By Mario B. Casayuran, Hannah L. Torregoza, and Ben R. Rosario
Senator Panfilo M. Lacson yesterday said the decision of President Duterte to reject foreign aid with strings attached shows a significant shift in the country’s foreign policy.
Lacson said the decision is apparently a declaration of independence from the influence of the West, such as the United States (US) and European Union (EU).
These nations, according to Lacson, have been using grants and trade as the proverbial stick and carrot.
Lacson was referring to President Duterte’s decision to reject $278.73-million grant from the 28-member EU for mostly Muslim communities.
The decision “speaks volumes about the President’s determined position to stand up against the traditional patrons of former colonies like the Philippines,” he said.
Lacson said he is not ready this early if this is the right decision of the country’s foreign policy.
“Only time will tell if it will do our country right or not, or it is all worth giving a chance to be tested,” he added.
Drilon warns of negative effect
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon warned that the decision to reject the aid may negatively affect the Philippines trading relations with EU-member countries.
Drilon said the Philippines and EU’s partnership has resulted in billions of pesos in trade, helping to boost the economy and generate job opportunities.
Thus, he said, he is saddened by this latest development noting that the EU has been a reliable trading partner “and their assistance, by way of grant or aid, extended to the country through the years has been benefiting our people particularly those in the impoverished communities in Mindanao.”
“I hope that the government has studied this thoroughly and carefully and is prepared to deal with the consequences of its decision,” Drilon said.
The EU has been the Philippines’ committed partner in the pursuit of peace and development in Mindanao, Drilon said.
Due to EU’s support to the government’s peace process, Drilon said, it provided around 80 percent of the total funds to the Mindanao Trust Fund – a facility set up by various donors to fund socio-economic recovery of conflict-affected communities in the Southern region.
Zero tariff in peril
Drilon said the administration must not forget that aside from developmental aid, the Philippines is also a beneficiary of the Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) that allows the Philippines to export 6,274 products to the EU at zero tariff, including the famous tuna of General Santos City.
“This makes EU as one of the biggest trading partners of the Philippines, with the total trade between the EU and the Philippines reaching 12.9 billion euros or roughly P704 billion in 2015,” Drilon said.
“Of which, 1.38 billion euros were from products qualified under the GSP+ scheme,” he underscored.
Citing the first quarter data for 2017 provided by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), the senator said exports to EU constitute 15.5 percent of total exports of the Philippines, making the EU as the fastest growing export market for Philippine products.
Drilon recalled that before the Philippines was accepted in the GSP+ in 2014, Filipino exporters had suffered heavily from the declining trade with the EU, from 8.5 billion euros in 2002 to 5.1 billion euros in 2014.
And this decision of the Duterte administration to reject EU aid “might trigger the removal of the Philippines from the GSP+.”
“Once GSP+ is withdrawn, Filipino producers will be charged tariff rates,” he said, saying further that the tuna industry would be imposed a 22 percent tariff once GSP+ is removed.
The value of tuna exports to EU member countries such as Germany, United Kingdom and the Netherlands in 2015 amounted to $133.12-million or roughly P6.65-billion, he noted, citing the PSA data.
He also warned that the tuna industry, as well as those products enjoying zero tariff stand to lose millions of pesos in case the GSP+ is terminated.
Drimon said he does not believe the EU has any intention to interfere in the government’s war on drugs and other internal affairs.
“The Philippines and EU’s long-standing partnership has always been based on mutual respect and cooperation,” he said.
“While it is the right of any country to accept or reject any grant from another country or institution, I do not agree that the grants offered by the EU would give it a license to interfere in our country’s internal affairs,” Drilon added.
“We are just being asked to adhere to our treaty obligations and they did not come from the EU but from the treaties that we have signed and ratified,” the lawmaker reiterated.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman of the Liberal party (LP) decried President Duterte’s decision to reject the EU aid, saying that it is “skewed double standard” policy in the handling of foreign aid.
Lagman said that while Duterte snubbed the EU aid for being pinned with conditions related to human rights and his anti-drug campaign, the Chief Wxecutive welcomed China’s pledges for aids and investment that is cloaked with a condition that Philippines should set aside the UN arbitral decision on the West Philippine Sea dispute.
He aired doubts that Duterte consulted with his economic team before making the decision, saying that the President may have ignored their advice.
However, former LP Rep. Winston Castelo strongly backed Duterte’s action, saying the EU’s conditions for the grant of aid contradicted the Chief Executive’s foreign relations policy.
“Self-determination and sovereignty do not have a price, which was what the Duterte administration had shown in its decision to stop aid from the European Union that has strings attached that interferes in the internal affairs of the country,” said Castelo, a Quezon City congressman who recently joined Duterte’s PDP-Laban party.
Castelo, chairman of the House Committee on Metro Manila Development, said the EU and other foreign governments have no sufficient basis to accuse the Duterte government of violating human rights in trying to win the war on drugs.
He said many foreign countries are being misled into believing that there exists state-sponsored killings, adding that the figure of extra-judicial killings, which had been placed at over 8,000, is being fed by political critics of the president.
“The recent surveys showing 80 percent public support on Mr. Duterte show the majority perception that the President is making the right decisions to benefit Filipinos,” Castelo said.
But Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the Duterte government’s contradictory and confusing statements on its decision to reject aid from the EU are alarming.
“These exposed the government’s lack of a clear foreign policy framework on how to deal with foreign aid. I strongly suggest that the government think this over carefully. The fact that it is at a loss for a coherent explanation for this unprecedented foreign policy decision should serve as basis for it to pause for deep reflection and reconsideration,” she added.