Trade relations with the European Union is crucial to the Philippines as it navigates the challenges of recovering economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, experts said.
In an online forum organized recently by Stratbase ADR Institute in partnership with the EU delegation, trade officials pointed out that the Philippines is the only ASEAN country given trade preference in the EU market’s Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+), an important competitive advantage for the country.
“We wish for the Philippines to get more investors to enter the Philippine market to create more quality jobs and to contribute to the country’s economic recovery,” said Ana Isabel Sanchez Ruiz, head of the Political, Press and Information Sector of the delegation of the EU to the Philippines.
“With all the challenges going on around us, let us accept efforts to create a level playing field and opportunities for industries and sectors for more players to be able to participate, to provide more choices to consumers, and to promote a sustainable approach to trade.”
Ruiz said that to be able to achieve this, “the sobering reality we face now is an opportunity for the Philippines to adopt reforms and policies that will lead the country toward a resilient and sustainable recovery.”
“The successful implementation of the GSP+ with its implication for human and labor rights with governments and environmental protection is currently the first priority in the EU and Philippines trade relations,” she said.
In the same forum, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez acknowledged that the recovery trajectory hinges on the policies and programs implemented in response to the pandemic.
“The Philippines would welcome increasing engagement with the EU in this front, given your role as a world leader in this area. We see a lot of complementarities in this exercise, especially that the Philippines is strong in the service sector such as business services and professional services, the growth of which are directly conducive to the advancement in technologies,” he said.
“Looking at the current economic priorities of the Philippines and our efforts toward establishing the country as a hub for manufacturing, innovation, research and development, and center for training and education in the region, there is a compelling reason for the EU to strengthen ties with the Philippines through a free trade agreement. “
He reiterated the belief of the Philippine government that trade and investment policies must be people-centered and should always promote inclusive growth.
Lars Wittig, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines (ECCP), said the Philippines was showing the greatest improvement in the overriding environment despite COVID-19.
The pandemic also showed that investments that are into the Philippines are much more resilient in the Philippines than the comparable countries in the region.
Still, the Philippines has to step up in terms of vaccination.
“Much improvement is required here,” he said. “Otherwise, when the world is opening up, the Philippines will suddenly stand out, there could be another wave and that is when we can’t any longer try to claim that we are fully vaccinated.”
He also suggested shifting the discussions to how free trade agreements can be furthered to realize their benefits.
Chris Humphrey, executive director of the EU-ASEAN Business Council, said ASEAN remains a great place to invest in. “The opportunities are massive, the market is massive. Positioned correctly, you should be making sure you are a natural choice for businesses to come and invest in,” he said.
While there are concerns about human rights issues in Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, possibilities remain in the form of a region-to-region free trade agreement and cooperation in energy transition.
“Personally, I am quite optimistic about the future of EU-ASEAN relations,” he said. “I think they will get stronger. I think they will get deeper.”
Stratbase ADRi president Dindo Manhit said this is a favorable time for the Philippines to shift its trade patterns to address its deficit and recover from the pandemic-driven economic downturn. Philippine economic growth has been traditionally consumption-led, so this might be an opportune time to start shifting to a more investment-led economy.
“Forging regional and global partnerships can not only bring significant economic and political returns for involved parties, but also help in addressing widespread issues such as economic downturns, global warming, the COVID-19 pandemic, and sustainable development,” he said.