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European Union, PH restart talks on fresh free-trade agreement

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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 Jr. 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 an FTA would be Manila’s second bilateral deal after Japan.

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Mr. Marcos described the Philippines and the 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 enjoys a Generalized 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, labor 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 Mr. Marcos even as he emphasized a greater focus on rehabilitation, but a local monitoring group estimates more than 350 people have been killed since he took power in June 2022.

Human Rights Watch’s EU director Philippe Dam said it was concerning that von der Leyen “could not be heard tackling human rights and civil liberties issues.”

“Make no mistake — the human rights situation in the Philippines remains dire,” Dam said in a statement.

“The EU should not look the other way and should tie a future trade deal to concrete labor and human rights improvements and accountability for past violations.”

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 ($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.

The European Commission reaffirmed its commitment to aid the Philippines with a 60-million euro grant to sustain its move towards a green economy, President Marcos said.

“On the development cooperation, we committed to conclude an agreement for the Green Economy Program in the Philippines (GEPP), a grant worth 60 million euros, which aims to support the Philippines in areas such as circular economy, renewable energy, and climate change mitigation,” President Marcos said.

Under the joint agreement, the EU Commission’s grant will be coursed through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Green Economy Program.

Von der Leyen said that the European Union Global Gateway is the regional bloc’s investment plan for sustainable infrastructure.

Under the EU’s Global Gateway, financing expertise and access to technologies will be provided to support the Philippines in the transition to a circular economy.

“The European Union is also supporting your fight against climate change and extreme weather events, with its so-called Eyes in the Sky,” said von der Leyen, referring to satellites that will help detect extreme weather phenomena and improve climate resilience. With AFP

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