IN this time of Brexit and the ranting of right-wingers in both Europe and North America who clamor for a chance to take pot shots at the European Union, President Rodrigo Duterte’s own tirades against the EU may not sound too unusual. “Tell them the mayor says you are a f*****g s**t,” he said recently before a local audience, who laughed and clapped approvingly. But while it might seem Duterte is riding on a populist wave in deriding the EU, and standing up for Philippine sovereignty, he is actually doing the country a massive disservice.
First, our President doesn’t seem to want to go beyond a perception of the EU as merely an institution made up of meddling, pen-pushing, colonial-minded bureaucrats. The depiction might be politically expedient and get a few laughs, but it is utterly ignorant and foolish to think of the EU—which as a bloc has the power to shape globalization—in those terms. Composed of 28 member states, the EU, as former US President Barack Obama once described it, is “home to more than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency” and remains “one of the greatest political achievements.” Duterte should understand some basic facts about the EU: that it accounts for 7 percent of the world’s population, 23 percent of global GDP, 50 percent of global public spending, and strives to act as a bulwark against political extremism.
Second, Duterte doesn’t seem to have given a thought to the hundreds of thousands of Filipino overseas workers and immigrants who have made their home in the EU, have married Europeans and are raising families with them, and regularly remit billions of dollars to the Philippines. In Italy, there are between 100,000 to 200,000 Filipinos, in France almost 100,000, including undocumented estimates, and about 300,000 in the UK. Europe is in fact the second largest source of remittances to the country. Bluntly put, it is money from Europe keeping so many communities—the populations of towns and villages—at home alive.
Third, the EU spends 111 million euros ($118 million) on supporting health programs in the Philippines that have included sexual and reproductive health care for indigenous people in Mindanao, dental care for tens of thousands of school-aged children, and technical assistance in setting up voluntary drug rehabilitation services and outpatient clinics. Regarding the latter, Franz Jessen, EU Ambassador to the Philippines painstakingly explained: “The outpatient clinics are specialty treatment services, scheduled to be located in hospital compounds or close to health care facilities. The recovery homes are small residential facilities providing care to about 25 to maximum 50 people, who need more intensive care in addition to the treatment provided through outpatient clinics.” Duterte has rubbished this explanation and instead outlandishly claims that the clinics will dispense shabu and cocaine to anyone that asks.
Fourth, the EU has pumped 35 million euros ($37.3 million) worth of investments in the Philippines. It is also an important trading partner that permits duty-free or reduced-tariff export of thousands of selected Philippine products to the EU market, privileges which annually earn the country hundreds of millions of euros. So, when the EU thinks that the Philippines is no longer complying with international agreements, especially those concerning the rule of law, civil liberties, and good governance, and considering withholding trade privileges and incentives, Duterte would do well to take serious notice.
Commemorating its 60th anniversary last month, the EU reiterated its identity on the world stage as being “a community of peace, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, a major economic power with unparalleled levels of protection and social welfare.” This may sound abstract and lofty, but the fact is most of Europe does have a healthy respect for liberal values, fundamental rights, and pluralism. Filipinos in Europe by and large live decently alongside Europeans in prosperity, stability, and safety, thanks to EU values and laws.
Fifth, Duterte’s use of fetid language is impulsive, crude, abrasive, offensive, and downright hateful and nasty. His references to history are distorted at best, and he has an alarming disregard for the facts and truth. His propensity to fall back on invective and insult is serving as a distraction from, if not an evasion of, any real discussion of the government’s foreign and domestic policies. The horror of this vindictive, bloodthirsty, authoritarian-inclined presidency lies in its ability to turn the extremely unacceptable into the new normal.