I am happy to be back after having been away for two weeks on three important missions for His Excellency, President Benigno S. Aquino III, and the Filipino people.

            I am pleased to inform our countrymen that many things were achieved during this trip, which I shall be reporting to the President officially at his earliest convenience.

            My mission covered the European Union, the Holy See and Israel. I do not hesitate to say that in all these three places, my mission has resulted in concrete benefits for our country and people.

            I left Manila on the 14th of October to represent the President at the 7th European Development Days (EDD) in Brussels, Belgium on 15 to 17 October 2012.  This conference focused on inclusive and sustainable growth for human development.  I was the only Asian political leader and the only non-head of state in a conference attended mostly by African heads of state. But because I spoke in the name of our President, I was accorded all the courtesies due the other participants.

            European Commission President José Manuel Barroso noted that the EDD was being held amid so much uncertainty, when economic growth had slowed down and fundamental questions about the world’s economic and financial framework remained unanswered.

            Despite all its problems, Europe will not turn its back on its friends, President Barroso said, and he announced a 20 per cent increase in the European Union’s Development Cooperation Fund for the next Multiannual Financial Framework  -- or a 100-billion euro increase over seven years, from 2014 to 2020.

            In my address to the conference, I spoke of our country’s economic performance, and the recent signing of the framework peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which I said, and the Europeans agreed, was an important step in our long and determined journey to peace and progress.

            I also spoke about our government’s programs to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth, including our family-based programs to ensure food security, better housing, and protection for Filipinos overseas.  I pointed out that the President’s commitment to good governance, supported by his personal example, was the primary reason the Philippines seems to have become “the darling of international investors.”

            In Brussels, I had the opportunity to meet with European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Transport Siik Kallas, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, and Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva to discuss issues of mutual concern.

            My discussions with the transport commissioner included the current European Union ban on Philippine air carriers and the ongoing assessment by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) of Philippine compliance with the Standards for Training and Certification for Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention.

            On the air carriers ban issue, I informed the commissioner that the Philippines had sought technical assistance from the French government to improve air safety standards, and that Philippine Airlines, which is now under new management, had just ordered 54 airbus aircraft in line with its re-fleeting program. The commissioner said the EU was “very interested in developing an air safety agreement with the Philippines” once the air carriers ban was resolved.

            The commissioner said these bans were not meant to discriminate against non-EU carriers since European carriers were not immune from the same bans if they failed to meet the EU’s strict air safety standards.

            “When it comes to safety, we don’t have friends,” he said. The main issue for the Philippines, he said, was maintaining the professionalism and regularity of air safety inspections.

            I assured the commissioner that the government was taking this issue very seriously and was already in the process of instituting critical reforms to improve the country’s air safety standards.  I even mentioned the fact that the Philippines would be receiving an ICAO-coordinated validation mission (ICVM) on October 24 to 28----which means the mission ended yesterday--- to assess the improvements made thus far.

            On the issue of the STCW convention, I assured the commissioner that we would fully comply with the requirements of the convention and that we had, in fact, designated MARINA as the single certifying agency to ensure full compliance.  I expressed optimism that the final EMSA audit mission in February 2013 would produce positive results.

            The commissioner said the EU was in favor of retaining recognition of ph STCW certifications since one out of every five seafarers in EU flag vessels was a Filipino. For this reason, he stressed the need for the country’s maritime education and training institutions (METIS) to comply with the convention.

            In my meeting with Commissioner Malmstrom, I discussed our efforts at curbing the incidence of illegal recruitment and human trafficking.  I informed the commissioner that we have ratified the ILO Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, and pointed out our efforts to protect our OFWs and address the social costs of migration.

            I told the commissioner that as a result of these efforts we have developed perhaps the most advanced infrastructure for protecting our nationals abroad. The commissioner agreed that the European Union, which has its own problems in human trafficking, could learn a lot from the Philippines in terms of managing migration and combating human trafficking and illegal recruitment.

            In my meeting with Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, I thanked the commissioner for the EU’s assistance to the victims of Typhoon Sendong, and for its continued active involvement in the Mindanao peace process through the international monitoring team.

            The commissioner informed me that the EU was set to adopt its new 7-year multiannual financial framework for 2014-2020 in November, and that the EU would like to move away from “small interventions” and instead invest in more strategic interventions.

            Given this new policy setting, we identified clean and sustainable energy and disaster risk reduction and preparedness as two possible areas for cooperation under the new framework. The commissioner pointed to the development of disaster early warning systems as a possible focus of cooperation.

            In my meeting with Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, I reiterated my thanks for the EU’s assistance during Typhoon Sendong. We then discussed prospects for future cooperation in disaster relief and related issues. We hope to pursue further discussions on this issue between our two governments during the ASEM high-level meeting on disaster relief to be held in Vietnam in 2013.

            The commissioner said the EU wanted to learn from our experience in disaster relief, especially in how to convert buildings into shelters during typhoons and other calamities.

