‘Mixed signals’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - December 5, 2017 - 4:00pm

BRUSSELS – From all indications, it would seem to be a losing cause for the Philippines to change the public perception of the European Union (EU) about the real intentions of President Rodrigo Duterte. And more worrisome, perhaps, could be that neither EU officials nor members of the Cabinet of President Duterte can second-guess what or how the Philippine leader thinks on policy matters and directions to take the country to.

Rightly or wrongly, this has been the sense we get on the second day of our EU Philippines Journalists Programme being hosted at the EU headquarters here at the capital city of Belgium. From the series of briefings so far given to us under this program, we got a frank exchange of discussions on the latest developments in the EU-Philippines state of affairs. However, most of the discussions were on the basis of non-attribution of official statements.

Fortunately, Mattias Lentz, head of the Political, Press and Information Section of the EU Delegation to the Philippines was more forthcoming with his statements. Lentz has been on the grounds where the action is taking place in the Philippines. He flew all the way here from Manila and accompanied our group of invited Filipino journalists on our interactions here with EU officials and experts on the Philippines.

According to Lentz, there have been lately a number of significant developments that augur well for the EU-Philippine relations. In particular, Lentz cited the recent appointment by President Duterte of Eduardo Jose de Vega as Philippine ambassador to Brussels. “We saw that chair finally filled after more than a year that this chair has been empty. It’s an important link to our discussions with the Philippines,” Lentz pointed out.

Much earlier, the EU welcomed former Senate president Edgardo Angara as President Duterte’s designated special envoy to the EU. He is the father of administration ally Sen. Sonny Angara who successfully shepherded the Senate approval of the proposed Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) law now going through its final stages at the 17th Congress. The new tax law is closely being watched by local and foreign business and investors, including the 27 member states of the EU.

The elder Angara, we found out in the course of our briefings, came here also and had formal talks with EU officials along with Trade and Industry Sec. Ramon Lopez last September. Angara and Lopez quietly flew here following the latest public ranting by President Duterte who, by way of a joke, quipped he would “kick out” of the Philippines the EU ambassador, Franz Jessen. This was after certain members of the European Parliament came to the Philippines and bitterly denounced President Duterte for detaining opposition Senator Leila de Lima.

After being allowed to see De Lima at her detention cell at the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame, Quezon City, the visiting EU parliamentarians called a press conference and demanded the release of De Lima who they described has been a “political prisoner of conscience” for standing up against President Duterte’s strong-man rule.

The EU Philippines subsequently clarified they have nothing to do with the independent statements from the EU Parliamentarians. An enraged President Duterte, however, was not mollified. He dismissed the EU disclaimer, citing it came belatedly. President Duterte declared not to accept anymore “tied” aids or loans from the EU, or from any countries for that matter, especially those loans and aids imposing pre-conditions that impinge upon the country’s independent foreign policy.

During our briefings here, it was stressed to us that the European Parliament now weighs a lot in the decision-making structure and process at the EU unlike in the past. The EU Parliament vote of approval or disapproval is now the last stage of any EU decision-making process.

Obviously, the Angara-Lopez mission was seen as “damage control” when they arrived with full documentations to argue the case for the Philippines, amid more severe criticisms against the administration of President Duterte. Armed with “real numbers and statistics,” the two Duterte officials refuted allegations before the EU Council officials the much reported big numbers of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) and alleged human rights violations in the conduct of the administration’s continuing war against illegal drugs trade in the Philippines.

The elder Angara’s long years as a Senator, now retired from politics, however, gave him much elbowroom to renew old acquaintances at the European Parliament. They have been critical too, on the two pet bills of President Duterte which the EU frowns at. Namely, the pending legislations at the 17th Congress on the proposed restoration of the Death Penalty Law and to amend the Juvenile Law in the Philippines that proposes to lower the criminal age down to nine years old.

As we said before, the special envoy to the EU of President Duterte has a lot of mending fences to push the refresh button of the strained relations of the Philippines with the economic and political bloc of the EU.

Also seen as a “good sign” from President Duterte, Lentz noted, was the recent signing of the Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) of the Philippines and the EU. The instruments of ratification were now submitted to the Philippine Senate. The PCA, he recalled, was signed before by former President Benigno Aquino III two years ago but the Philippine Senate failed to ratify it.

Perhaps much to the surprise of the EU, the PCA got signed by President Duterte despite his public rantings against the EU. “We’re already used to do that (rantings by President Duterte),” an EU official quipped, along with a big smile on his face.

And much more good sign, Lentz added, was President Duterte’s inviting and naming EU President Donald Tusk as his co-chair in the East Asia Leaders Summit held last month in Manila.

“So we have difficulty of mixed messages here but we’re not on the business of interpretations,” EU official remarked.

These latest developments could help dispel whatever press reports reaching the EU Council about the Philippine leader. But it was impressed upon us the EU can not just rely from official statements and “interlocutors” dispatched here from the Philippines. According to them, they also get validations and feedback mechanisms on the ground from non-government organizations and other sources of information aside from media organizations.

For now, the Free Trade Agreement of the Philippines with the EU hangs in the balance. There is certain possibility of EU withdrawal of our country’s General System of Preference (GSP) Plus that could impact on Philippine goods and services enjoying these benefits and privileges. “We’re not negotiating back-room. We’ve sent people to monitor the situation,” they admitted.

“So that’s why we’re trying to engage the Philippine government,” another EU official pointedly told us, adding in a wry note: “We are presently not popular in the Philippines.”

At the end of our discussions, they conceded the alleged “impunity” in the EJKs, human rights issues, re-introduction of death penalty in the Philippines are indeed non-trade matters, but that’s the EU policy. So “mixed messages” or not, those are the realities the Philippines has to deal with the EU.

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