MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It's another case of the President's left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.
As it did with a deal on Benham Rise, Malacañang bypassed the country's diplomats again – this time on a move that affects up to 250 million euros or P13.85 billion in grants from the EU.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was left clueless as of Thursday morning, May 18, about the Philippines rejecting new grants from the EU.
DFA spokesman Robespierre Bolivar told Rappler in a text message at around 12:30 am on Thursday that he was still confirming if this information is accurate.
Other sources at the DFA also said they were unaware of the government's decision on future EU grants.
The EU delegation, however, already confirmed at around 11:20 pm on Wednesday, May 17: "The Philippine government has informed us that they no longer accept new EU grants."
The EU delegation said the Philippine government gave them this information only this week.
'Disturbing display of dysfunction'
In a media briefing on Thursday, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said it was the Department of Finance (DOF) that relayed this decision to the EU.
"The President has approved the recommendation of the Department of Finance not to accept grants – this is not necesarily humanitarian aid from the EU – that may allow it to interfere with the internal policies of the Philippines," Abella said.
But aside from the DFA, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) was apparently not informed of the decision, too.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia told reporters on Thursday that Duterte did not consult his economic team.
But Abella denied Pernia's statement, saying that because the recommendation came from the DOF, "it's not entirely accurate that they were not consulted."
Abella also said the DOF could already cascade this new policy to all departments of government. He said that all departments "were informed" in case "one of them might accept" a grant from the EU.
In a separate message, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea explained that the Philippines' move will "enable" the EU "not to interfere with our internal affairs."
This echoes Duterte slamming the EU for supposedly interfering in his bloody anti-drug campaign. "If you think it's high time for you guys to withdraw your assistance, go ahead. We will not beg for it," Duterte told the EU, as well as the US, in October 2016.
Medialdea said on Thursday, "We're supposed to be an independent nation."
The Philippines' former ambassador to the United Nations, Lauro Baja Jr, however voiced concern about reports that the DFA was unaware of this development.
Baja told Rappler on Thursday, "It's the new normal. If DFA is unaware, then there is again a disturbing display of dysfunction in the conduct of our foreign policy."
Bypassed, too, on Benham Rise deal
The DFA is the government agency tasked to deal with foreign embassies, especially when it comes to official notices such as the one received by the EU.
The government usually entrusts this job to diplomats because they have been trained in diplomacy, having passed a grueling Foreign Service Officer Exam and having had the day-to-day job of dealing with other countries.
This is not always the case – especially under a President who spent almost his whole political career as city mayor, with little experience in engaging the world.
In March, the DFA also said it was unaware of a reported agreement between Duterte and China to allow Chinese surveillance ships near Benham Rise. It was Duterte himself who disclosed this agreement.
"I don't know how accurate that is. I just read about it in the papers… Well, we weren't aware of the agreement," Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said in March.
Duterte's chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, later said that the President did not need to inform the DFA about his deal with China on Benham Rise.
In an interview on GMA News TV, Panelo said in reference to the DFA: "Regardless of whether they were informed or not, if the President knew about it, or the Chinese government asked the permission of the President, o 'di, hindi naman kailangang sabihin mo doon sa alter ego mo na, 'di ba (then you don't need to tell it to your alter ego, right)?" – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.