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Philippines and EU seek a reset in relations

March 9, 2021

Firebrand President Rodrigo Duterte has cooled off his rhetoric targeting the European Union and a new cooperation agreement is on the table. However, Duterte's authoritarian tendencies loom in the background.

Duterte's four years in power — extrajudicial killings, rights abuses and terror
President Duterte has rejected EU criticism of his deadly war on drugsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/A. Morandante

The Philippines' uproarious president, Rodrigo Duterte, has had a contentious relationship with the European Union.

In 2017, he referred to EU officials as "stupid European Union guys," while threatening to reject all European aid, even though the EU was one of the Philippines' largest providers of development assistance.

He also threatened to expel all European diplomats within 24 hours after Brussels criticized major human rights abuses committed by his government.

"You give us money then you start to orchestrate what things should be done and which should not happen in our country," he said in October 2017. His fury has intermittently flared over the following years. 

At the beginning of February 2021, it seemed like business as usual when Duterte once again lashed out at the EU for allegedly holding up deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, which has been among the slowest countries in Southeast Asia to launch a vaccination campaign.

Weeks later, however, Duterte expressed enthusiasm for closer cooperation with Brussels. "The Philippines and the EU share a deep respect for democracy and the rule of law," he uncharacteristically said.

Progress in EU-Philippines relations

There has not just been a change in tone from Duterte but also major institutional progress.

The EU-Philippines Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) came into effect in 2018 but stalled over disputes between Brussels and Manila, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the PCA's first subcommittee on trade and economic cooperation met virtually at the end of January, while the first subcommittee on "Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights" took place a week later, on February 5. 

A reset to relations seemingly began with the arrival in December of the new EU ambassador to the Philippines, Luc Veron, who presented his credentials to Duterte on February 10.

"The Philippines and the European Union have enjoyed diplomatic relations over six decades," Veron told DW. "Our shared interests and values are a strong basis for a partnership based on respect and mutual benefit. In the European Union, the Philippines and the Filipinos have a strong and reliable partner."

Human rights concerns

Richard Heydarian, an academic, columnist and author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy, said the EU became a convenient "punching bag" for Duterte during his earlier years in office.

Unlike the US, which Duterte also harangued in expletive-filled monologues but then quickly talked down his comments, Brussels has little geopolitical importance in the Philippines.

The European Parliament and the former EU ambassador to Manila, Franz Jessen, who left in 2019, have frequently adopted very tough language against Duterte's administration, especially its "war on drugs" that has led to at least 7,000 deaths since 2016, many the result of extrajudicial killings by the police or military.

Duterte's autocratic-leaning administration has restricted free-speech and detained prominent journalists, including the editor Maria Ressa who was charged and found guilty of "cyberlibel" last year.

Leading opposition politicians have also been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Senator Leila de Lima was jailed in 2017 on spurious drug-related charges after starting a Senate investigation in extrajudicial killings.

In September last year, the European Parliament adopted a motion calling on the Commission to temporarily kick the Philippines out of the preferential GSP+ trade scheme over its human rights violations, especially the criminal charges against Ressa.

The fact that the Philippines didn't lose its GSP+ status last year, despite the European Parliament motion, signals a change in tone from Brussels, according to Heydarian.

"With the new EU ambassador signaling that they can find a way not to pressure Duterte too much on human rights, both sides have been extending the olive branch," he told DW. 

Duterte tries to 'play nice'

There is now also greater recognition in Manila of the EU's importance. Political change in the United States, which may see the Joe Biden administration take a tougher stance on Manila, likely led to Duterte calculate that he has to "play nice with the Europeans," said Heydarian.

Maria Ressa on libel conviction

Bilateral trade between the EU and Philippines in goods was worth €14.9 billion in 2019. The previous year, the stock of EU investment in the Philippines was worth €13.8 billion, which made it the largest investor in the Southeast Asian state, according to European Commission data.

Many Philippine exports to the EU are duty-free under the GSP+ scheme, the EU's preferential trade scheme, which has become more important than ever as the country attempts to recover following an economic contraction of 9.5% in 2020, its biggest slump since the Second World War, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

The Philippines inclusion in this GSP+ scheme, which came into effect in 2014, is expected to expire by 2024, yet there are latent threats that it could end sooner unless Manila now works more closely with the EU through the PCA committees.

"The current focus of the Commission's engagement with the Philippines remains on the monitoring of compliance with the EU's special incentive arrangement for sustainable development of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences," said Commission sources, referring to the GSP+ scheme.

What does the EU want?

However, a healthy relationship with the Philippines is now also a necessity for Brussels as it tries to forge better ties with the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.

In August, the Philippines takes over the role as the ASEAN coordinator for Dialogue Relations with the EU until 2024, meaning Brussels and Manila will have to find a modus operandi for cooperation.

That is especially the case after the EU was formally named a "strategic partner" of the Southeast Asian bloc in December and expects to ramp up its activity in the region this year. 

There doesn't appear to be much enthusiasm from Brussels that a free-trade agreement will be signed with the Philippines anytime soon.

After agreeing to free-trade pacts with Singapore and Vietnam, the EU has struggled to advance negotiations with other Southeast Asian states.

Disputes over the EU's phased ban of palm-oil imports has stalled talks with Indonesia and Malaysia, two of the world's largest palm-oil exporters, while negotiations with Thailand are still on hold. 

Although negotiations with the Philippines over a free-trade agreement began in 2015, they only went through two rounds of talks before stalling in early 2017.

"The EU remains committed in principle to the negotiation of a trade agreement with the Philippines," said Ambassador Veron. "However, at this moment, the EU focuses its engagement with the Philippines on the implementation of several international Conventions under the General Scheme of Preferences (GSP+), from which the Philippines currently benefits."

A European Commission source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said that a free-trade agreement is being swept under the rug for now to limit discussions about the Philippines' human rights record.

They added that the EU is biding its time and trying to keep relations on an even keel for the next 14 months until the next Philippine presidential election.

Unless Duterte is able to alter the constitution to remove the one-term limits on presidents, which appears unlikely, he will have to step down next year and Brussels may find a far more amiable leader in Manila.