EU’s Political Counsellor to PH Dr. Julian Vassallo on his first SEA adventure
WITH just one more year to go in his first Southeast Asian post as Political Counsellor of the Delegation of the European Union (EU) to the Philippines, Dr. Julian Vassallo has not tired of discovering as much as he can about this island country. He does so with the same passion and enthusiasm as he pursues his diverse diplomatic duties here, which began in 2011.
As political counsellor and member-state diplomat, the assertive 43-year-old doctor of laws is mainly responsible for political relations between the Philippine government and the EU. He serves under the European External Action Service (EEAS) of the EU, a department created to specifically handle security and defense diplomacy, trade and commercial policy, as well as to extend development assistance and support to the union’s allies across the globe.
As of late, Vassallo has taken an active part in bilateral issues facing the Philippine government such as the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea); defense issues with regards to China and the United States; EU’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean); as well as the concerns in the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), among others.
“The EU is not only the largest economy in the world but also the largest trader and exporter in the world. Our office used to be focused on trade and development aid, but today the mandate of this office has changed and has expanded to foreign policy issues,” said the Maltese national to The Manila Times. The one-on-one interview took place at the Delegation of the EU to the Philippines offices in Makati City on September 11.
“In effect, besides EU being the biggest donor of development assistance in the world by far, we now approach the government of the Philippines in foreign policy issues—whether we are talking about the crisis in Ukraine, the crisis in Libya, or climate change, which affects us all,” he elaborated. “We initiate political dialogue with the Philippines to try and create alliances in the United Nations and other international organizations to promote common interests.”
Vasallo’s office further strives to promote trade in the country, encouraging the Philippine government to open up its economy and greater imports, exports and investments that will benefit all sides.
In terms of strengthening foreign relations, Vassallo is tasked to deal with issues such as migration and human trafficking. His office also supports the peace process in Mindanao.
With an extensive background in management and public relations, the diplomat ably manages the Delegation Press and Communication team as well as the organization of the European cultural calendar in the Philippines.
Life before PH
Before his appointment to the country, Vassallo was the head of the European Parliament (EP) Office in Malta, and enjoyed being posted in his motherland from 2006.
Prior to that he, was based in Brussels as Permanent Representation of Malta to the EU in 2003, a position, which he also held from 1999 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Growing up in a multicultural environment, which merged his Mediterranean roots with European influences, the diplomat interestingly revealed that there are many similarities between the way of life in Malta and the Philippines.
“The Philippines and Malta were the last two countries in the world without divorce, until it was finally upheld in our country in 2011. The situation before this was a bit similar in a sense with your situation here—there was this sort of denial that families sometimes break down. But I believed then as I do now that laws should reflect the condition of society,” the intelligent diplomat shared.
Besides divorce, a history of colonization is further shared between the two nations. “Malta is strategically located along the Suez Canal all the way to the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibralta so we have good natural ports—and that is why we were conquered by everyone, much like the Philippines.”
From the Romans, Arabs, French and the British, among others, the small island of Malta had gone through the hands of many colonizers. But for Vassallo, the many turns his country had taken through history should not be a cause of regret. Instead, the very open-minded leader declared, “I’m happy that so many influences have contributed to our culture.”
He explained, “I am somebody who does not believe in the quest to find a pure Maltese, or a pure Filipino culture. The truth is we are a product of the different cultures that took over our nation, and that is the richness and beauty of our shared culture.”
Vassallo was destined to be a third generation lawyer after his grandfather and his father. But while working as a part time journalist as he pursued law, he became exposed to high profile trials and cases, as well as the works of parliament, which inversely affected his interest in the profession.
“I think it was this covering of law courts that I realized I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I remember thinking that the law court was not an atmosphere I wanted to work in—it’s too ‘claustrophobic’,” he recalled to The Manila Times.
Nevertheless, he was still interested in politics as well as travel, which is why he soon found himself filing an application for diplomatic service, armed with a Diploma in Notary Public.
While pursuing a Master’s Degree in Advanced European and Administrative Studies, he went on to train with the European Commission for six months in Brussels in 1994. During this time, he also served as Secretary-General of the European Law Students Association.
On to Asia
Completing several diplomatic appointments around the world, Vassallo was given the opportunity to choose his next posting, and decided on going to the Philippines. He explained he did so because he knew communication would be easier with English spoken fluently in the country, and again, because of the commonalities between the Filipinos and his own people.
With his wife, Celine, who was three months pregnant, his two sons Luca and Tobias, then seven and three respectively, he moved his family 10, 000 miles away from Malta to the Philippines in October 2011.
“It’s quite daunting to get on an airplane and move far away where you don’t know anyone or anything about the city. But it is also an adventure,” Vassallo enthused.
A true thrill-seeker, he describes the nature of his work as “demanding, but not boring,” and this is what keeps him going.
“When you think about it, the work I do in the Philippines is different than what I did in Malta, Brussels, and New York. Every four years or so, my life changes so it’s very exciting.”
When he first arrived the Philippines, Vassallo was overwhelmed by the size of the city, which is roughly 10 times the size of Brussels. He admitted being quite confused at what he saw.
“On the first few weeks when we arrived in October, we went to malls as we picked up things we needed for the house. We were dressed casually in our shirts and slippers, and we would hear Christmas carols playing and see decorations all over the place,” he recalled laughing. “And I remember thinking, ‘Where in the world am I? I’ve travelled 10,000 miles but have I also travelled in time’?”
But soon enough, the diplomat felt right at home, especially with his lasting impression of the Filipino—that which he describes as “the uncalculating friendliness of its people that is natural and not self-serving.”
In the last three years, Vassallo, his wife and his brood of three (two-year old Harry being the latest addition) have been exploring different parts of the Philippines during his time off from work, enjoying outdoor adventures that are easily accessible in Banaue, Batangas, Palawan and Siargo to name a few.
As he vows to make his final year in the Philippines as productive as possible as EU’s Political Counsellor, so does the Dr. Julian Vassallo promise to enjoy as much as he can of his current home. He is grateful to have made the right choice in his first Asian stop, and as expected, is already looking forward to his life’s next adventure.