DE SPITE the headache that the botched Laguna Lake Restoration Project (LLRP) had caused them, the Belgian government assures the Philippine government that relations of the two countries remain solid and unharmed.
In a round table discussion with the editors of The Manila Times on Thursday, Belgian Ambassador Christian Meerschman said that both parties should move on and let the arbitrators in Washington, U.S. decide the case.
“I don’t think that it has impact on the [Philippines-Belgium relations],” Meerschman said. “There have always been Belgian firms [in the Philippines]. Every year, there are always Belgian firms coming here.”
In 2011, Belgian contractor Baggerwerken Decloedt en Zoon (BDZ) filed a recovery case against the Philippine government worth P6 billion damages for unilaterally ending the LLRP. The project was supposed to dredge the lake’s bed from waste and contaminated materials.
BDZ is the same company that completed the Pasig River Rehabilitation Project two months ahead of its December 2010 deadline.
The LLRP was signed during the term of former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo but was cancelled by the Aquino administration in June 2011 because of alleged irregularities. But until now, no allegations of graft has been proven.
The ambassador decried that he only learned of the cancellation of the contract through the media.
“The President cancelled unilaterally the contract,” he said, noting that a lot of Belgian officials were asking why the contract was terminated right after the president’s decision. “If there’s corruption… you have to prove it, if there’s corruption or not,” he said.
He added that the contract did not spark any congressional investigation despite the allegations of graft.
According to the ambassador, BDZ already spent some 50 million euros for the project.
Meerschan stood firm that the contract was “clean” as BDZ has been operating for at least 150 years and is one of the best-run Belgian companies. It has spearheaded some of the biggest dredging projects in the world, including China and Singapore.
“It’s only because it was signed during Arroyo’s time,” he said. “I think it’s a clean company, a clean contract, the only thing is that the other Belgian company began in the newspapers-in full pages-to say, ‘President, be careful there have been corruption.”
Meerschan referred to the tight competition between BDZ and Jan De Nul, the other Belgian dredging firm which won the contract for the Mall of Asia reclamation project. He noted that it played a role in the cancellation of the LLRP as both companies were sponsored by different politicians.
He clarified that it was a commercial feud and refused to say any more about the dispute.
Despite the setback, Meerschan said that the scrapped project did not affect the ties between the two countries. Apparently, the Belgian government is still open to doing business in the Philippines particularly President Aquino’s public-private partnerships, plus ventures in solar energy and other environmental technologies.
If there is something that hinders Belgian firms to fully invest in the Philippines, it’s the constitutional provision that prohibits foreigners from owning 100 percent of a real property.
Meanwhile, he also noted that Philippines is a good source of a younger labor force, particularly nurses, since Belgium has an aging population. Currently, Belgium needs 100,000 nurses who can speak Dutch.
Belgium is the 18th biggest investor in the Philippines despite the absence of a bilateral trade agreement.