MANILA, PHILIPPINES — The European Union and the Philippines will restart negotiations on a free-trade agreement as they seek to accelerate “a new era of cooperation”, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Monday.
Talks began in 2015 under then-president Benigno Aquino but stalled two years later under his successor Rodrigo Duterte, whose deadly drug war strained diplomatic relations with the West and sparked an international probe.
“I’m very glad that we have decided to relaunch negotiations for (a) free-trade agreement (FTA),” von der Leyen told reporters at a joint news conference with President Ferdinand Marcos in Manila.
“Our teams will get to work right now on setting the right conditions so that we can get back to the negotiations,” she said, noting an FTA has “huge potential for both of us” in terms of jobs and growth.
The European Union is the Philippines’ fourth-largest trading partner and a FTA would be Manila’s second bilateral deal after Japan.
Marcos described the Philippines and European Union as “like-minded partners” with “shared values of democracy, sustainable and inclusive prosperity, the rule of law, peace and stability, and human rights”.
The Philippines currently enjoys a Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status that allows it to export 6,274 products to the European Union tax-free, but this is set to expire at the end of this year.
Under the GSP+ scheme, which is extended to developing countries, Brussels cuts its import duties to zero on two-thirds of product categories in return for implementing 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights, the environment and good governance.
Rights monitors and some EU members of parliament have urged the European Union to withhold a deal extension for the Philippines because of Duterte’s anti-narcotics crackdown that claimed thousands of lives.
The drug war has continued under Marcos even as he emphasised a greater focus on rehabilitation, but a local monitoring group estimates more than 350 people have died since he took power in June 2022.
Von der Leyen, the first European Commission president to visit the Philippines, said the two sides had “learned the hard way the cost of economic dependencies”.
A free-trade agreement was the basis for diversifying supply lines and could also be “a springboard for a new technology cooperation to modernise the broader economy”.
She said the European Union would provide 466 million euros (US$513 million) to help the Philippines develop “green energy” and plastics recycling, as well as provide satellite data to help it better prepare for extreme weather.
It also wanted to help develop the Philippines’ mining industry to secure the supply of critical raw materials.
“We have a broad roadmap to bring our partnership to the next level,” von der Leyen said.