29 Jan 2018

The Philippine Daily Inquirer

Following through on its threat to reject financial help from the European Union due to the foreign community’s criticisms on President Duterte’s war on drugs, the Philippine government has turned down trade assistance of 6.1 million euros (P382.8 million). This was the sad announcement last week of EU Ambassador to the Philippines Franz Jessen.

The rejection of the 6.1-million-euro assistance was formalized when the government returned unsigned to the European Union a document that needed its signature before the end of 2017.

The 6.1 million was supposed to fund the fourth phase of a 300-million-euro Trade-Related Technical Assistance (TRTA-4) project that should have been implemented last year.

There’s no getting it back. As Jessen put it, that 6.1-million fund has “disappeared” because the budget for the project was allocated for last year. It’s now 2018, and the European Union cannot spend money that had been earmarked for 2017.

Jessen lamented that after more than 30 years of cooperation in development projects, the situation had turned bad, with the European Union still struggling to understand how, as President Duterte had claimed, it was interfering in the independence of Philippine foreign policy.

The President has been at odds with EU leaders for his anticrime campaign, which received much criticism for its apparent lack of respect for human rights as reflected in the number of casualties piled up to the thousands.

Last October, Mr. Duterte said the Philippines would no longer accept grants from the European Union because it disrespected Philippine sovereignty.

The outburst was triggered by the unofficial visit of a group of European parliamentarians who made a critical appraisal of the human rights situation in the country.

The European Union had clarified that it had nothing to do with the visit of the parliamentarians, and that their comments did not represent those of the economic bloc.

The issue may not stop with the 6.1-million-euro fund. Three other forms of financial aid worth 39 million euros (P2.4 billion) are about to be rejected by the administration.

It will be a pity if the Philippines loses the financial assistance separately amounting to 10 million, 11 million and 18 million euros earmarked mainly for the provision of renewable energy to poor households.

The European Union understands that the Philippine government has every right to accept or reject any financial assistance offered to it.

If it does not want the money, the European Union will simply earmark the funds for other countries in need of them. But the government cannot expect the European Union to promise that it would not raise what it perceives as human rights violations just so the Philippines would accept financial assistance from it.

As Jessen pointed out, human rights — being integral to the development of political and economic freedoms — would remain one of the key areas in which the European Union would engage the Philippines.

It is not too late for the government to remedy the situation. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez can explain to the President the recent EU action of retaining the duty-free status of thousands of Philippine products being exported to Europe.

This privilege has been tied to the country’s compliance with international agreements, including those on the respect for human rights. How and why the Philippines retained such a privilege despite the casualties in the war on drugs would be interesting to find out.

At the moment, it remains to be seen how the government would compensate for the “disappeared” development aid, which would have primarily gone to the poorest communities nationwide.

While it may be true that the Duterte administration wants independence from foreign interference, there is nothing wrong in calling the government’s attention to violations of human rights.

The thousands killed in the short course of the war on drugs are proof that something is wrong somewhere. Is the rejection of financial aid a show of arrogance?

(First published in The Philippine Daily Inquirer