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Senators urge Duterte to 'think over' policy on EU aid

MANILA, Philippines – Some senators urged the Duterte administration to "think over" its decision to shut out developmental aid from the European Union (EU), considering the fight against poverty and the country's ties with one of its biggest trading partners.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said on Friday, May 19, that he was "saddened" by the decision, since the EU has been a "reliable trading partner" whose assistance has benefited Filipinos, especially those in poor communities. (READ: How important is the EU to the Philippines?)

"I hope that the government has studied this thoroughly and carefully and is prepared to deal with the consequences of its decision," Drilon said.

One potential consequence, he said, is the removal of the Philippines from the Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) that has allowed it to export 6,274 products to the EU at zero tariff since 2014.

"The decision might trigger the removal of the Philippines from the GSP+. Once GSP+ is withdrawn, Filipino producers will be charged tariff rates," he said.

He cited as an example tuna from General Santos City, which would be slapped with a 22%-tariff when exported to EU countries if the GSP+ is withdrawn.

Mindanao development

Drilon also said that the EU "has been the Philippines' committed partner in the pursuit of peace and development in Mindanao," the President's bailiwick.

He cited the EU's support for the peace process in Mindanao. He said the EU contributed about 80% of the total funds in the Mindanao Trust Fund, which was set up by various donors to fund the socioeconomic recovery of conflict-hit communities in that region.

On concerns that the EU's "conditional" aid programs would interfere in internal affairs, Drilon said the EU is unlikely to do this, based on its "long-standing partnership" with the Philippines which "has always been based on mutual respect and cooperation."

"While it is the right of any country to accept or reject any grant from another country or institution, I do not agree that the grants offered by the EU would give it a license to interfere in our country's internal affairs," Drilon said. (READ: Palace clarifies: PH not accepting EU grants 'with conditions')

"We are just being asked to adhere to our treaty obligations and they did not come from the EU but from the treaties that we have signed and ratified," he added.

No consultations

Senator Risa Hontiveros, another member of the Senate minority, said the administration's rejection of EU aid "exposes the government's lack of a clear foreign policy framework on how to deal with foreign aid." (READ: DFA, NEDA clueless as PH rejects new EU grants)

"I strongly suggest that the government think this over carefully," she said.

Hontiveros said the "principle of rejecting foreign aid with unfair conditionalities should apply not only to the EU but to all loans the country has entered into with other nation-states and international financial institutions."

"These include the billions of dollars in loans recently acquired from China," she added.

Hontiveros also said there should have been multisectoral consultations on the major policy change, considering the Philippines' longstanding relationship with the EU and the impact of the decision on the country's anti-poverty campaign.

"Without the benefit of wide-reaching consultations with the legislature and economic managers on foreign affairs, trade and the economy, this decision could severely undermine legitimate aid-funded programs and services to poor and conflict-hit regions in the country," she said.

In another statement, Senator Francis Pangilinan, Liberal Party president, said the  move was apparently triggered by the EU's criticism of Duterte's war on drugs.

"The EU's expression of concern over the war on drugs, including the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima, should not cause the Philippines to step back in our relationship with EU," he said.

Worth it?

In contrast, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian threw his support for the new policy, and agreed that it would protect the Philippines' "independence" in crafting policies.

"As chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs, it is my opinion that the loss of P13 billion in foreign aid from the EU is a price the Philippines can afford to pay in pursuit of truly independent foreign and economic policies," Gatchalian said.

Unlike some of his other colleagues, the neophyte senator believes that the decision would not affect the Philippines' trade ties with EU member-countries.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, for his part, said he was not ready to give a judgment this early.

"Only time can tell if it will do our country right or not, or if it is all worth giving a chance to be tested. If only we do not have a territorial dispute with China, it is easier to concede that it is all worth the gamble," Lacson said. – Rappler.com