not welcomed by host countries”, she said.
This did not mean that the EU would contradict its own values, but negotiations would not be “much as hardline as before”.
“The EU has combined development aid with political aid already. Thus this new approach of negotiations is interesting,” she added.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai welcomed the EU’s decision, saying: “The most significant thing is that the EU has relaxed its stance [towards Thailand]. Political developments ... now move one step forward.”
Don said official political contact as well as visits between Thai and European leaders and officials could now proceed.
“This means that we can visit EU members if we are invited, and they are welcome to visit us as well,” Don said.
The bloc was also satisfied with Thailand’s role as Asean coordinator, Don said, adding that the general international sentiment had inclined discussions with Thailand to resume.
The relaxation will also have a good psychological affect on investors, Don said. He added that talks between the EU and Thailand on business cooperation, including a free trade agreement, could proceed “when the time is right”.
Deputy Commerce Minister Chutima Bunyapraphasara also welcomed the EU decision on the crucial bilateral trade and investment agreement, noting that the two sides had earlier held four rounds of negotiations prior to the EU’s suspension of contact with Thailand in 2014.
Chutima said several EU member countries and the private sector had supported resuming talks on the FTA with Thailand, so technical negotiations were expected to restart shortly.
While the Department of Trade Negotiations will be in charge of preparing to resume talks with EU counterparts, she said the Thai government and National Legislative Assembly had also implemented multiple economic and other reform agendas to get the country ready for the proposed Thai-EU FTA.
Those measures included the enactment of new trade competition and foreign business legislation, which will better facilitate fair trade, as well as the promotion of foreign investors doing business in Thailand, she said.