Behind the scenes, PH scrambles to mend EU ties

BRUSSELS, Belgium – While President Rodrigo Duterte lambasts the European Union (EU), two Filipino officials flew to Brussels in September to explain the Philippines' bloody war on drugs that imperils trade incentives from Europe.

Without fanfare back home, Philippine Special Envoy to the EU Edgardo Angara and Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez addressed the Committee on International Trade of the European Parliament on September 25.

In a sober voice, Angara told the EU parliamentarians, "We need each other. We ought not to separate or divorce."

"Our presence here today is testimony to the importance we are giving to our relations," Lopez said.

EU officials viewed the presence of Angara and Lopez – as well as other moves by the Philippines – as part of "damage control."

One EU official, who spoke to visiting Filipino journalists on condition of anonymity, said the EU remains concerned about  "a systemic violation of human rights" in the Philippines.

Still, the EU official said the presentation of the two officials "was impressive."  

Another European source saw the appointment of the special envoy as a means "to control the damage" done by Duterte. 

"The appointment of Mr Angara as special envoy is a positive sign," he said.

'He knows what is he is doing'

The European source also described Angara as "a very senior person with a lot of experience." 

Born in Baler, Aurora, the 83-year-old Angara was a former Philippine Senate President, a long-time senator, and a veteran lawyer.

The European source said of Angara, "He knows what he is doing."

The damage control by the Philippines comes as Duterte slams the EU for supposedly meddling in his bloody anti-drug campaign. (READ: Wrong info leads Duterte to threaten EU diplomats)

Because of alleged human rights violations, the Philippines could soon lose a major trade incentive from Europe – the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP+), which provides duty-free entry for 6,200 products from the Philippines.  

Another source said Angara and Lopez came to Brussels "to show how serious the government is to retain GSP+." Their visit, said the source, was "was very, very successful."

New ambassador a sign of hope, too

Aside from the trip of Angara and Lopez to Brussels, another sign of hope is the appointment of a new ambassador to Belgium and the EU.

Duterte recently named Eduardo Jose de Vega as ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the Commission of the European Communities, and the Council of the European Union.

De Vega was confirmed by the Commission on Appointments on Wednesday, December 6. 

This ambassadorial post has been vacant since September 2016.

"We saw that chair finally filled after more than a year that this chair has been empty. It's an important link to our discussions with the Philippines," said Mattias Lentz, minister counsellor of the EU Delegation to the Philippines. 

Europe sees it as a positive sign, too, that Duterte invited EU Council President Donald Tusk as "guest of the chair" at the recently concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippines.

Part of the context, of course, is Europe's contributions to Filipinos. 

The EU, after all, is the second top destination of Philippine exports, a major donor of the Philippines, and the fourth biggest source of overseas Filipino workers' remittances. (READ: What this media briefing room tells us about the EU)

Lopez told the EU Parliament in September, "We need you, and you will also need us." – Rappler.com