            Upon their request, I also met with officers of the European Investment Bank. I listened to a briefing by Mr. Pym van Bellekom, the bank’s vice president, on the various financing arrangements for social infrastructure and climate change mitigation projects in the Philippines.  The EIB reiterated its offer for a new lending facility to the Development Bank of the Philippines, in the amount of euro 30 million. This is now for the DBP to consider.

            In Belgium and in Luxembourg, my next stop, I had my usual meeting with the Filipino community. In Brussels, I spoke to the community after a special mass at the Filipino chaplaincy of Saint-Remi. In Luxembourg, I had a “town hall” meeting where I addressed many issues, including questions on Pag-Ibig membership benefits and the efficient delivery of consular services.

            My next stop was Rome, where I headed the Philippine delegation to the canonization of the 17th century Filipino teenage catechist-martyr, Pedro Calungsod.  My first official appointment, however, was a meeting with the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Italian Senate, Senator Lamberto Dini, a former President of Italy’s Council of Ministers, and former Foreign Minister and former Minister of the Treasury as well.

            The senator expressed appreciation for the “flourishing economy” of the Philippines and for the government’s bold decision to sign the October 15, 2012 framework agreement with the MILF. He said Europe will survive its present crisis, and it would be good for the Philippines and Europe to strengthen their partnership.

            At the Collegio Filippino, the Philippine embassy to the Holy See, the various pilgrim churches (the Church of Gesu, Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Lateran, Santa Pudenziana, St. Paul Outside the Walls), and at St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, I had the opportunity to interact with thousands of our people who had come to Rome for the canonization. The Philippine catholic hierarchy was led by  Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, our two retired cardinals, Ricardo Vidal of Cebu and Gaudencio Rosales of Manila, and the other bishops and archbishops who were in Rome attending the Synod of Bishops.  Filipino pilgrims who had come from all over the world were everywhere. I also had the opportunity to receive communion from the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, during the mass of canonization, and then to be received by him in private audience inside the Basilica after the mass. This was my second audience with the Holy Father since June 27 when I saw him the first time, and as usual, he gave me and our country his apostolic blessing.

            It was a moving experience for me to see thousands of Filipinos united in thanksgiving and prayer in the various churches and at St. Peter’s Square. Soon after leaving Rome, I learned of Archbishop Tagle’s happy election to the College of Cardinals, which brings so much joy to our Catholic faithful.

            From Rome, I flew to Israel to honor an official invitation from the Israeli government and also to make my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  I met with President Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and other officials, who all expressed high praise and high hopes for the Philippines, in light of its recent economic performance and its big domestic market based on its young, dynamic and educated population.

            In the Port City of Haifa, which has a sister-city relationship with Manila, I was presented with a plaque of appreciation which recalled the magnanimous decision of then-President Manuel L. Quezon in 1939 to issue 10,000 visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi Holocaust. Eventually only 1,300 Jews made use of the visa, but Quezon’s magnanimity is well-remembered by the Jews, who built an Open Doors Monument in his honor in the City of Rishon Lezion.

            Also at Haifa, I had the honor of unveiling a marker expressing Israel’s gratitude for Quezon’s gesture at a small section of the city called Manila Square across the intersection of Manila and Ivory Coast Streets.

            At a special function arranged by the Philippine embassy in Tel Aviv, I had the opportunity to meet with so many of our 40,000 caregivers in Israel, who are among the best paid of our OFWs anywhere. I discussed with them our housing program, and how they could avail themselves of the services offered by Pag-ibig.

            I also had the opportunity to visit the camp of our fifth peacekeeping battalion under the United Nations Disengagement Observers Force (UNDOF) at Golan Heights near Syria, and to talk to the men and women assigned there.  I was happy to see their working conditions, and their excellent morale.

            I also had a highly successful meeting with the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, where the Philippine and Israeli sides exchanged ideas on how best to improve trade and economic relations.  As a result of that meeting, a large Israeli trade mission will be coming to Manila early next year to formalize contacts with potential Filipino partners.

            At the Ministry of Agriculture, I was briefed on Israel’s agricultural modernization program and their effort to share their scientific knowhow with the Philippines, and other developing countries. I visited a drip irrigation and fertigation demonstration center and later met with 260 agricultural students from 27 universities in the Philippines, who have come to Israel on a one-year scholarship grant.  Out of 11 countries taking part in the program, the Philippines accounts for 40 percent of the participants.

            “This is because we want to have more of the best, and the Filipinos are the best,” said the top officer of the program.

            Indeed, we worked hard and achieved much on this trip, but I owe everything to the President’s abiding trust and confidence in my humble self, the respect that his name inspires among foreign governments, and not the least to the able support extended to me by our diplomatic personnel abroad.

            I want to cite in particular Ambassador Victoria Bataclan and her staff at our embassy in Brussels, Ambassador Virgilio Reyes and his staff in Rome together with Ambassador Merci Tuason at our embassy in the Vatican, Ambassador Generoso Calonge and his staff at our embassy in Tel Aviv, and Assistant Secretary Petronila Garcia at the Office of the Middle East and African Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs, who flew from Manila to Israel to assist us in our mission.

            As in all my past missions, I thank our countrymen for their unqualified support and unceasing prayers.  Thank you very much.