The European Commission (EC) President Ursula Von der Leyen had a two-day official visit to the Philippines on 31 July and 01 August 2023. It was the first ever State Visit made by the EC President in over six decades, aimed to strengthen its bilateral relations and seen as a major shift in the EU-Philippines relations, which has been impacted earlier under the tenure of former President Duterte on account of his approach on war on drugs and having imprisoned opposition leaders.[i]
Following the growing Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait issue, and the US-China growing strategic contestation, the visit of EC President would indicate the willingness to enhance cooperation with the Philippines in Southeast Asia. Both EU and Philippines share common values and interests in the region.
This piece examines the EC President’s visit to the Philippines and the priority areas identified to improve ties with Manila.
Identifying European Commission President’s Major Priority Areas
During the visit, both conventional and non-conventional security issues were deliberated,[ii] with subjects discussed ranging from trade, climate change, digital, strengthening global supply chains in critical raw materials and security cooperation.[iii]
The following priority areas were identified to improve cooperation between the two entities:
The first is the increasing economic cooperation between the Philippines and the European Union (EU), currently is the fourth largest trade partner of Philippines. In this context, Free Trade Agreement (FTA) talks, which were stalled, were re-launched,[iv] in a significant development to bring bilateral relations on track. Given the adverse effects of Ukraine-Russia war on global supply chains, the need to diversify supply lines and make them resilient was underlined to bilateral de-risk trade relations.[v]
The second is the climate change cooperation. It was agreed that the EU will provide finance, expertise and access to technologies to support Manila in its transition to a circular economy, and also EUR 0.5 billion will be contributed by the EU for the green initiative.[vi] Apart from that, Copernicus data mirror site within the Philippines Space Agency, an early warning initiative, was announced for extreme weather phenomena and to improve climate resilience.[vii]
The third area discussed was digital cooperation. The EU committed to turn the Philippines into a digital hub in the region and work on development of 5G and cyber security training.[viii]
Fourth, the leaders agreed on cooperation in critical raw materials for a clean and digital future, and focused on developing Manila’s local mining industry, supporting communities and securing global supply of critical raw materials.[ix]
The fifth priority area dealt with cooperation in security domains. The EC Commission President underlined that, given the changing geopolitics, “the illegal use of force cannot be tolerated—not in Ukraine, not in the Indo-Pacific region. Security in Europe and security in the Indo-Pacific is indivisible.”[x] Further, she stated that an Indo-Pacific “free of the threats of coercion is key to our stability, peace and the prosperity of our people.”[xi]
The European Union had recognized the importance of the Indo-Pacific region in their 2021 document on “the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”.[xii] With regard to Indo-Pacific policy, the EU committed to enhance its engagement with the region to foster rules-based order and build long-term prosperity.[xiii] The Indo-Pacific region is the life line of countries dependent on it for trade, energy, and supply chains.
Besides the priority areas, the South China Sea issue was also referred to. Given increased Chinese aggressiveness to build artificial islands, airstrips, and land reclamation activities, strengthening the capacity of the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Centre and Coast Guard was discussed during the leaders’ meeting.[xiv] Manila is one of the parties to the South China Sea dispute with the People’s Republic of China and has concerns regarding China’s intentions in the region.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) although, in its 2016 judgement, nullified the PRC’s historical rights claims in the South China Sea, the PRC had discarded it. President Ursula Von der Leyen affirmed that the PCA award on the South China Sea is legally binding and, therefore, provides the sole foundation for settling disputes through peaceful means among parties.[xv] For Manila as well, the PCA verdict is the main reference point for its engagement with the PRC.
In Manila, the bilateral meeting between the President of the Philippines and the President of the European Commission was productive as covered revitalizing trade talks to achieve a bilateral FTA, completed a cooperative agreement on green economy and covered other domains such as space cooperation, disaster management, etc.[xvi]
To conclude, the meeting between Ursula and Marcos Jr. was a successful attempt aimed at strengthening and deepening cooperation in the above-discussed five priority areas to shape the trajectory of their bilateral relations.
For Manila, the EC President visit was a breakthrough that accelerated its ties in the changing geopolitics for “a new era of cooperation”.[xvii] It further signals the growing interest of Europe having a war on its soil to engage the Indo-Pacific, given the inter-connectedness of global security.
*Dr. Chander Shekhar, Research Associate, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] DW, Philippines, EU eye closer economic, security ties, https://www.dw.com/en/philippines-eu-eye-closer-economic-security-ties/a-64845782 (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).
[ii] European Commission, Press Statement by President von der Leyen with Philippine President Marcos, 31 July 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_4041 (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).
[iv] Euractiv, EU, Philippines agree to relaunch free trade talks, 31 July 2023, https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/news/eu-philippines-agree-to-relaunch-free-trade-talks/ (Accessed 16 Aug 2023).
[v] European Commission, Press Statement by President von der Leyen with Philippine President Marcos, 31 July 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_4041 (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).
[vi] European Commission, Press Statement by President von der Leyen with Philippine President Marcos, 31 July 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_4041 (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).
[xii] EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, 16 Sep 2021, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_2021_24_1_en.pdf (03 Aug 2023).
[xvi] PCO.Gov, Press statement by President Ferdinand during the visit of EU Commission President H.E. Ursula von der Leyen, 31 July 2023, https://pco.gov.ph/presidential-speech/press-statement-by-president-ferdinand-r-marcos-jr-during-the-official-visit-of-european-commission-president-h-e-ursula-von-der-leyen/ (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).
[xvii] European Commission, Press Statement by President von der Leyen with Philippine President Marcos, 31 July 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_4041 (Accessed 03 Aug 2023).