Philippine President Ferdinand 'Bongbong' Marcos Jr is looking to reset relations with the EU. Photo: Facebook / Yahoo

Stability is quickly being restored to European Union-Philippine relations under new leadership in Manila after an especially tumultuous period under outgoing president Rodrigo Duterte.

The European Council’s president has already invited the Philippines’ newly-inaugurated president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, to visit Brussels while the latter has appointed a veteran diplomat with fruitful experience in Europe as his top foreign envoy.

Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, has pledged to pursue an “independent foreign policy” in which the Philippines is a “friend to all, enemy to none.” Shortly after his inauguration earlier this month, Marcos Jr appointed Enrique Manalo as foreign secretary.

Analysts saw this as a return to dignified diplomacy and professionalism, confounding some who had expected Marcos Jr to appoint loyalists. Writing in Asia Times last week, the Philippine foreign and defense policy specialist Richard Javad Heydarian noted that Manalo is the first career diplomat to serve as a full-fledged foreign secretary since 2003
“If anything, the new Filipino president seems committed to continuing his father’s strategic legacy of dynamic balancing among major powers by relying primarily on a set of capable mandarins and steady hands at the helm of crucial cabinet posts,” Heydarian wrote.

Manalo’s appointment should be well-received in the EU. He previously served as ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg and as head of the Philippine mission to the EU. He was also ambassador to the UK from 2011 until 2016. One of his earliest jobs in the Philippines foreign office was as assistant secretary for European Affairs.
“Secretary Manalo has definitely a unique understanding of the EU-Philippines relations and the EU looks forward to working with him in a joint effort to bring the EU-Philippine relations to new heights,” the EU Delegation to the Philippines told Asia Times.

Manalo may soon be jetting off to Brussels. After being unable to attend Marcos Jr’s inauguration, Charles Michel, the European Council president, extended an invite for the new Philippine premier to visit Brussels.

Enrique Manalo is expected to restore cordial relations with the EU. Image: Twitter

“We have much to discuss, from our bilateral relations, EU-ASEAN ties, and wider foreign policy issues, to our support for the rules-based international order,” Michel said in a statement.

The earliest Marcos Jr would likely make an EU trip is in December for the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Brussels, an event to mark the 45th anniversary of relations between the two blocs.

Because the new Philippine president has prioritized domestic policy, he’s unlikely to travel abroad – especially not to somewhere that isn’t Washington, Toyko or Beijing – for several months. But Manalo, his foreign minister, could go in his stead.  

If so, his task will be to continue healing damaged EU-Philippines relations. Tensions have been frequent since 2016 when the now-former president Duterte took office. Duterte frequently lashed out at the “stupid European Union guys” and threatened to cut off relations if the EU kept critiquing his policies.

His administration launched a bloody war on drugs campaign that led to thousands of extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and worked to dismantle several basic human rights protections ­– moves that irked many in Brussels.

A prosecutor at the International Criminal Court based in the Netherlands recently reopened a case against Duterte in connection with his anti-drug campaign.

A certain rapprochement began in early 2020. In January that year, the first joint subcommittee on trade and economic cooperation met virtually; it was supposed to happen after the EU-Philippines Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) came into effect in 2018.

Manalo was “one of the drivers in the negotiation” of the PCA, an official at the EU Delegation to the Philippines told Asia Times. He also co-chaired the first subcommittee meeting on “Good Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights” on February 5 of last year. Five days later, the EU’s new ambassador to Manila, Luc Veron, presented his credentials.

What changed? Some pundits reckon that whereas the EU was a convenient punching bag for the populist Duterte after 2016 (given the bloc’s liberal, internationalist rhetoric), its growing economic importance meant Duterte had to bite his tongue. Duterte maybe also have sensed he was running out of friends after Donald Trump lost the US presidential race in 2020.

Then Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds from a sniper rifle during the opening ceremony of the National Special Weapons and Tactics Challenge in Davao City in March 2018. Photo: AFP / Joel Dalumpines

Veron, the new EU ambassador to Manila, has also been less critical than his predecessor was of Duterte. Equally important, in August last year the Philippines took over as the ASEAN coordinator for Dialogue Relations with the EU until 2024, meaning Brussels and Manila had to find a modus operandi for cooperation.

But a modicum of mistrust remains. The European Parliament, ever hawkish on human rights offenders, insists the Philippines should lose its preferential trade terms with the EU unless Manila makes progress in protecting rights. It adopted a motion to that effect in September 2020, which wasn’t followed through by the Commission, the EU’s executive. (The Philippines’ GSP+ access should come up for review by 2024.)

Whenever Marcos Jr made vows on the campaign trail, which was rare, his promises centered on stoking economic growth. That should give the EU greater relevance. Bilateral trade in goods was worth 15.2 billion euros in 2021, making the EU the fourth-largest trading partner of the Philippines. Brussels also claims to be the largest investor in the country, with investment stock worth 14.4 billion euros as of 2019.  

Talks toward a Philippine-EU free trade agreement began in late 2015 but have stalled on various fronts. Brussels is keen to forge new deals with Southeast Asian partners and an FTA would mean Manila doesn’t have to worry about its GSP privileges. Manalo, the foreign secretary, already has experience negotiating deals with the EU, analysts note.

“Regarding the GSP+ scheme, Manila is interested in making it work, given Marcos Jr’s interest in developing the economy, especially with his securitization of the food sector,” says Joshua Bernard Espeña, a resident fellow at the International Development and Security Cooperation, a Manila-based think tank.

“The EU is likely to be careful yet principled in reaching out to the Philippines,” he added. “Careful since Manila is the EU-ASEAN chair until 2024. Principled due to its need to toughen up against Chinese and Russian ‘attacks’ on the international rules-based order.”

Brussels will also see Manalo as an ally on this front. He was the Philippines’ permanent representative at the UN from early 2020 until last month. During his term, the Philippines was the only Southeast Asian country to repeatedly vote in favor of Ukraine at UN General Assembly resolutions.

Speaking to Asia Times, an official at the EU Delegation to the Philippines said that “the EU is grateful to the Philippines for the support to the UN General Assembly resolutions regarding the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.”

European Union Ambassador to Manila Luc Véron and President-elect Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. Image: Twitter / EU

Said the official, “The European Union and the Philippines place the same level of importance on the multilateral system with the United Nations at its core and are committed to defend a rules-based multilateral order.”  

The EU also reckons that the new Marcos Jr administration likely sees eye-to-eye on environmental protection, climate change adaptation and green economic recovery. Brussels is keen to stress it agrees with Manila on protecting Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which Marcos Jr says he intends to uphold vis-à-vis China more than his predecessor.

All in all, the Philippines under Marcos could quickly return to being one of the easiest Southeast Asian countries for the EU to conduct business. As the EU spars with Cambodia and Vietnam over human rights, and with Malaysia and Indonesia over palm oil issues, a new outlook from Manila will be much welcomed in Brussels.  

Follow David Hutt on Twitter at @davidhuttjourno