“You think that we are a bunch of morons here,” exclaimed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, launching an invective-laced speech against his detractors in the European Union (EU) during a recent visit to Manila.
The tough-talking president warned that he can “have the diplomatic channel cut tomorrow,” telling European ambassadors to leave “my country in 24 hours. All. All of you.”
Duterte’s latest tirade against Europe came shortly after a visiting delegation of European parliamentarians rebuked his bloody crackdown on illegal drugs as well as his government’s open intimidation of opposition leaders.
In a statement, the seven-member delegation, representing the left-leaning Party of European Socialists (PES), expressed that they were “extremely alarmed at the mounting number of killings under President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.”
They also warned the Duterte administration that “if the human rights standards are not upheld, there must be consequences in the Philippines”, including the imposition of sanctions and withdrawal of the country’s preferential trade agreements.
The latest diplomatic dust-up comes as local polls show Duterte remains immensely popular in the Philippines. Local pollster Pulse Asia said last week that 80% of Filipinos they surveyed late last month said they ‘trust’ and ‘approve’ of Duterte, down marginally from 81% and 82% in its June survey.
Eager to avoid a diplomatic crisis with the Filipino leader, the EU immediately distanced itself from the PES delegation statement. The Brussels-based body clarified that the visiting parliamentarians were not part of a “European Union mission”, and “do not represent the position of the European Union.”
They hailed how both sides continue to “work constructively and productively together in a close partnership,” and reiterated that “this year the Philippines made extraordinary progress on its exports to the EU.”
A high-level EU delegation, led by President of the EU Council Donald Tusk, is set to visit Manila next month for the East Asia Summit. Brussels seems more than eager to maintain bilateral cooperation and prevent a full-scale diplomatic breakdown.
But the EU is also extremely important to the Philippines. It represents the Philippines’ biggest export market. Thanks to the so-called Generalized Scheme of Preferences-Plus (GPS+), a large quantity of Philippine exports, ranging from high-end furniture to fisheries and tropical fruits, enter the world’s biggest consumer market with 0% tariffs.
The PES delegation, which represented a major bloc in the European Parliament, is pushing for possible withdrawal of GPS+ status for the Philippines and other forms of punitive measures.
The preferential trading arrangement is usually granted to either extremely poor developing countries or middle-income nations with improved labor and human rights records. The Philippines was granted GSP+ status under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, for the latter reason.
Tens of thousands of Filipino fishermen, farmers and small and medium-sized enterprises rely on the EU market for their livelihoods. The EU is also a leading source of new investments in the Philippines.
In 2015, the EU was responsible for US$354 million in foreign direct investment (FDI) and around US$7 billion in total FDI stock. The EU is also the Philippines’ fourth largest trade partner, mostly in favor of the Southeast Asian country. Close to a million Filipinos stay and work in the EU.
In light of that economic importance, Malacanang was quick to clarify that Dutetre’s threat of expulsion against European dignitaries was not a final policy. Both the EU and the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also denied that any official notice of expulsion for European dignitaries was made.
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella claimed that Duterte was misled to think that the European Parliament delegation represented the EU. He accused the visiting PES parliamentarians of falsely posing as part of an official EU mission. At the same time, he warned the EU against interference in the country’s domestic affairs.
Last week Duterte announced he would no longer lead the anti-drug campaign, which has resulted in more than 8,000 deaths since its launch in June 2016.
In a memorandum, he suspended Philippine National Police operations and handed sole responsibility for the campaign to the Drug Enforcement Agency. He said he hoped the change would satisfy “bleeding hearts and the media.”
Amid recent diplomatic dust-ups on the drug war, it’s unclear if Duterte’s “bleeding heart” reference was meant for the EU. The Philippine Department of Finance (DoF) abruptly rejected any development aid from the EU for supposed “undue interference” in the country’s domestic affairs.
Duterte’s executive secretary Salvador Medialdea sought to justify the abrupt announcement by stating, “We’re supposed to be an independent nation.”
Crucially, the EU is the top source of development assistance to the Philippines. In the past year, it has offered up to US$295 million in grants to Manila.
Instead of giving low-interest loans like Japan or China, Brussels has offered mostly grants, which are targeted towards capacity-building, post-conflict rehabilitation and peace and development projects in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.
The threat to reject future EU aid was later relaxed in favor of dialogue and cooperation. With the recent massive destruction in Marawi, where the Philippine military is still waging a months-long campaign against Islamic State (IS)-affiliated elements, the Philippines needs all the post-reconstruction assistance it can get.
Still, Duterte seeks for the West to engage the Philippines on his terms. Over the past few months, he has warmed up to Washington and Canberra, who have taken an increasingly soft stance on human rights issues in favor of stronger counterterrorism cooperation against IS-affiliated elements in Mindanao.
The EU, however, has regularly reminded the Philippines of the necessity to respect basic human rights and preserve its democratic institutions. Progressive as well as liberal parties in the EU have also repeatedly criticized Duterte for his lethal war on drugs campaign and authoritarian tendencies.
To some, the EU has assumed the mantle of the finger-wagging ‘bad cop’ to the ‘good cop’ of the US and Australia, when it comes to raising human rights issues with the Philippines. While it is unlikely that the two sides will break off their strategic and trade ties, Philippine-EU relations are arguably at their lowest point in recent memory.