The President of the European Commission in Manila: Strengthening cooperation through high-level diplomacy

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Luc Véron - The Philippine Star

Upon President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s invitation, Ursula von der Leyen visited the Philippines from July 31 to Aug. 1, 2023. She was the first European Commission President to ever pay an official visit to the country in almost six decades of diplomatic relations. While she had visited personally the country a few times before, our President came from Brussels to engage in meaningful conversations, to explore avenues for collaboration and to address pressing global challenges, from climate change to economic growth.

When we first heard about the project at the EU Delegation, we felt thrilled and honored to welcome President von der Leyen to the country. As the EU Ambassador to the Philippines, one of my main goals is of course to increase in-person bilateral exchanges between our leaders and Filipino dignitaries. In an ever more interconnected world where technology has made communication instantaneous and global, the value of face-to-face interactions remains critical. As an excellent colleague put it during the recent pandemic, diplomacy in social distancing is a contradiction in terms. In international relations and diplomacy, the importance of in-person exchanges between government leaders cannot be overstated. These meetings, summits and diplomatic visits are the only way to build trust and understanding, to focus the minds in our bureaucracies and to foster effective cooperation on the global stage.

The visit underscored the deepening ties between the European Union and the Philippines and reaffirmed our commitment to step up our strategic engagement, both bilaterally and more broadly in the vital Indo-Pacific region. During her visit, President von der Leyen met with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his Cabinet, with the leadership of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, and gave an important speech at an event co-organized by the European Chamber of Commerce to the Philippines and the Makati Business Club. Several potential areas for increased cooperation were discussed, including trade and investment, security, climate change and the green and blue economies.

On trade, our leaders discussed reopening the negotiations on an EU-Philippines bilateral Free Trade Agreement. As a first step, both sides agreed to conduct a scoping exercise in the coming months to check where our positions on different chapters are, with the aim of starting the negotiations themselves in January 2024. The Philippines, with its dynamic workforce and burgeoning market, presents an enticing prospect for European investors. By fostering trade and investment partnerships, we can stimulate growth, create jobs and promote sustainable development, benefiting both our regions.

The visit also highlighted a number of important EU partnerships with the Philippines. Our leaders witnessed the signature of a Joint Declaration of Intent regarding the 60-million-euro Green Economy Program, which is a “Team Europe” (EU and its member-nations) initiative that aims, through this initial investment, to leverage up to 466 million euros of investments to support the Philippine transition to a circular economy, to reduce plastic waste and to boost renewable energy production. President von der Leyen announced the launch later this year of a Digital Economy package for the Philippines, which will aim to help the country in becoming a digital hub through fast and reliable connectivity. She also indicated an interest in investing in local value chains for the extraction and processing of critical raw materials.

Another area where the Commission President discussed the strengthening of the EU-Philippines partnership is security. The EU and the Philippines are already working together on a number of security initiatives, including through the EU’s CRIMARIO II project, which helps the Philippines and other countries in the region to build capacity to protect their maritime domain. As recently as two weeks ago, the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) organized a large-scale interagency table-top and field training exercise in Manila, with the support of the EU CRIMARIO II project, to test the interoperability and communication protocols of the NCWC and demonstrate its capability to coordinate and support the agencies in detecting, identifying and fighting maritime threats within their area of responsibility. Another EU program, Enhancing Security In and With Asia (ESIWA), is also involved in training relevant Philippine government agencies to address threats regarding maritime and cyber-security. Through these efforts, we aim to assist the Philippines in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and to reinforce respect of international law.

The visit by President von der Leyen was another major milestone in the EU-Philippines diplomatic relationship, which is bound to celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. I have had the privilege of witnessing first-hand the transformational power of in-person diplomacy at the highest level in forging partnerships and finding new areas of increased cooperation. President von der Leyen put it best when she said: “We share so many values and interests. We both want to work towards strengthening our democracies. We believe in the international rules-based order and we believe in the need to promote and to defend it. So, it makes sense to strengthen our ties across the board and we discover, discuss several ways to do so.”

The EU Delegation and I are proud to assist in making this happen.

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Luc Véron is the Ambassador of the European Union to the Philippines.

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