EU-Philippines relations: Achieving milestones in a rapidly changing international context

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Franz Jessen - The Philippine Star

During the past year many of the traditional beliefs about foreign relations across the world were challenged and questioned. Challenges can be constructive and productive; questions can lead to new and better answers. Challenges can also prove to be insurmountable and questions may not have good answers, leading to confusion and a lack of direction.            

It has been gratifying to see that the Philippines and the EU during the year managed successfully to solidify our relations.

The entry into force of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in March was a major landmark and a big step forward in the history of the two parties. The PCA provides a general framework to allow better collaboration between the EU and the Philippines in political, economic and development fronts.  This key development was made possible through the efforts of many partners of which two stood out: President Duterte was instrumental in making the ratification possible, and also Senator Legarda did a wonderful job in obtaining the agreement of the Senate.  Also in the background, the late Senator Angara was a great envoy and helped in overcoming challenges in the relationship.

I was pleased to see President Duterte and his government overcoming a long-standing challenge with the passing of the Bangsamoro organic Law. The EU has for decades supported the peace process, and with the BOL this support is taking on an enhanced importance. Working closely with DoF Secretary Dominguez, OPAPP Secretary, and Special envoy to the EU, Jesus Dureza, as well as MINDA Secretary Alonto and their staff, the EU is contributing a modest part in helping the Bangsamoro region to get the future it rightfully deserves.

On 2 December, I was privileged to attend the launch of Mr Mohagher Iqbal’s book: “An Insider’s Perspective to the Bangsamoro’s Struggle for Self-Determination”. I took the opportunity to congratulate the Bangsamoro people for the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic. I was pleased to announce three forthcoming programmes worth € 107 million in support of peace and development in Mindanao. 

In the area of business and trade, the Philippines is pursuing effective implementation of its policies and reforms including the Ease of Doing Business Act, other reforms including those dealing with taxes, competition and infrastructure development. These could mean a potential take-off to upper middle income level – which the government expects to happen sooner than later.

The EU already contributes to this growth trajectory. Recent data covering the first nine months of 2018 shows that total trade between the EU and the Philippines grew by 4%. More and more EU-made products were exported to the Philippines to support its infrastructure development programme. The EU is an open market for the Philippines. Particularly, the EU sees that the GSP+ provides significant benefits to micro, small and medium enterprises with positive impact on rural areas, including the opportunity to explore and reach other markets to showcase their products. In 2018, more than €2 billion worth of PH exports to the EU have benefitted from the GSP+ preference.  There is also a common resolve and engagement to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement which, in perspective, should open new significant opportunities for business, traders and investors on both sides.  Moreover, 800,000 Filipinos, among them 300,000 seafarers work in the EU and contribute strongly to the Filipino economy through their remittances. 

EU investments continue flowing into the Philippine economy. However, recent data shows that only 3% of total EU investments to the ASEAN region went to the Philippines. In my view, a more open investment regime should provide the country with a more competitive position so that the drive and energy in the Philippines is used also to attract more EU investments in the manufacturing sector. 

The EU and the Philippines are strong supporters of the multilateral trading system. The two parties recognise the crucial role of the WTO in preserving an open and fair global trading system. The bilateral commercial relationship has therefore managed to grow despite a challenging trade environment.

During the past year the new form of media have been a challenge – also a welcome challenge. I still remember when newsprint was something you literally got on your fingers when reading the papers so to work with a rapidly changing social media, has forced me to rethink how we best communicate our views and our ideas. Clearly we don’t want to be seen as an “imposing, know it all better, institution,”  nor do we want to be seen as an incompressible amalgam of sovereign states and institutions. Because that is not what we are: the EU is a peace project and a project to overcome regional and global challenges. Is it the perfect response? Of course not, that is why the EU project is evolving and adapting over time. 

But there are always lessons to be drawn – from each steps and actions.  The challenges and questions I have encountered in the Philippines, have forced me to rethink and to re-evaluate many of the stock answers that we all carry with us. Sometimes I think that I am rewriting my exam papers and this is indeed a welcome challenge.

I take these lessons as inspirations to promote goodwill and to gain a better appreciation and deeper understanding of ourselves, our work, and our relations with a key partner like the Philippines. All these are after all the true essence of genuine diplomacy.

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(Franz Jessen is the Ambassador of the European Union.)

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