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Like Batman, like Robin

Government and industry officials, however, believe there is no reason for the EU to revoke trade perks offered to Philippine exporters over political and human rights issues.

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Minus the cursing, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque is sounding more and more like the man he speaks for at the Palace.

With his trademark flair, the erstwhile human rights lawyer has grown combative like his boss, the incumbent tenant at Malacañang.

He has grown to the ways of defending President Duterte on issues needing his wit as a lawyer. But the best testimony that he can sometimes be on the offensive is when he recently lambasted the European Union (EU) for threatening to revoke the country’s trading privileges.

“Go ahead,” an angry Roque exclaimed as he dared the EU parliamentarians to make good their threat.

“I’m sorry I’m being very undiplomatic in my answer, but what else can I say? At the time of a pandemic, they are threatening us? What else do we lose?” he asked.

The issue stems from the recent resolution of the European Parliament threatening revocation of the Philippines’ trading privileges if it will not implement international conventions on human rights. It also urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to continue its inquiry into allegations that President Duterte committed crimes against humanity in his bloody war on drugs.

The European parliamentarians also called on Philippine authorities to “step up efforts to tackle corruption effectively,” reminding the country that it enjoys trade benefits under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+), which could be revoked if the government fails to meet certain standards.

The privilege allows the Philippines to export 6,200 products tariff-free to the 27 EU member states.

The EU lawmakers want to start the process of taking away the trade benefits, unless the Duterte administration demonstrates a “substantial improvement and willingness to cooperate.”

If the EU goes on to curtail the country’s trading privileges, analysts believe it would sink the Philippines further in its economic downturn, no thanks to the ongoing health crisis.

The threat, according to a think tank, is alarming, particularly in this time of the pandemic. Losing a market as big as Europe would lead to unemployment, thus aggravating poverty.

Roque knows this, that is why he bluntly returned the dare: “If they really want to do it, we cannot do anything. Let them watch as the Filipino people suffer.”

Senator Franklin Drilon also weighed in on the repercussions, saying as many as 200,000 Filipinos could lose their jobs. Such a decision, according to the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines, will result in massive social and economic repercussions to the Philippines, and will compromise the notable progress that the EU and the Philippines have built over the years.

Government and industry officials, however, believe there is no reason for the EU to revoke trade perks offered to Philippine exporters over political and human rights issues.

“The EU Commission has a mechanism in place and process to follow to verify issues before sanctions are imposed. So far, we are able to explain objectively the Philippines’ side on issues that are raised,” Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said in a statement. “We don’t see any reason why our GSP+ privilege will be withdrawn.”

Even before that in 2017, Duterte has repeatedly said he would reject any donations coming from the EU if there are strings attached, a threat that was fulfilled, at one point in January 2018 when economic officials rejected P380 million in aid from the bloc.

As it is, respect to human rights has been a key component of EU assistance, including GSP+, a matter not understood even by the industry. “What we don’t understand is why they have to cancel it based on perception or possibly because of advocacy of certain sectors,” said Sergio Ortiz-Luis, president of the Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc., an industry group.

“They could’ve asked, I’m sure if they will listen to their representatives here, I’m sure they will say that is far from the truth,” he said. “Unfortunately, they politicized the issue.”

Whatever the consequences, we salute Roque for his brave stand. He has, at this point, lived up to be the Robin to Duterte’s Batman. Nobody ought to be bullied. No one ought to be blackmailed. That’s what the Dynamic Duo stands for.

And a grateful Gotham that is the Filipino nation could only nod in approval.

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