1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is Philippines' Marcos Jr. the EU's new best friend?

David Hutt
February 25, 2024

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has managed to improve his country's relations with the West. But what is this sudden friendship based on — and will it last?

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. walks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during arrival honors
In July 2023, Ursula von der Leyen (center) became the first sitting European Commission president to visit the PhilippinesImage: Rolex dela Pena/Reuters

Since taking office in mid-2022, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has moved the Philippines closer to the US, even risking ire from Beijing by signing a new defense agreement with Washington.

Marcos Jr. also pushed to normalize ties with the EU that had been badly damaged by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, whose brutal "war on drugs" prompted criticism from Europe. Duterte responded with expletive-laden tirades, telling European leaders to stay out of his country's affairs and threatening to expel all European ambassadors.

But in 2023, Ursula von der Leyen became the first sitting European Commission president to visit the Philippines, where she spoke of a "new era of cooperation between us." Marcos Jr. is now set to visit Germany next month and Brussels in December.

Philippines eyes stronger economic cooperation with Germany

Brussels and Manila have also agreed to restart talks over a free trade agreements that had broken down in 2015 under Duterte. Marcos Jr.'s pick for his foreign secretary, Enrique Manalo, can also be seen as a signal to the EU — Manalo had previously served as an ambassador to several European states and as head of the Philippine Mission in Brussels.

But analysts have said the changes between the Philippines and the EU are driven by deeper geopolitical factors.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 was a major catalyst, according to Joshua Espena, a resident fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation, a Manila-based think tank. Espena said Europe needed to strengthen its global supply chains and has attempted to "tap into the Indo-Pacific region."

First South Asian leader to choose between US, China

Whereas Duterte attempted to forge closer relations between the Philippines and China, with varying degrees of success, Marcos Jr. entered office with a resolutely pro-Western stance.

Tensions between Manila and Beijing, especially over the territory they contest in the South China Sea, have massively escalated over the past 12 months, and last year, the EU and the Philippines announced a new maritime defense agreement.

Manila warns Beijing over South China Sea dispute

In October, the EU and the Philippines signed the €60 million ($65 million) Financing Agreement for the Green Economy Program, a result of the Marcos Jr. administration's focus on climate action

"Marcos Jr. can be considered Europe's 'best friend' in Southeast Asia," said Alfred Gerstl, an expert on Indo-Pacific international relations at the University of Vienna.

Marcos Jr. has canceled some prominent infrastructure projects that were part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. According to Gerstl, the EU's Global Gateway Initiative, a EU-led global investment scheme, could fill some of the void.

Writing about US-Philippines relations last month, the Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick argued that, "Marcos Jr. has moved Manila into the US camp more than any other Southeast Asian leader, seemingly becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to 'choose' between the United States and China."

Concerns over constitution

Some of the analysts DW spoke with said it was simply good timing that Marcos Jr. entered office and gave every appearance of being a more democratic, liberal and like-minded politician at a time when European leaders were desperate, because of the Ukraine war, to find new partners.

But many doubt Manila has actually changed in terms of democracy and human rights.

UN urges Philippines to investigate jailed journalists

Marcos Jr. will be someone the EU can work with "for as long as the EU does not look too closely enough to see that the looming change in the Philippine Constitution is likely to result in an even weaker democracy than before," said Sol Dorotea Iglesias, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.

Some critics said Marcos Jr. could change the constitution to make it easier for foreign investors to purchase or create companies in certain industries. This might also give him a chance to remove provisions that limit a president's power.

Marcos Jr., however, has rejected this possibility.

What if the ICC goes after Duterte?

Another issue could arise over the ongoing investigations into former President Duterte for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

If the Marcos Jr. government refuses to cooperate, "the EU may be forced to finally take more drastic measures such as suspending the trade privileges of the Philippines," said Iglesias.

"Among the EU institutions, the European Parliament has often had a sharper eye on such risks and may continue to play the role of watchdog as this drama unfolds," she added.

On the other hand, European leaders are likely to be willing to overlook any lingering concerns about human rights in the Philippines because they see Marcos Jr. personally as a reliable partner, said a European Commission official who requested anonymity.

EU looking for Asian allies

The official added that Brussels is keen to view Marcos Jr. in the best of light since it remains distrustful of many other Southeast Asian leaders.

Relations with Muslim-majority Malaysia have soured over European support for Israel in its war with Hamas and because of Brussels' environmental regulations, the source noted. Thailand's new coalition government is unstable. Vietnam remains a key partner in the region, but EU relations with its communist government are irregular, while Cambodia remains in the EU's bad books for its democratic regression.

Is the Indo-Pacific entering new era of security alliances?

Brussels is also still cautious with Prabowo Subianto, who is likely to become Indonesia's next president after an election earlier this month. Prabowo has taken a particularly hostile stance toward the EU over high-tension disputes regarding how EU environmental regulations will impact Indonesia's palm oil sector.

According to Espena at the International Development and Security Cooperation, the EU and the Philippines have every reason to want to keep improving relations.

"Friendships do not need to be OK all of the time ,and while personal relations are important, deep-seated interests based on the structural conditions of the world matter more," he said. 

Edited by: Darko Janjevic