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Duterte and the European Union


By Richard Javad Heydarian

Note: This is part of a series of essays on Duterte’s relationship with the supranational organization.

Brussels, Belgium — Since Rodrigo Duterte’s ascendance to the presidency, the Philippines’ historically warm and rapidly deepening relations with the European Union (EU) have  suffered a major setback. What used to look like one of the most promising bilateral relations on the planet suddenly took a nosedive.

The supranational body, which pools together a significant chunk of the sovereignty of its 28 member-states, has been a favorite diplomatic punching bag for the Philippine president.

Accusing the EU of “interfering” in domestic affairs of the Philippines, Duterte has flashed his middle finger, pitched his choice words and cusses at their leaders, and, months earlier, threatened to expel all European ambassadors from the country.

Years earlier, the EU largely saw the Philippines as its most natural ally in, at the very least, Southeast Asia – a beacon of human rights and freedom in a largely autocratic region. Today, the Philippines largely tops the headlines and dominates discussions in human rights-related meetings in Brussels for often the wrong reasons. This is one of the most remarkable, and unfortunate, plot twists in any bilateral relationship anywhere on earth in anytime in human history.

Now, this isn’t to say that the fault lies completely and unambiguously with our government per se, nor does it suggest an unmitigated disaster in Philippine foreign policy. Let’s put things into context. As I have argued in my earlier writings and interviews elsewhere, the Philippines is currently in a “strategic sweet spot,” with major powers courting our favor.

Tangibly, this was most apparent during the Marawi crisis, when not only traditional allies such as the United States and Australia, but also former rivals such as China and Russia provided much-needed security assistance to the Philippines. This was a clear manifestation of the dividends, at least for now, of the Duterte administration’s decision to diversify the country’s strategic partnerships.

We also saw symbolic manifestations of our newfound strategic position during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila, when global leaders, including the United States President Donald Trump, cordially hobnobbed with the Filipino president.

Yet, when it comes to the Philippines’ relations with the European Union (EU), we are experiencing a low-intensity crisis. It is the one big area in our foreign policy that remains a major concern. And we should really care about this, because the stakes are high – in fact, too high to ignore.

Make no mistake: what many people tend to forget is that the EU is not only the world’s largest single market, but it also is, since early this year, the Philippines’ largest export destination. European countries are also, collectively, the leading investors and among top sources of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in the Philippines.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos reside in the continent, mostly in Italy and the United Kingdom, while thousands of Filipino seafarers regularly visit major European ports with relative ease in terms of visa restrictions. In short, the EU matters, and it matters a lot to the Philippines. And that is why it is crucial for us to properly address our areas of disagreement with them, while protecting our national sovereignty.

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