The two-day visit was the first by a president of the European Commission. The background: On Dec. 14, 2022, at the EU-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in Brussels, Bongbong Marcos invited Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, to come to Manila to mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the bloc and the Philippines.

Make that clear: Von der Leyen came for a visit because Marcos Jr. invited her. It was a complete about-face from the cussword-laden foreign policy of the previous administration. 

At Malacañang’s ceremonial hall this July 31, the European Commission president was feted to military honors befitting a head of state, in the presence of her delegation and the members of the Marcos cabinet. Take note: Sara Duterte was not among them. Either Malacañang did not invite her or she declined the invitation, if at all. Her absence was good; her father was the cause of the collapse of EU-Philippines relations.

Formal talks began after the welcome dignities. Then a joint news conference with the two leaders followed.

Among Von der Leyen’s significant statements: The EU recognizes as legally binding the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling invalidating China’s expansion in the South China Sea. It is ready to enter into a cooperation that will bolster the Philippine Coast Guard.

Marcos Jr. rejoined: “We are like-minded partners through our shared values of democracy, sustainable and inclusive prosperity, the rule of law, peace and stability, and human rights. The relationship between us will now enter greater heights.” That does not sound like music to the ears of someone in Davao city.

The next day, Von der Leyen gave a rationally crafted keynote speech at the Philippine Business Forum at the Fairmont Hotel. She began by complimenting the economic partnership between Europe and the Philippines, highlighting the fact that the EU is the Philippines 4th largest trading partner. Mention was made of the 50,000 Filipino sailors manning EU-flagged vessels. Readers take note: Ursula von der Leyen of Germany was once the minister of defense of the formidable Angela Merkel. She commands a reputation in Europe as a no-nonsense public servant.

“The time has come to lift our relationship to the next level on three main fields.” The first was our shared policies on international security. “Both of us believe in a global order based on the principles of the UN Charter, such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“The Philippines stood to uphold the global order when it joined, together with the European Union, 140 countries of the world in condemning Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. The EU will support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

That was merely the prelude. The next was inevitable.  “China has yet to assume fully its responsibility under the UN Charter to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Europe has constantly called on China to respect the sovereign rights of states within their exclusive economic zones,” the last a welcome news to Filipinos after the water cannon debacle in the West Philippine Sea.

And then a significant point was driven: “The EU has been enhancing its engagement in the Indo Pacific. With the Philippines, it will deepen its partnership on maritime security, and we want to do more.” To which a China military expert and Chinese TV commentator reacted, perhaps on behalf of the Xi government (which had no official statement): “Von der Leyen simply sounds like Uncle Sam’s parrot.” 

Then she shifted to economic transformation and what the EU can offer. Under its Global Gateway program, the EU will offer a digital economy package that aims to make the Philippines the digital hub of Southeast Asia. With the Philippine Space Agency, the EU will put up the first earth data mirror in Asia whereby data from the EU’s Copernicus Space Station will be mirrored in real time to the Philippines. This will equip the Philippines in disaster risk management, typhoon early warning systems, climate change observation, and satellite navigation for aviation and drones.

She also mentioned the possibility that the current fiber-optic submarine cable from the EU to Japan via the Arctic Circle will reach the Asean via the Philippines.

Finally she reached the bottomline. She announced that the EU would re-launch a free trade agreement with the Philippines to extend the GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preferences) beyond 2023, negotiations for which have stalled under Rodrigo Duterte. The GSP+ is a special incentive that allows the country to export goods included in 6,270 product lines to the EU market without any tariffs. 

She had already given the carrot. What was the stick? “But trade agreements today are about much more than eliminating tariffs and quotas. They are about shared commitments, values and principles, including on human and labor rights.” And then she immediately segued to her third field, on democratic values. “We want to be partners who stand eye to eye sharing the same universal values of democracy.”

“Economic progress can only be coupled with social progress in our societies.” And that is where the negotiations for the GSP+ will be hinged upon. The EU has repeatedly demanded the release of Leila de Lima and Philippine accountability in the drug-related killings. In February, a group of EU lawmakers said that Manila’s chances of GSP+ renewal depended on whether the country rejoined the International Criminal Court. 

Here is where a proper understanding of the EU’s GSP+ is necessary. The Rome Statute that legally created the ICC is not among the 27 international conventions that form part of the criteria for country beneficiaries to the GSP+ trade incentive. The EU is not a country but a supranational polity and hence cannot be a party to the ICC. However, all of its member-states are signatories of the Rome Statute. 

Some significant facts indispensable to understanding the EU vis-à-vis the ICC: First, it has a EU-wide foreign policy that directs all its member countries to support the ICC. Second, how intimate are the ties between the EU and the ICC? In 2006, the EU and the ICC signed a cooperation agreement obliging its member countries to assist the ICC, particularly in handing over classified information to the court. In addition, member countries coordinate their investigations and prosecutions with each other in areas relevant to crimes under the Rome Statute.

Third, the EU has continually invoked the so-called Cotonou Agreement with the African, Caribbean and Pacific States to take steps to either ratify or implement the Rome Statute.  The EU has been inserting this agreement in all its trade re-negotiations. And fourth, the EU supports technical working groups it has created inside the EU framework, such as the European Parliament Friends of the ICC.

Unfortunately for those running away from ICC accountability, the EU is the world’s most effective diplomatic actor in spawning support for the ICC in the name of international justice. It can set conditionalities in trade agreements with countries to support the ICC. The EU Parliament, by a specific budget line, is the largest financial contributor to the ICC. It also funds global NGO activity promoting international justice such as the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, No Peace Without Justice, and the Parliamentarians for Global Action. Of the last but not the least, Leila de Lima is a member.

The statement the Philippines heard last February from EU parliamentarian Hannah Neumann, leader of the EU delegation that visited Leila de Lima, was right after all: “The European Parliament has been quite clear that whoever wants to have preferential access to the European market needs to uphold social standards, human rights standards, environmental standards. This is not going to go away.”

Philippines rejoining the ICC + Leila de Lima’s freedom – these will not go away as conditionalities.

The million-euro question is anticipated: Can the Marcos Jr. government, which deems itself beholden to Duterte popularity for winning the 2022 election race, navigate itself through the EU by invoking the two conditionalities as non-negotiables? Therein lies doom or fortune for Marcos Jr.’s ambition of prestige before the world.