EU leader pays rare visit to Philippines

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, signs the guest book beside Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines, July 31, 2023Reuters

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was holding talks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Monday in a sign of improving ties after a stormy period between the EU and his predecessor over human rights.

Von der Leyen arrived in Manila Sunday night for the first such top-level visit in nearly six decades of relations with the Philippines. Her visit is aimed at strengthening diplomatic, trade, security and overall relations, European and Philippine officials said, adding that she came at Marcos’s invitation.

The talks between von der Leyen and her delegation with Filipino officials were also expected to cover the Philippines’ chances of retaining special trade incentives depending on its adherence to international conventions on human and labor rights and good governance.

In February, a group of European parliamentarians said Manila’s chances of retaining those incentives, including slashed tariffs for a wide array of products, would increase if a long-detained opposition leader is freed and the Philippines rejoins the International Criminal Court.

The European Union trade incentives under the so-called Generalized Scheme of Preferences, or GSP Plus, for the Philippines and seven other developing countries are anchored on their adherence to more than two dozen international conventions on human and labor rights, environmental protection and good governance.

The trading incentives, which the Philippines started to enjoy in 2014, would end in December and the government could reapply within a two-year period to retain them, the European lawmakers said then.

But the Philippines came under intense EU criticism during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term, mainly because of the bloody anti-drugs crackdown he oversaw that left more than 6,000 mostly petty suspects dead. Marcos succeeded Duterte in June last year.

The killings sparked an International Criminal Court investigation as a possible crime against humanity. Duterte withdrew the Philippines from the ICC in 2018, but its prosecutor has proceeded to investigate the widespread deaths that occurred in the years when the country was still part of the court based in The Hague.

Duterte then often lashed at the EU’s criticisms of his brutal anti-drugs crackdown with profanity-laced outbursts.

European parliamentarians have also repeatedly demanded the release of opposition leader and former senator Leila de Lima, Duterte’s most vocal critic who was arrested and detained in 2017 on drug charges she said were fabricated by Duterte and his officials to stop her from investigating the killings.

Hannah Neumann, who led the European delegation in a visit to the Philippines in February, told a news conference then that rights conditions under the Marcos administration were “better than it was under Pres. Duterte” in reply to a question. “There are a lot of announcements that could indeed improve things if they’re implemented.”

The delegates then welcomed Marcos’ “commitment to change the focus of the ‘war on drugs’ away from a punitive approach towards prevention and rehabilitation.”

But they said extrajudicial killings have reportedly persisted and underscored the need for all the killings to be investigated and the perpetrators held to account to fight impunity.

Asked if a decision to release de Lima and rejoin the ICC would boost the Philippines’ chances of continuing to enjoy the EU trading incentives, Neumann said that would be “a strong sign in which direction the country wants to move.”

“The European Parliament has been quite clear that whoever wants to have preferential access to the European market needs to uphold social standards, human rights standards, environmental standards,” she said. “This is not going to go away.”