Myanmar -EU Business Chamber formation mired in infighting and name calling

The EU Delegation has tentatively chosen a candidate to launch and operate a forthcoming EU Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar – though not an organisation which had been hoping for the European business chamber mantle in the country for years.

Euro Business Forum founder Luc de Waegh said his organisation could have completed the project without cost to the European Union, adding the EU tender process to launch the business chamber lacked transparency, a claim rejected by a senior EU official.

That the organisation had not been preselected had surprised everyone, said Mr de Waegh. He added the French business chamber had ultimately been chosen to launch the chamber, though an EU official declined to confirm the selection. A French chamber official said it is still involved in the process but directed further questions to the EU.

The Euro Business Forum was one of four groups that applied earlier this year to an EU tender to build and operate the European business chamber, according to an EU official. But Mr de Waegh said it received word in June it had received a score of 25.34 out of 50, below the minimum 30 points required to advance to the second stage of the competition.

It then sought more information to clarify its final mark. “We got the reply that under no circumstance any details can be provided,” Mr de Waegh said. “That sounds like what, North Korea?”

Before the EU established an Office in Myanmar, the Euro Business Forum enjoyed support from the EU Delegation of Bangkok, he said at a recent Euro Business Forum event. Mr de Waegh later told The Myanmar Times in an interview his group also had “very good contact” with the EU Office that opened in Myanmar.

The line of communication between the Euro Business Forum and the EU in Yangon then went dead when the outpost became a Delegation with an ambassador, according to Mr de Waegh.

However, the EU Delegation to Myanmar rejected the claim its tender lacked transparency and said it has been conducted in line with rules which it applies around the world.

“If you ask me who in this case looks like somebody who is not playing fair, you have the answer. I can assure … this process has been led in a transparent way,” EU Ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia said in an interview. “We are here to defend European interest and, well, some people just don’t like to lose, it seems.”

The tender was split into two stages. Four different candidate groups had initially thrown their hat in the ring, with two groups advancing to the final stage, Mr Kobia said.

An evaluation committee separately judged proposals based on quantifiable, technical parameters, according to Mr Kobia.

A communication shutdown had been implemented to ensure a level playing field. “That was part of my strategy to be neutral and fair in this issue,” he said. “If I had seen all these people and answered, I would have been criticised. Now I’m criticised because I wanted to be fair and not see people who were contending.”

Mr Kobia added the EU had been in touch with the Euro Business Forum, with its back–and–forth showing the EU has been proceeding in a transparent way.

“We are an administration that has a duty to answer to people and we have answered,” he said.

Mr de Waegh, though, remains unconvinced. He has said he hopes transparency will play a larger role in the EU chamber’s future. The Euro Business Forum had planned to operate the chamber without funding, though the initiative is now expected to cost about €2.7 million (US$3.4 million) invested over four years, according to the EBF.

A big budget for chambers could create problems, he said.

“First of all you attract the wrong candidates to run it, because they just want to put their hands on the money,” he said. “Then you create what I call an assisted mentality, instead of an entrepreneurial mentality.”

Mr de Waegh is not the only person to cast doubt on the decision not to choose the existing Euro Business Forum.

“I find it a bit odd that the European Commission couldn’t have continued to work with an existing business–driven local initiative with a successful track record which required no public funding,” said an observer who has worked with the EU for many years. “Instead they decided, for their own reasons which are not entirely clear, that they had to establish their own Chamber, for [about] €3 million.”

“That risks attracting those hunting funding opportunities rather than those genuinely committed to promoting EU business in Myanmar,” the observer said.

Mr Kobia said the budget is seed money and the EU’s funding policy is based on precedent.

“This is a system we have used in other countries…We want to ensure that Euro Cham gets a good kickstart at the beginning,” he said, also stating that leaving the newborn chamber without subsidy would be a major risk.

After a few years, the chamber should operate on its own two feet, but until the subsidy is spent, the EU will participate directly.

“We don’t want to be the director,” he said. “We just want to sit there to support, to help and also to monitor the use of the funds because as I was saying this is … taxpayers’ money, and we have a duty to control how the money’s used.”

Both Mr de Waegh and Mr Kobia are looking ahead. “I want to come across as positive, not as somebody who is angry because he lost out something … You can feel I’m not angry,” said Mr de Waegh. “But let’s make sure that now that the money’s involved and that there’s a bit more transparency.”

Mr Kobia said the EU is in Myanmar to work. “We want to see progress, we want to see reform, we want to see a democratic path, but all this will happen if people stop being cynical and start working in a positive spirit.”


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