It’s complicated

COMMONSENSE By Marichu A. Villanueva

BRUSSELS – For the past four days of our interactions with some of the select European Union (EU) officials here at the capital city of Belgium, we have come to understand – hopefully correctly – how complicated it functions as a supranational institution, or transcending borders and boundaries of 28 member states. In fact, it’s too complicated that it is set to lose the United Kingdom now going through the process of withdrawing from the EU, popularly called as the “Brexit” (as in Britain exit).

Born after World War II, the EU has grown through these years and has evolved to become a very powerful economic and political bloc in this part of the world. Now, the EU has its European Council (EC) and the elected Members of the European Parliament (MEP) that largely run and control the policy directions of their supranational institution. During these past four days of our EU Journalists Programme, we had sort of a crash course on this complicated structures and how each operates as far as how it affects the relations with the Philippines.

We were among the invited Filipino members of the media sent here by the EU Delegation to the Philippines at a time President Rodrigo Duterte has kept perorating against severe criticisms about alleged state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings (EJKs) coming from the EU direction. It was a good time as any to get up close and personal interactions with EU officials. 

To our dismay though, many of them – except for a few brave souls from the EU officialdom – talked to us under “Chatham House Rules” or on “off-the-record and not-for-attribution” basis. It was quite understandable in some instances because providing anonymity and not identifying the speakers would encourage them to talk more freely, with more openness to share information and provide deeper insights as far as how they see the current state of affairs between the EU and the Philippines.

So it was a welcome relief to us Filipino journalists when a few of them did not impose on us the “Chatham House Rules” since they subscribe to the EU principles of transparency. In fairness, however, we were sworn to obey also the same “Chatham House Rules” when we visited yesterday the Philippine embassy here. We likewise understood the need to abide by these house rules in deference to the incoming assumption into office of Eduardo Jose De Vega as the newly confirmed Philippine ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the EU.

Our country first established its diplomatic relations with the EU (formerly the European Economic Community) on May 12,1964 with the appointment of the Philippine ambassador to the EEC.

From our interactions with the EU officials, it is definitely palpable they are very much concerned over the reported “impunity” in human rights infractions and EJKs in the conduct of the anti-drug war of President Duterte. To the point that our country’s ongoing programs with the EU may likely be affected, President Duterte has not toned down his rhetoric, especially after certain MEPs scored his leadership for sending to jail opposition leader Senator Leila de Lima.

In one of our rare on-the-record discussions, MEP Marc Tarabella last Tuesday furnished us a four-page copy of European Parliament “Resolution of Urgency” that was passed on March 16 this year on the case of Sen. De Lima. Tarabella is the vice chair of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with the countries of Southeast Asia and the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations where the Philippines is part of its ten-member states).

As far as the MEPs took up the cause of De Lima, they noted, she is “the highest profile critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign” principally blamed for the big number of alleged EJKs in the Philippines. The MEPs cited De Lima’s removal as chairman of the Senate committee on justice and human rights after her committee conducted a series of public hearings on EJKs dating back to the period when President Duterte was still Mayor of Davao City where she first investigated him while she was then chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights.

“Whereas there are serious concerns that the offences (sic) Senator De Lima has been charged with are almost entirely fabricated; whereas Amnesty International regards Senator De Lima as a prisoner of conscience”; one of the texts adopted by the European Parliament stated.

The Senator remains in detention while undergoing trial for alleged involvement in illegal drugs trade, among other criminal offenses she allegedly committed while still the Justice Secretary of the previous administration. The senator has been detained since Feb. 24, following the warrant of arrest issued by Muntinlupa Regional Trial Court Branch 204.

After visiting her last July, four members of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights urged President Duterte to let De Lima do her duties, including her attending Senate sessions. EU Parliamentarians Enrique Guerrero Salom, Norbert Hans Neuser, Paolo Alberti, however, were prevented last Nov. 11 from visiting De Lima at her detention cell located inside the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters.

The De Lima resolution was actually a follow-up of the first “Resolution of Urgency” of the European Parliament they passed on Sept. 15 last year after President Duterte, in one of his usual extemporaneous speeches, dished out his “F--k EU” when criticisms against alleged EJKs started coming out from certain EU parliamentarians.

Likewise in the latest Resolution, they expressed “deep alarm” over the decision of the House of Representatives in the 17th Congress controlled largely by Duterte allies to reintroduce the Death Penalty Law. The House-approved bill though remains pending at the Senate where pro-life Senators outnumber those who may vote for it. The MEPs too called upon the Philippine government to refrain from lowering the minimum age for criminal responsibility that President Duterte strongly advocates.

 Now, here comes the so-called carrot-and-stick. Reading from this Resolution, the MEPs urge the EU “to use all available instruments to assist the Government of the Philippines” in upholding its international human rights obligations and commitments under the United Nations (UN) and other international covenants.

It was at this point, Mattias Lentz, head of the Political, Press and Information Section of EU Delegation to the Philippines interjected to stress the point these are not EU “conditions” but are the commitments made by the Philippines under international treaties and conventions merely being pointed out by the EU.

The MEPs warning, however, is very clear and strong as stated in their Resolution: “Urges the (EU) Commission to use all available instruments to persuade the Philippines to put an end to EJKs related to the anti-drug campaign including, in the absence of any substantive improvements in the next few months, procedural steps with a view to the possible removal of GSP+ preferences.” This refers to the possible EU withdrawal of our country’s tariff-free benefits and privileges in goods and services being enjoyed under the General System of Preference (GSP) Plus.

At present, according to Tarabella, there are more than 700 elected MEPs from the 28 member-states of the EU, with the biggest MEPs coming from Germany. There are eight political groups now sitting as MEPs, the biggest of which belong to the Christian Democrats. Tarabella belongs to the second biggest party called the Socialists and Democrats.

While the Resolution bodes ill for the Philippines, the complicated structure and process at the EU might give enough time for our country’s leaders to remedy the situation. When I told Tarabella that President Duterte describes himself as not a communist but a socialist, the MEP cheerfully pointed to their party’s motto hanging on the wall of his office that states: “When nothing goes right, go left.” But for the sake of the Philippines, we pray and hope things won’t go south.

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