The Mindanao Conflict is classified as a part of a group of distant forgotten conflicts hardly ever gaining coverage in Western media over the past decades. It is one of the oldest conflicts with its roots dating back to the early 16th century. The conflict has many different meanings to the various groups in Mindanao but the predominant narratives that resonates most are its self-identity and self-determination. Previous peace negotiations have always struggled especially when dealing with these themes but with signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro in early 2014. There is an opportunity to gradually build a long-lasting sustainable peace in Mindanao.
The EU’s role in Mindanao is rather a unique story that has not had any attention primarily due to the lack of international interest towards the conflict itself. The EU grew from primarily a development actor focused on poor and remote regions to a credible partner for peace in the region 10,000 km away. Its engagement is highly relevant and important because it addresses the sui generis nature of the EU as a foreign policy actor as a whole and in the region. Solana discussed the need for an EU-Asian Pivot based on its strengths primarily in the economic sphere. There is much more to analyse outside the confines of economic strengths. From a security standpoint, the EU can utilise its perceived weaknesses ranging from a lack of military presence to its fragmented foreign policy to its strengths. David O’Sullivan, COO, EEAS stated:
“We are seen as engaged but not threatening; active but without a geo-political agenda. Perhaps the greatest value of the EU is to act as a principled champion of rules-based, co-operative security.”
Analysing the EU’s role in Mindanao contributes to the academic debate on ‘what the EU actually is?’ Especially in the context in regions where its interests are waning over distance.
The EU has been engaged in Mindanao, since the early 1980s, focussed on primarily providing development aid to the poorest regions of the Philippines. In early 2000s, its focus gradually evolved on addressing the conflict, as it was one of the root causes of poverty within the region and its sporadic escalation of violence over the past decades. It could be debated that Estrada’s all-out-war policy was a catalyst to shift the priorities of their engagement. Over the years, EU policies became more well-defined that attributing a direct link between conflict and poverty. It required Mindanao to have a stable and secure environment for EU development programmes to effectively work. In 2007, there was the explicit mention on the EU’s support to the Mindanao peace process. Based on its decades of experience in development within the region. The EU embarked on an ambitious programme the Mindanao Trust Fund, a multi-donor development programme administered by the World Bank. The Mindanao Trust Fund has been a considerable success especially providing access to basic social services and greater economic capabilities. The EU by 2013 has become the largest contributor compared to other funders such as the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. One of the key EU external instruments is the instrument contributing to stability and peace which has replaced the instrument for stability since 2014 had directly contributed to the peace negotiations focussed on prevention and rapidly responding to crisis. The instrument has funded several programmes, first, it funded three NGOs with the explicit intention to increase dialogue between local stakeholders. Second, it has funded the participation of the EU within the international monitoring team as well as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue within the international contact group. Analysing the international monitoring team (IMT) is actually one of the most interesting exercises because it demonstrates local perception and validation of the EU and its work. The Philippine government and Moro Islamic Liberation Front invited the EU based on their perception of EU’s neutrality and lack of self-interest especially when compared to other international stakeholders within the region. Their role is to monitor the peace agreement through observation, monitoring and verification.
Since 2012, there has been a more comprehensive support to the peace negotiations particularly focussed on normalisation and mediation between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It provided financial support to the Third Party Monitoring Team, which is an independent team that monitors and evaluates the implementation of the peace agreement. Additional programmes have been financed focussed on early warning, inclusive peace through dialogue and demining.
The key concern of the EU’s engagement is that its role has been primarily a financer rather than an active political player. Federica Mogherini, current High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the Commission made a statement in October 2014 in regard to the role of the EU in the Middle-East stating:
“(…) in particular, the EU has been an effective payer and needs to become an effective player.”
This statement perfectly reflects the EU’s engagement in the Philippines. It also sparks a debate whether the EU’s role can be characterised as a partner for peace solely based on its financial commitment to the peace process. Or does it require it to be more of a political player to be perceived as such? The key problem with being a financer is its poor visibility as it is essentially a third-party financer. There has been discussions within the international community that the EU would like be more recognised for its tremendous work by internal and external stakeholders but by the EU’s limitations it will be a long-road ahead to be finally recognised.
Overall, the EU has achieved something remarkable despite its limitations. It has demonstrated the effectiveness of 1st pillar community instruments rather than utilising a CSDP mission. Importantly, its limitations especially in regard to resources has been managed to gain effective results. Due to a lack of member state interest allowed the EU to function with relative ease in the sense that it can build a cohesive program without major interference. One of the most important lessons from its engagement that it has gained credibility in providing a supporting role in complex peace negotiations. This credibility allows it potentially provide a model on how it can act as a global actor in distant regions in the world.