The European Union and Japan have intensified their mutual relations in response to the changing geopolitical dynamic such as Donald Trump, the rise of China and Brexit. While tighter relations between these two major global players will not directly compensate for these developments, they may substantially advance free trade and fundamental values worldwide if managed well. In a separate but related development, the mutual relations have just been given a major boost when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up a historic visit to Eastern Europe, the first of a sitting Japanese Prime Minister in more than hundred years.
To emphasize that this visit was really important, 30 representatives from Japanese business circles accompanied him to the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and the Balkans (Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia). Abe’s communications were clear and consistent throughout the visit: Tokyo wants to take advantage of the recently finalized Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the EU to deepen its engagement with the region. A “new era for Japan and the EU is about to begin,” the Japanese Prime Minister commented. EU leaders described the deal as a “win-win agreement”, with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hailing it for its “strategic importance”.
Once the economic deal comes into force, it will enhance the business ties between the two economies and set global standards for third countries with which they trade. But the benefits of the deal go well beyond trade. Likely for the first time since the end of the Cold War, this kind of deal could bridge the distance between Japan and the EU with concrete political results. The EU and Japan are hopeful that the EPA will come into force by spring 2019 before Brexit and the last few months of the current European Commission. Until then, the agreement will have to be legally verified, ratified, and translated in all the official languages.
Having taken its lessons from the complicated ratification process of the EU-Canada CETA, the European Commission has tried to be very transparent about the EPA in anticipation of some objections. Tokyo is similarly committed to making sure that the document is ratified successfully, both by addressing concerns at home, and by courting the support of European countries. Given the challenging global geopolitical context, both the EU and Japan diligently promote free trade and fundamental values and emphasize that they are key components of their engagement. Alongside the EPA negotiations, Japan has also worked tirelessly and painstakingly to save the TPP after the US had pulled out from the agreement.
Japanese leaders acknowledge that the tough EPA talks were likewise a trust-building activity that gave them a new sense of appreciation for the competence and professionalism of EU negotiators. This new wave of appreciation and closeness could bring more opportunities for economic and political cooperation, as demonstrated by Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Eastern European countries, which were previously off the radar for Japanese businessmen and investors.
‘EU-Japan Partnership Agreements Herald New Era of Closer Cooperation’ – Commentary by Irina Angelescu – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.
(The Commentary can be downloaded here)