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DTI chief on report trade talks frozen over drug war bloodbath: Ask EU

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez deflected questions about the country’s free trade talks with the European Union (EU), after sources claimed that the EU suspended it amid concerns over the bloodbath resulting from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless campaign against illegal drugs.

Instead, Lopez told reporters in an interview on Monday (July 8) to ask the EU about the problem, and not him, noting that the DTI has not received any message of concern from the bloc about the human rights situation in the Philippines.

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This came after sources said that the EU had suspended talks for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Philippines, due in part to the unabated killings associated with Duterte’s campaign against drugs.

Philippine police had acknowledged nearly 7,000 casualties in the campaign but human rights groups claimed the number could be at least 20,000 and counting.

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“They didn’t say this officially. I don’t know their priorities, but we’re just having problems on the scheduling on the continuation of the third round of talks,” said Lopez, when asked to comment on the report.

The EU and the Philippines had met only twice for formal negotiations, with the first round held in May 2016 and the next round coming months after in February 2017. It has been more than two years since the last round of talks was held.

When asked to clarify what he meant by scheduling problems delaying the free trade talks, Lopez replied: “You ask them what their problem is. Not me.”

The office of EU Ambassador Franz Jessen has not yet responded to requests for comment as of early evening on Monday (July 8).

But in a Viber message on Monday afternoon, Lopez said it was the EU which saw no need to discuss human rights during the trade talks.

“I can say that in our last meeting with EU parliamentarians a few months ago, they were the ones who didn’t see the need to discuss [the] human rights issue and our fight against illegal drugs,” he said.

Instead, he said the discussions focused on how the Philippines could maximize the use of Generalized System of Preference Plus (GSP +) which allowed the country to export thousands of products with no tariff while also expanding exports.

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He said also discussed was how the GSP+ has been benefiting exporters and manufacturers in fishing and agricultural communities in Mindanao.

A source familiar with the issue earlier said the EU understood the need for a strong response to crime and the scourge of illegal drugs, clarifying that the concern was not about the campaign against drugs itself but the “human rights results of the drug war.”

“It’s normal that you have to fight against criminals. It’s clear. But the way you do it, it’s an argument for the EU,” said the source.

There were other reasons behind the suspension as well, the source said, such as compliance with trade regulations and issues on protection of investment and intellectual property.

It is not clear how big a role human rights played in the trade talk impasse, but the source, who is an EU member state official, said the bloc had always put human rights, dignity, and responsibility “in any paper that we sign, even if it’s just based on trade, because we think it’s the beginning of everything.”

Duterte had thrown expletives at the EU over rights issues, denouncing what he said was foreign interference and, at one point, declared that he did not need aid from the European bloc, and that EU critics of the bloodbath in his war on drugs can go to hell.

Another source, who agreed to comment only under anonymity, confirmed to the Inquirer last week that human rights issues played a part in the suspension of the free trade talks.

“It is one of the elements,” the source said, adding that “a better overall enabling environment is needed.”

A free trade deal covering a wide array of trade and investment issues could take years, if not decades, to make. The deal could significantly help increase investments and trade in the Philippines, especially since the EU is one of its most important economic partners.

Moreover, a free trade pact would be a step up from the existing arrangement the Philippines enjoys with the EU under the Generalized System of Preference Plus (GSP+).

Since late 2014, the GSP+ status of the Philippines allowed the country to export more than 6,000 products to the EU bloc with no tariff. Keeping it means having to heed certain international conventions, including one concerning human rights.

A free trade deal, according to the DTI’s official website, would give the Philippines a wider duty-free market access that is permanent, unlike the GSP+, which lasts for only a few years.

While the European Commission had retained the country’s GSP+ status in 2018, it said in its report that how the government waged its campaign against drugs was “a matter of grave concern.”

Despite the political issues between the Duterte administration and the bloc, the Philippines has been benefiting more from its trade with the EU, than the other way around.

According to the European Commission’s website, the EU is the Philippines’ fourth largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 10 percent of total trade last year.

On the other hand, the Philippines is the EU’s 41st largest trading partner, accounting for just 0.4 percent of the EU’s total trade. (Editor: Tony Bergonia)

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TAGS: Drugs, DTI, Duterte, EU, Europe, Exports, human rights, tariff, trade talks
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