The European Union, a political and economic union of 27 member states, has threatened to revoke the exports tariff exemption of the Philippines, which it claimed had a “deteriorating” human rights record.
The threat instantly drew a strong taunt from Malacanang, the seat of political power in the Philippines, which said the world would be looking at the EU “as an entity that added to the suffering of an entire country at this time of the pandemic.”
The Philippines, a member of the 10-nation largely economic alliance Association of Southeast Asian Nations, has some of its exports enjoying tariff breaks under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) – a mechanism that gives developing countries the privilege of exporting zero-duty merchandise to EU-member states.
Apparently rubbed up the wrong way, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told a news conference: “If they want to add to the suffering of the Filipino people at this time of a pandemic, so be it...Let’s end the discussions already. They should do what they want to do. At this time, if they want to implement it, (let them) go ahead.”
As of Friday, there have been close to 280,000 infections and 4,830 deaths since the country came under lockdown on March 17.
An apparently annoyed Roque said: “Europe, go ahead. At the time of the pandemic, the whole world will pay tribute to you...They will be the biggest contributor to the violation of the right to life in the Philippines. Let’s leave it at that.”
Roque said that the Philippines would not be browbeaten by EU lawmakers’ push to revoke the tariff perks for Filipino goods. “I’m sorry I’m being very undiplomatic with my answer (but) what else can I say? At the time of the pandemic, they’re threatening us? My goodness. What else do we lose?”
“They cannot scare us anymore especially with the pandemic...they cannot scare us because we have hit rock bottom.”
Member-states of the European Union have a combined area of 4,233,255.3 square kms and an estimated population of about 447 million, as against the Philippines’ 112 million population in 300,000 square kms.
In a September 17 resolution, the European Union’s legislative assembly, “given the seriousness of the human rights violations in the (Philippines), calls on the European Commission, in the absence of any substantial improvement and willingness to cooperate on the part of the Philippine authorities, to immediately initiate the procedure which could lead to the temporary withdrawal of GSP+ preferences.”
In the case of the Philippines, the GSP+ covers 6,274 locally-made products.
In a statement, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez himself said the government was “able to explain objectively the Philippines side on issues that are raised and we don’t see any reason why our GSP+ privilege will be withdrawn.”
“The Philippines has always been working closely and fully cooperating with the EU Commission –the main EU institution in-charge of implementing the GSP+ scheme,” Lopez said.
He added: “We have an Inter-agency working group in place that attends to the regular monitoring visits and responds accordingly to various issues if and when they are officially raised by the EU Commission.”
At the same time, Lopez said the EU Commission had a mechanism in place and process to follow to verify issues before sanctions were imposed.
The EU grants special incentives to developing countries that ratify 27 core international conventions on human and labor rights, environmental protection and good governance as well as from the effective implementation thereof.
In 2019, at least €2 billion or about P113 billion worth of Philippine goods entered the EU under the zero-tariff GSP+ mechanism.
Based on official records, the EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner, accounting for almost 9 percent of the country’s total trade.
Also, trade in goods between the two partners equaled € 14.9 billion in 2019.
EU Parliament’s resolution coincided with events while the Philippines is standing up to the repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic that plunged the economy into a deep recession in the second quarter of 2020, contracting by 16.5 percent —the worst on record in nearly 30 years.
In its resolution, the EU Parliament cited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ findings that as of June 30, 2020 at least 8,663 people had been killed in relation to the Duterte administration anti-drug campaign.
At the same time, the EU parliament sounded the alarm over the “deteriorating level of press freedom in the Philippines,” citing the cyberlibel conviction of Maria Ressa and a former Rappler researcher-writer as well as the shutdown of ABS-CBN.
It also urged “impartial, transparent, independent and meaningful investigations into all extrajudicial killings, including the deaths of Jory Porquia, Randall ‘Randy’ Echanis and Zara Alvarez.”
Porquia, Echanis, and Alvarez were all activists killed this year by unidentified assailants.
Moreover, the European Parliament appealed to Philippine authorities to “drop all politically motivated charges against Senator Leila de Lima, to release her while she awaits trial, to allow her to freely exercise her rights and duties as an elected representative, and to provide her with adequate security and sanitary conditions while in detention.”
“[The parliament] condemns all threats, harassment, intimidation, rape and violence against those who seek to expose allegations of extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations in the country [and] denounces the misuse of the law and judiciary systems as a means of silencing critical voices,” it said.
In 2016, the EU Parliament issued a resolution urging Philippine authorities to launch an immediate investigation into the rising death toll in war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte.