European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker dispatched the EU’s top trade officials to Tokyo Thursday (29 June) for crucial talks to seal a long-awaited deal with Japan.
After four years of talks, the two sides are working toward signing a deal at a G20 meeting in Hamburg next week, but Juncker said further work was needed.
“There are still a few sticking points. I have therefore sent the European agriculture commissioner and the trade commissioner to Japan,” Juncker said.
Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström and Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan will arrive on Friday (30 June) for talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Clinching a deal would be a victory for free-trade advocates after US President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year, dealing a possibly fatal blow to the mooted 12-nation deal.
Juncker said he wanted the negotiations to be finished before Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe holds talks with Juncker and EU President Donald Tusk in Brussels on July 6.
“The trade agreement with Japan, if it materialises, is important. And I am assuming that it will materialise,” Juncker said at a pre-G20 press conference with EU leaders in Berlin.
“It will fully comply with all European rules, requirements and standards.”
Sweden’s Malmoström tweeted: “Will be leaving to Tokyo tonight with Phil Hogan to try to finalise our trade negotiations and achieve political agreement.”
Will be leaving to Tokyo tonight with @PhilHoganEU to try to finalise our trade negotiations and achieve political agreement.
— Cecilia Malmström (@MalmstromEU) June 29, 2017
Kishida, who first announced the talks, warned the talks would be hard.
“I think they’re going to be very tough and difficult negotiations,” Kishida added.
“It’s not yet decided when we’ll reach a conclusion or how long we’ll be negotiating. We’d like to make the maximum use out of the time we’ve got.”
A European source told AFP that Malmström and Hogan’s visit suggests there are still some political issues to work through.
Deal not “imminent”
“If they’re going to Tokyo it’s an important signal” but it doesn’t mean a deal is imminent, the source added.
Tariffs on European cheese have been a key sticking point.
Brussels wants Japan to eliminate its 30% tariffs on some EU-made cheese, while Tokyo wants duties cut on cars which it exports to the 28-member bloc.
Any deal they reach would cover some 28% of global GDP.
The EU’s recent history, however, points to the difficulties it has in agreeing on trade deals.
Last year the giant CETA trade deal with Canada nearly sank when the small Belgian region of Wallonia threatened to veto it, before eventually relenting.
Wallonia’s regional chief, Paul Magnette, tweeted on Thursday: “You liked CETA? You’ll love JEFTA!”
— Paul Magnette (@PaulMagnette) June 29, 2017
Environment and transparency
Environmental considerations and transparency are another potential sticking point, at least when it comes to the public relations aspect of any potential deal.
Earlier this week, Greenpeace leaked secret negotiating documents, which is said expose “a lax approach to environmental protection” and a lack of transparency in the negotiations.
“Trade must not be an end in itself, but a means to achieve social and environmental wellbeing that keeps us within our planetary boundaries. It’s time for a new approach to trade that protects people and planet,” Greenpeace said.
Malmström rejected the allegations, saying they were unfounded.
“Greenpeace is not known as a trade promoter, whatever it is in any trade agreement they will be against it,” she said, describing the leaked documents as “a storm in a teacup”.