ASEAN, EU revive trade talks but human rights a 'concern' for PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) have revived negotiations to boost free trade between two of the world's major regional blocs.

However, allegations of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines could be an issue as the EU has an explicit human rights clause in all its international agreements.

At the conclusion of the ASEAN Economic Ministers' EU Trade Consultations on Friday, officials announced they would resume formal discussions for a free trade agreement (FTA).

A deal would likely take years to finish, they said. But the two regions will begin to look at the possible parameters of the FTA, build a framework, and then start negotiations among the 38 countries in the ASEAN and EU.

"Our relations are vibrant and good and developing. And I think today, we took important steps forward in our engagement and to develop the real, full potential of our economic relationship," EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said in a press briefing.

The resumption of talks comes at a time when many countries are turning away from free trade and protecting their own economies, she explained.

Perhaps the most significant case of this came in January when the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership - a trade deal that covered 12 countries, accounting for about 40% of the world economy.

US President Donald Trump, who campaigned on the slogan "America First," said the deal would have made it easier for American companies to move their operations to countries with cheaper costs.

But Malmstrom said countries could create win-win trade deals if they work together. "Amid growing protectionism, it's important for those of us who believe in trade to speak up."

The ASEAN and EU sought an FTA back in 2007 but talks failed two years later. The EU then pursued bilateral deals instead with Singapore and Vietnam.

The Philippines has also been seeking an FTA with the EU, but nothing has been agreed yet. Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said banding together with the ASEAN could help the Philippines cut a better deal.

"A regional approach allows us wider legroom," he said in an interview. "A product coming from the Philippines, even if it has inputs from other countries, will be considered an ASEAN product and can be covered by the ASEAN-EU FTA."

Under a bilateral deal with the EU, he pointed out, a product would have to originate from the Philippines to qualify for the benefits.

The EU is the world's largest economy. It is the ASEAN's largest source of foreign direct investment and second-largest trading partner.

Prevailing Concerns

However, the Philippines' human rights record could be a sticking point during the FTA negotiations.

Malmstrom said in an interview, "Sustainable development is always a criteria for us."

The EU requires all its trade and aid partners to uphold and protect human rights. One of the reasons the last round ASEAN-EU FTA talks failed was because of Myanmar's military junta.

Already, the Philippines is at risk of losing another set of trade incentives from the EU, called the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+).

The GSP+ allows the Philippines to export more than 6,000 products to the EU without duties and taxes. But European officials are reviewing the country's status.

The alleged extra-judicial killings, the moves to pass the death penalty and to lower the age of criminality are all "concerns," Malmstrom said.

"The European parliament and member-states have some concerns about this development. We are discussing this with our partners in the Philippines," she explained.

Lopez, who was set to hold a one-on-one meeting with Malmstrom on Friday, said he would reiterate the Philippine government's side of the issue.

"They're just allegations, they're just based on media reports. We're hoping they don't jump to conclusions," he said.

However, if the EU doesn't budge, he said the Philippines would stand by its policies.

"If this drug war, the death penalty, are the best ways to respond to criminality, then that is what we must pursue," Lopez said.

He added that the Duterte administration would not be swayed by international agreements imposing conditions on the country.