DTI says EU FTA talks suspended due to ‘scheduling problem’
Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez deflected questions about the country’s free trade deal negotiations with the European Union (EU), after sources claimed that the EU suspended the talks amid concerns over Duterte’s drug war.
Instead, Lopez told reporters in an interview on Monday to ask the EU about the problem, noting that such human rights concerns had not been relayed to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
“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,” he said, when asked for comment.
This develops after sources said that the EU had suspended the talks for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Philippines, due in part to the conduct of the campaign against illegal drugs that had cost thousands of lives.
The EU and the Philippines had only so far met twice for formal negotiations, with the first round held in May 2016, and the next round held in February 2017.
Lopez claimed in a message later on Monday that it was the EU that did not see the need to discuss human rights.
“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 product line at zero tariff, while also expanding exports.
He said they also discussed how the GSP+ had 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 move was not because of the drug war per se, 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.
It is not clear how big a role human rights played into this FTA impasse, but the sourcesaid the bloc had always put human rights, dignity, and responsibility “in any paper that we sign, even if it’s just based in trade, because we think it’s the beginning of everything.”
An FTA could significantly increase investments and trade in the Philippines, especially since the EU is one of its most important economic partners.
Moreover, an FTA will be a step up from the existing arrangement the Philippines enjoys with the EU under GSP +.
Keeping it means having to follow certain international conventions, including one concerning human rights.
An FTA, according to the DTI’s official website, would give the Philippines a wider duty-free market access that is permanent, unlike the GSP+, which will only last for 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 drug war 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.