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Southeast Asia

Philippines: Can Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president mend E.U. ties?

Published : May 11, 2022 15:51 IST T+T-
Marcos Jr. rarely spoke to the media during his campaign and revealed little about his policy intentions.

Marcos Jr. rarely spoke to the media during his campaign and revealed little about his policy intentions.

Marcos Jr. is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for decades under a brutal autocratic regime.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the namesake and son of the Philippines' late dictator, looks almost certain to have secured a landslide victory in presidential elections that took place on May 9. With about 98 per cent of the eligible ballots counted in an unofficial tally, Marcos Jr. secured nearly 31 million votes, double that of his main challenger, the current Vice President Leni Robredo. An official result is expected around the end of the month.

Questions now turn to whether a Marcos Jr. presidency will mend some of the relations that frayed between the E.U. and the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, the outgoing president. In 2017, Duterte referred to E.U. officials as "stupid European Union guys" and threatened to reject all European aid, despite the E.U. being one of the Philippines' largest providers of development assistance. Most controversial has been Duterte's "war on drugs," in which more than 12,000 people have died, about a fifth from extrajudicial killings by the authorities, according to Human Rights Watch. Brussels has taken a strong stance against the drug war, and talks over trade pacts and bilateral working groups stalled in 2017.

However, there were signs of rapprochement last year. During a speech in February 2021, Duterte said that "the Philippines and the E.U. share a deep respect for democracy and the rule of law." Last year also saw the first bilateral meetings on economic cooperation and good governance that were supposed to take place after the E.U.-Philippine Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) came into effect in 2018. Both sides held a joint committee to review the implementation of the PCA in Manila on April 26.

A fresh start?

Shada Islam, an independent E.U. analyst and commentator, reckons this isn't the election outcome that E.U. policymakers favored. Most were probably hoping for a victory by Robredo, a champion of human rights. "But relations with the Philippines are an important part of the E.U.'s hopes for stronger engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and Brussels will do its best to improve the E.U.'s tetchy relationship with Manila under the new president," Islam said. Yet, no one is expecting any immediate improvements, as E.U. officials assess the full impact of Marcos' victory, she added.

Marcos Jr., 64, is the son of former President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country for decades under a brutal authoritarian regime. Marcos Sr., along with wife Imelda and their retinue, are believed to have plundered around €9.4 billion ($9.9 billion) from the state before being ousted in 1986 by a people's revolt.

Marcos Jr. rarely spoke to the media during his campaign and revealed little about his policy intentions. He said he wouldn't be soft on crime but most commentators expect him to temper the brutality of Duterte's drug war, not least because there is now the distinct possibility of the International Criminal Court prosecuting those involved. "I don't see significant changes in terms of perception of Philippine leadership," said Joshua Bernard Espeña, senior global security analyst at the California-based Analyzing War and a commentator on Philippine foreign policy.

Human rights and Philippines' place in E.U.'s GSP+ scheme

Because the E.U. prioritizes issues of the rule of law and human rights in its partnership with the Philippines, Marcos Jr. and Sara Duterte, the outgoing president's daughter, who is set to win the vice-presidency, will inherit the historical and political "baggage" from Duterte, Espeña added.

"While it is said that the sins of the father should not be visited upon the son, the historical revisionism of epic proportions spun during the election of Marcos should not cover up the outstanding human rights problems of the day," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "The E.U. cannot just roll over on its legitimate rights concerns because Sara Duterte will still be around, and Marcos the father oversaw serious rights abuses during martial law that he was never held accountable for," he added. "European Union foreign policy needs to clearly include upholding human rights and no one should forget that there is a pending International Criminal Court investigation that is not subject to the whims of the ahistorical Philippines voters."

Equally consequential for Manila would be its place in the E.U.'s GSP+ preferential trade scheme, which grants zero-tariff trade for thousands of goods. It comes up for review in 2024. "Manila has to present a credible plan of action on the robust and effective implementation of over 30 international conventions on human and labor rights, good governance and the environment with clear deadlines, by 2024," Heidi Hautala, vice president of the European Parliament, told DW . "If it is in breach of these conventions until the time it reapplies to the scheme, the E.U. will not be able to continue granting the GSP+ status to the country," she added. "And it goes without saying that each of the over 30 conventions has to be ratified."

Decision in the E.U.'s hands

The E.U. is the Philippines' fourth-largest trading partner, and the largest foreign investor in the Southeast Asian nation, with foreign direct investment stocks worth around €14 billion as of 2020, according to E.U. data. Bilateral trade in goods was worth €12.2 billion that year. "I am cautiously optimistic that the E.U. can find an agreement with Manila according to mutual interests," Espeña added.

Negotiations for an E.U.-Philippines trade and investment agreement were launched in December 2015 but stalled after Duterte came to office. Analysts say momentum for restarting these talks could now begin again as Duterte leaves office and as the E.U. last year restarted FTA talks with Thailand, another Southeast Asian state with a questionable human rights record.

There is also necessity. The Philippines last year took over the role of ASEAN coordinator for Dialogue Relations with the E.U., which it will keep until 2024, meaning Manila is the first point of call for Brussels in its dealings with the Southeast Asian bloc. "It is for the E.U. to decide whether or not the Philippines is a direly needed partner in a world that is currently decoupling from one another," said Espeña.