Numbers Don’t Lie

“Make the Philippine embassy in Spain the most productive in Europe, if not the world” — this is Ambassador Philippe Lhuillier’s marching orders to his team of consuls.
For decades, the Philippine embassy in Spain has kept a low profile. It focused solely on performing ceremonial duties while servicing the needs of the 200,000 overseas Filipino workers eking a living in the Iberian peninsula. It has done little to promote trade, investment, and tourism as statistics show. It missed opportunity to make the Philippines the gateway of Spanish investments in Asia as it should rightfully be.
The numbers speak for themselves.
In 2017, bilateral trade topped €690 million with Spain enjoying a massive trade surplus of €152 million over the Philippines. Inward investments to Manila was negligible at only €2.7 million while Filipino investments to Spain reached €150 million. As far as tourism arrivals go, some 32,000 Spaniards visited our islands in 2016 while 62,000 Filipinos visited Spain. Clearly, the numbers favor our former colonial masters.
Ambassador Lhuillier is intent on evening the score by focusing on what he calls “economic diplomacy.”
For those unaware, economic diplomacy involves using the whole spectrum of diplomatic tools to secure more investments, more favorable trade agreements, and more official development assistance deals for the motherland. This goes hand in hand with the promotion of cultural and educational exchanges.
Since assuming office fourteen months ago, Ambassador Lhuillier has begun to build his team of consuls to help make Spain a significant source of investments and exports for the Philippines. Raisa Mabayo, a professional diplomat with a strong economic background, was transferred from the Philippine embassy in Santiago, Chile, to Madrid, where she now serves as Vice-consul. Brilliant young economist and communication specialist, Mikhal De Dios, was also transferred from Mexico City to Madrid. The Philippine embassy’s “management team” is slowly coming together.
For nearly a year now, Ambassador Lhuillier has been requesting DTI Secretary Ramon Lopez, for a Trade Attaché. There has not been a Trade Attaché in Spain since the 70s. Trade and investment inquiries from Spain have to be processed all the way in Paris where our solitary trade attaché for southern Europe, Froilan Pamintuan, is posted. While Pamintuan tries his best to attend to all commercial inquirees originating from France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, among others, the sheer amount of work prevents him from fully exploiting opportunities and seeing them to fruition.
The lack of personnel in the trenches is one of the reasons why the Philippine suffers a trade deficit against Spain and why investment numbers are negligible.
It is a travesty because in theory, Spain should be an important strategic partner of the Philippines. Following its economic crisis of 2008, the Iberian nation has become fundamentally stronger and now has the fastest growing economy in Europe. Its competence in infrastructure development is among the best in world, making it an ideal partner for the government’s Build! Build! Build! program. These are the reasons why I urge my good friend, Secretary Mon Lopez, to accede to Ambassador Lhuillier request.
In contrast, Spain has deemed the Philippines important enough to assign a full time Trade and Economic Consul in our shores. The Spanish Trade Office in Manila has realized a 20% increase in bilateral trade annually. To its credit, they have been pro-active in wooing Spanish infrastructure companies to participate in government’s Build! Build! Build! program.
Spain looks at the Philippines as an important, up-and-coming trading partner given our enormous consumer market and massively improving economic fundamentals. We should recognize our own importance as well.
With Spain now leading the charge in the economic comeback of the EU, certainly, we need to aggressively pursue economic ties with it. A commercial attaché in Spain is justified.
On June 12, Philippine Independence Day, Ambassador Lhuillier signed an Air Transport Agreement with Spain. Signing on Spain’s behalf was no less than its Minister for Development, José Luis Ábalos.
The agreement is significant because it opens the way for direct flights between the two countries. This agreement was in limbo for more than 25 years but aggressively pursued by Ambassador Lhuillier. It almost didn’t happen since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted in favor of Pedro Sanchez just 12 days prior. Ambassador Lhuillier used every tool in his diplomatic box to realize the deal notwithstanding the change in government.
For decades, Iberia Airlines has concentrated on routes within Europe, South America, and the US. Recently, it has started direct flights to Shanghai and Tokyo since its new generation aircrafts can now fly the distance. Let’s hope Ambassador Lhuillier can persuade the Spanish carrier to start direct services to Manila.
Conversely, PAL will be receiving six Airbus A350-900s within the next two years, each capable of flying direct to Madrid. Since it has sold its landing rights to Rome, perhaps PAL’s Jimmy Bautista and his team can consider Madrid as its second European destination after London.
In the educational front, the Philippine embassy recently signed an agreement with Universidad Complutense de Madrid (Spain’s equivalent of UP) for scientific, academic, and cultural cooperation.
This agreement opens the way for a two-way exchange of technologies, curriculums, programs and students between Universidad Complutense de Madrid and Philippine universities. Complutense’s Rector, Andradas Heranz, signed in behalf of the Spanish university. During the signing, it was discussed that initial exchanges be focused on engineering, social sciences, law, and tourism.
Interestingly, both Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna are among the Filipino icons who graduated from Complutense.
Ambassador Lhuillier has a dream project in the pipeline. It is to build a Philippine Center in Spain where Filipinos can congregate and where Philippine products can be promoted. The idea is nothing new. We already have a Philippine center in New York.
The idea is to have a multipurpose area that serves and promotes Filipino interest. It will house government offices for documents processing and legal services as well as the all-important money remittance center. It will also serve as a permanent exhibition site for Filipino manufactures. The space will feature a cultural area where exhibits, shows, and events can be held.
To make the project self-sustaining, the center will offer commercial spaces for Filipino establishments — a flagship Filipino restaurant, a Philippine tour operator, and prominent Filipino brands like Bench, Penshoppe, and Jollibee.
Funding for the project is still being worked out, but it will be a combination of a grant and funding from the private sector.
The Philippine Center serves two purposes, says Ambassador Lhuillier. First, it is designed to be a gathering place for the Filipino community — a place that fosters unity and forge relationships among them. Secondly, it is should showcase the best of Filipino culture and products, and by doing so, uplift the image of the country.
The Philippines is now going through an economic renaissance of its own, says Ambassador Lhuillier, and we should take advantage of it. People must know about all the good that is happening in the country.
Ambassador Lhuillier hopes that this will serve as a template for other embassies to follow. There should be a Philippine center in every major city, he says.
Times change and so should our foreign policy.
With the Philippines finding its legs as an economic force to reckon with, the time has come to shift our foreign relations paradigm from one focused on OFW diplomacy to one that gives equal weight to economic diplomacy. Ambassador Lhuillier shows us the way.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist