European Union foreign ministers have this month agreed to resume full political contacts with Thailand, ending restrictions imposed soon after the 2014 military coup which ousted the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
This decision sends a signal to Bangkok -- and perhaps to other capitals in Southeast Asia -- that Brussels may adapt the way it implements its human rights and democracy principles. It may pay more attention to its interests, not least trade, especially when China and President Donald Trump's administration in the U.S. are taking an increasingly hard-nosed approach.
The EU has justified its latest this step by pointing to two developments: Thailand's decision in September 2016 to end military trials for civilian cases, and the National Council for Peace and Order's recent statement that elections would be held in November 2018. While these mark an improvement, the EU's response represents a departure from its earlier position that "only ... the holding of credible and inclusive elections will allow for the EU's continued support."
The EU had shifted its position for two reasons. First, some member states have long privately expressed unhappiness at restrictions on high-level contacts and commercial ties. In particular, the EU froze all discussion, even on a technical level, of a free trade agreement. An FTA is considered a key part of the future relationships with Thailand following the phasing-out in 2015 of the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) granted to Thai exports.
Second, the EU risked being left behind by other major powers. China's presence in Thailand has deepened over the past three years, while Trump has upgraded American ties by reversing Obama-era restrictions imposed after the 2014 coup. The significance of Prime Minister Prayuth's trade-heavy visit to Washington in October will not have been lost on EU member states keen for export opportunities, especially as Thailand's economic growth rate moves towards 4%, mainly on the back of strong trade performance. The EU is Thailand's third biggest trade partner after China and Japan, with a total of 32.9 billion euros in 2015.
The EU's new position makes good sense if it serves member-state interests and promises a more productive relationship. It will have two immediate consequences. First, it will allow resumption of bilateral visits at ministerial level, enabling candid discussions of key issues and enhancing the ability to exert constructive influence. Second, it paves the way for resuming talks on the FTA, though the EU continues to insist that a final agreement can only be signed with a democratic government.
Courage in question
But this calibrated shift in the EU's position, ahead of new elections in Thailand, involves some risk. There is no guarantee that elections will not be delayed again, as they have several times since the coup. Nor is it clear whether they will be held in conditions deemed free and fair. The move to civilian trials should bring greater openness to the judicial process. But it does not apply to charges brought against alleged offences committed before September 2016. Nor does it guarantee that new charges will not be brought for violating what the EU acknowledges continue to be "highly restrictive" laws on self-expression which have "severely curtailed" civil liberties (ironically, the EU's decision was made only the day after UN Human Rights Day).
EU common positions are agreed by all member states: Reaching a consensus is not the work of a moment, and can be bureaucratically complex. In practice, the EU's concession of a better relationship would be hard to reverse if Thailand's conduct fell short of EU hopes of a return to democracy. To manage this risk, and respond to criticisms from human rights groups that it has made unwarranted concessions, the EU would be wise to ensure that it plays an important role in monitoring Thailand's next elections.
Finally, the EU's new stance holds implications for its relations with other countries in the region, where core European values of democracy and human rights are under pressure. The EU has just told Cambodia that it will no longer help fund its forthcoming election following the forced dissolution of the main opposition party. More significant will be the EU's response to the mass rape, violence and expulsion of Rohingya from Myanmar.
The EU has shown it can soften a principled position in response to limited improvement in one country. Some will ask whether, in the light of this precedent, it will now harden its position in response to mass human rights violations in a neighboring one.
Nigel Gould-Davies teaches international relations at Mahidol University International College in Thailand, and is an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.