By Beatriz Marie D. Cruz and John Victor D. Ordoñez,  Reporter

PHILIPPINE congressmen on Thursday asked visiting lawmakers from the European Union (EU) not to tie Manila’s tariff privileges from the world’s largest trading block to the country’s human rights situation.

“Do not dangle to us the carrot then afterwards if you do not like our answers you’re going to [punish] us with a stick,” Manila Rep. Bienvenido M. Abante, Jr. told reporters after the meeting.

The congressman, who heads the House of Representatives human rights committee, said the EU parliamentarians had brought up the Generalized System of Preferences Plus or GSP+, which allows the duty-free entry of more than 6,000 Philippine products to Europe.

The agreement is set to expire later this year.

“Our farmers, our fisherfolk need that,” Mr. Abante said “They should not tie the trade agreement with the Philippines to the human rights investigation.”

He said the EU lawmakers had nothing to say at first during the closed-door meeting at the House. “I said they shouldn’t do that.”

Albay Rep. Jose Ma. Clemente S. Salceda said he is optimistic that the Philippines could renew its GSP+ status.

“We need places where we can export at preferential rates at an advantage compared with our Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership partners,” he said in a statement. “The GSP+ regime is one of those advantages.”

Michael L. Ricafort, chief economist at Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., cited the need to improve the Philippines’ foreign relations and adhere to environmental, social and governance standards to help attract more foreign investments.

“The GSP+ status is important because of perks to the country’s exporters, including agricultural exports that include some local farmers that benefit from them,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“We need the EU market access, but the government can also choose to go elsewhere if it doesn’t work now,” Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, chief economist at Union Bank of the Philippines said in a Viber message.

The meeting took place amid a probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of the government’s deadly drug war.

During the meeting, congressional allies of ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte insisted that the ICC does not have the authority to investigate the Philippines since it has a working justice system, Deputy Minority Leader and Party-list Rep. France L. Castro told reporters.

The EU lawmakers said “they didn’t want to get minerals from mining sites where the youth are used for child labor,” Ms. Castro said in Filipino. The trade bloc did not want to participate in trade deals with the Philippines if it meant allowing human rights abuses in the country to happen, she added.

Hannah Neumann, vice chairperson of the European Parliament subcommittee on human rights, told reporters that they had a “very constructive, fruitful meeting.” “The frank and vivid discussion we have shows how vibrant democracy is here in the Philippines.”

At a separate meeting with the EU delegates, minority congressmen “highlighted the cases of (human rights violations against) women and children,” Assistant Minority Leader and Party-list Rep. Arlene D. Brosas told reporters in Filipino.

“We have to deliver to the EU what the real situation is here in the Philippines,” she said, adding that a report they submitted to the EU lawmakers included the 127 drug-related killings under President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.

Party-list Rep. Raoul Danniel A. Manuel said majority lawmakers seemingly have an “allergy with the attempts of the ICC to hold accountable top officials involved in the anti-poor and bloody drug war.”

The Philippine government said more than 6,000 suspected drug dealers were killed in police operations, but human rights groups have said as many as 30,000 people died.

Meanwhile, Philippine Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin C. Remulla told the EU lawmakers at a separate meeting later in the day the government could investigate extrajudicial killings under the war on drugs without the ICC’s intervention.

“We are fixing the justice system,” he told reporters in Filipino after the meeting. “If the ICC really has a problem that they want to investigate, they should let us handle it since these are crimes committed in the Philippines by Filipinos.”

Mr. Remulla met with the six EU lawmakers to discuss reforms in the justice system, human rights and the spread of fake news in the country. The country’s GSP+ privileges were not discussed, he said.

The European Parliament in February last year passed a resolution asking the Philippines to act on human rights abuses or face losing trade perks under GSP+.

GSP+ requires the Philippines to uphold commitments to 27 international conventions on human rights, labor, good governance and climate action.

“They were not argumentative since they saw our reforms on prosecution and on bail and everything else we are working on to uphold human rights,” Mr. Remulla said.

He said he would visit Geneva on Feb. 27 to discuss human rights with representatives from the United Nations.

The EU lawmakers were concerned about the extralegal killings committed during the government’s deadly war on drugs, Ms. Neumann said on Wednesday. They also backed the ICC’s probe of Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

Last month, the ICC pre-trial chamber reopened its investigation of the killings and so-called crimes against humanity under Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs.

The Hague-based tribunal said it was not satisfied with Philippine efforts to probe the deaths.

More than 30 member-states of the United Nations Human Rights Council in November urged the Philippine government to do something about extralegal killings in connection with Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

The Philippines has accepted 200 recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council, including investigating extralegal killings and protecting journalists and activists.

“We are in command of our own human resources and the programs that we have are really geared towards solving the problems of our judicial system,” Mr. Remulla said.