The Philippines on Thursday said it would reject a package of U.S. $279 million (250 million euros) in grants from the European Union tied to humanitarian projects in strife-torn Mindanao island, saying these had the potential to affect the country’s autonomy.
This would mean that Manila is turning its back on the grants which have for years funded many projects to help communities affected by armed conflict in the southern Philippines.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters the Philippines would reject EU grants that would interfere with its internal affairs.
“The president has approved the recommendation of the Department of Finance not to accept grants … from the EU that may allow it to interfere with the internal policies of the Philippines,” Abella said.
EU Ambassador Franz Jessen initially told reporters on Thursday about Manila’s decision, but said his office has not received a written notice from the Philippine government.
The Philippine government’s move is an apparent rejection of the EU’s criticism of President Rodrigo Duterte’s tough anti-drug policy that, according to human-rights activists, has killed 10,000 people.
Duterte earlier had mocked the EU, challenging the bloc to stop its aid after warning that the Philippines risks losing tariff-free exports to Europe because of the killings.
This month, Philippine officials also questioned the private visit by the United Nation’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, who has been effectively blocked from carrying out an independent probe on the killings.
EU recently approved a $4 million aid package to support programs tied to a peace deal signed between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In 2015, it pledged 325 million euros ($360 million) over four years to finance projects in Muslim Mindanao after Manila signed a peace deal with rebels in March 2014.
Economy will absorb the loss
Abella said projects approved prior to the announcement would not be affected.
He said the economy has performed well in the 10 months that Duterte has been at the helm and that the funding shortfall could be offset by fresh economic gains.
“As you can very well see from the past achievements of the president, he has brought in an enormous amount – huge slabs of bacon,” he said. “You’ve seen the economic growth.”
Filipinos, he said, needed to gain confidence in themselves and be weaned from unnecessary foreign aid. “And that this is exactly the kind of mentality I think that the president wants the Filipinos to avoid: a mendicant attitude, you know,” Abella said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, a leading opposition figure, said the government was within its right to refuse aid, but emphasized it must provide funding to projects that would be affected.
He said concerns raised by the EU on the government’s drug war “should not cause the Philippines to step back in our relationship with EU.”
House member Teddy Brawner Baguilat warned Duterte’s move could lead to a “full-blown diplomatic war” against the EU.
He said he was told by some of Duterte’s key economic managers they were not consulted before the decision was made.
“It is a haphazard move that the government cannot afford to make,” he said.
“Criticism or observation should not be mistaken for interference,” Baguilat said, referring to the concerns raised by the international body over the drug war.
Going for expanded autonomy
Once the country's largest insurgent force, the MILF dropped its separatist bid for an expanded autonomy covering Mindanao three years ago. The peace deal has largely held despite sporadic skirmishes between troops and MILF members who broke away to pursue the fight.
Various donors established the Mindanao Trust Fund, with the EU contributing about 80 percent of the total amount.
By its own estimates, projects funded by the EU helped more than 650,000 people in more than 300 conflict-affected communities in Mindanao, the country’s mineral rich southern island where many areas remain mired in poverty because of Muslim and communist insurgencies.
The MILF split from the larger Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1978 over differences in ideology. The latter signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, leaving the MILF to continue with the fight. But aging MILF leader Murad Ebrahim opted to sign the peace deal in 2014, fearing younger fighters who have known nothing but war was in danger of being radicalized by foreigners.