The European Union as a political actor in the Philippines

First Session of the series: Democratic trends in ASEAN


Participants reviewed the human rights, democracy, and rule of law record of the Philippines, taking into account both the country’s historical progression and its performance compared to its neighbours. Major human rights violations highlighted included extrajudicial killings (particularly as part of the war on drugs) and the persecution of journalists and political activists. In relation to democracy and the rule of law, key issues identified included patrimonialism and cronyism, corruption, the weakening of the separation of powers, and the ongoing silencing and persecution of members of the opposition, the judiciary and civil society. Other worrying trends identified included historical revisionism, decreasing levels of basic education, and increasing disinformation (especially on social media). The increasing militarisation of Filipino politics was also discussed, whether related specifically to the peace process in Mindanao or more broadly in Filipino politics. A participant noted that, despite the Philippines’ weak track record in terms of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the country was still doing better than most of its neighbours.


Participants evaluated the current state of the EU-Philippines relationship, placing it in the broader historical context. Ever since diplomatic relations were established in 1964, Filipino Presidents have visited Brussels, a tradition broken by Duterte who has so far rejected invitations to do so. However, a participant indicated that the relationship has improved lately, with the holding of bilateral high-level meetings in January 2020 on trade and human rights. Several participants called for stronger support from the EU, especially towards civil society and institutions that act as checks and balances to the government. However, one participant also related a widespread sentiment in the Philippines of cynicism, related to the belief that external powers have vested interests and hence their support might not always be for the benefit of the Filipino people.


Participants discussed the concept of “principled pragmatism” and how both sides of the relationship perceived it as working in practice. Several participants noted that this concept was necessary to balance the EU’s role as a normative power and its role as a trading and investment partner. Many participants highlighted that this balancing act was difficult, as the EU wants to maintain a comprehensive relationship with the Philippines, and does not want to be accused of intervening in a sovereign country’s domestic affairs. For example, a participant highlighted that the EU had to be careful in its engagement, as activating its human rights-related investigative mechanisms would probably lead to the Filipino government completely withdrawing and hence would impact significantly the bilateral relationship – in which case the EU would have even less leverage as a normative actor.


Participants exchanged views on how the EU could contribute to improving the Philippines’ human rights, democracy, and rule of law record. Several participants mentioned institutional design as a necessary step to increase democratic norms and practices in the Philippines. Remodelling the electoral system, strengthening checks and balances to governmental power, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, regulating campaign financing, and reinforcing legislation around freedom of information were all mentioned as key. Participants noted that although weak and disorganised opposition in the Philippines was a major issue, the EU could not directly support such a process of rebuilding, as that would be seen as intervention in the country’s domestic politics. A participant argued that although some structural changes could be helpful in enhancing democracy in the Philippines, ultimately discussions around and capacity-building of behaviours and attitudes were necessary to encourage and sustain a democratic culture. Some participants also suggested that the EU and the Philippines enhance their cooperation when dealing with third parties – most notably ASEAN, with the Philippines taking on a role of “partnership coordinator”. This could participate to socialising the Philippines into democratic norms and practices, and embed its foreign policy more strongly in universal values such as democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law.





Main takeaways


  • Major areas of concerns related to the Philippines’ human rights, democracy and rule of law record include: patrimonialism and cronyism, corruption, weak separation of powers, persecution of activists and members of the opposition, silencing of journalists, extrajudicial killings, and increasing militarisation of the political space.


  • The diplomatic relationship between the EU and the Philippines has been deteriorating under Duterte, although some improvements occurred in 2020.


  • The EU’s guiding concept of “principled pragmatism” is a way to balance the demands generated by its economic and geopolitical interests and its role as a normative power.


  • The EU could contribute to improving the Philippines’ human rights, democracy, and rule of law record by supporting the strengthening of checks and balances to governmental power, the independence of the judiciary, campaign financing regulations, freedom of information, and civil society organisations.


  • In its engagement with the Philippines, the EU must always be aware of not over-stepping its role as an external donor and partner, as any infringement of the Philippines’ sovereignty would significantly deteriorate relations and send negative signals.
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Denis Schrey

Denis Schrey bild

Leiter des Multinationalen Entwicklungsdialogs Brüssel (MNED) +32 2 66931 70 +32 2 66931 62