Since Myanmar re-opened to the world and began its democratic reform process, the European Union (EU) swiftly and boldly unravelled a new chapter in its bilateral relations with the country. The EU started to engage in a wide range of high-impact and transformational political and economic initiatives that saw rapid results. In 2015, bilateral trade in goods between Myanmar and the European Union reached €1.2 billion, a 300% growth from 2012 when Myanmar had embarked in reforms. Today, the EU is the 4th largest foreign investor in the country, with around 10% of total investment. EU Ambassador Roland Kobia, who heads the EU Delegation in Myanmar, is honoured that the European Union and EU member states were among the first international partners to offer concrete support to Myanmar’s democratic transition and economic recovery.
European Times: What is the role of the EU in Myanmar today?
Roland Kobia: Since the normalisation of relations about four years ago, Myanmar and the EU have quickly developed strong and trustful relations – at political and also economic levels. We are supporting the peace process both politically and financially, as peace is the conditio sine qua non for any sustainable progress in the new Myanmar. If you want to build a house you need to make sure you have a strong foundation. Peace is that foundation.
The EU is engaged in political dialogue from grass-roots to the highest political levels, sharing its experiences in building peace and consolidating democracy, and enjoying a high level of trust as an unbiased outside adviser.
Myanmar is also benefitting from the EU’s second largest bilateral development cooperation budget in Asia. This was a strong signal by the EU and its Member States that we understand the magnitude of the challenges, and stand by Myanmar’s side on its path towards becoming a modern democracy. Our main pillars of our work are peace building support, education, rural development, human rights and rule of law.
Our political and development support goes hand-in-hand with efforts to support the country’s economic recovery – we are working with Myanmar to set the stage for more and better investments, more trade, more economic opportunities for a prosperous future.
European Times: How tangible is EU’s support?
Roland Kobia: People in Myanmar have high expectations in the country’s economic recovery. New job opportunities are key to help people emerge from poverty. The European Union’s support in this respect is very tangible: we were first to lift all economic sanctions back in 2013, paving the way to step up trade and enhance our economic relations. The EU fully opened the European market for Myanmar products quota-free and duties-free under the so-called General Scheme of Preferences GSP+ which offers enhanced access to the EU market for developing countries. Now we are negotiating a framework “Investment Protection Agreement” covering the 28 EU Member States. The Agreement will set the stage for new investments and ensure a fair deal on both sides: security for European investments while offering fair working conditions and high environmental protection standards.
The establishment of a EuroChamber is another concrete measure we have taken on the ground, aimed at supporting a relationship between Myanmar and European businesses that is beneficial for both. Such initiatives show the world that Myanmar is a country with great opportunities and it will create an appetite for more European companies to invest here. European companies enjoy an excellent reputation for taking their corporate social responsibility seriously, offering labour benefits and transferring skills and know-how.
EU development assistance at the same time targets high-impact areas that are essential for democratic stability and sustainable economic recovery. Our governance programmes contributed substantially to the first democratic elections last November. At the moment, the EU is finalising with its member states the framework to be able to be the first international partner to provide direct budget support to national Treasury, enabling the democratic government to lead its policies in social sectors. With an amount of €165 million in grants, the EU will be supporting the health and education sectors under maximum local ownership, while helping the government improve its public finances management.
European Times: What are the incentives to visit or invest in Myanmar?
Roland Kobia: It is a very special destination, being one of last countries in which you can walk a path and leave a footprint, as the first person to do so. There are abundant sectors and places which have not been discovered, “hot spots” at every corner, opportunities along every road. European business people should come here now, and evaluate the opportunities. The rise of the democratically elected government brought immense improvement to the business and investment climate. With a democratically-elected government and the reforms continuing, business reputational risks many feared in the past are now not higher than in many other countries where European businesses flourish, probably even lower. Now is the right time to come to Myanmar and make one’s own and first-hand opinion.