Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

Opinion

Japan is back: Is Europe ready?

  • EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (l) and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe (r) shake hands at the 2015 G20 summit in Antalya. (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)

Since the dramatic conclusion of World War II, Europe and Japan have been bound by their long-standing belonging to the ‘wider West’, sharing common values and interests such as democracy and the rule of law, market economy and political and economic multilateralism.

Despite occasional low-points due to ‘trade wars’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and the inherent difficulty in fully connecting the various policies of two players at the opposite edges of Eurasia, relations between Europe and Japan have long served as building blocks for an essentially Liberal world order.

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The end of the Cold War presented both sides with a transformed international environment, marked by the dismissal of the high hopes of ‘Pax Americana’, the rise of new powers from Latin America to Eastern Asia, and the fast-paced and multidimensional dynamics injected by globalisation in growth-hungry economies and ageing societies in Europe and Japan.

Recent regional and global developments such as Russia’s ‘geopolitical return’ and the crisis in Ukraine, China’s assertive regional stance, maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas and the US’s ‘Asian pivot’, the unsolved difficulties in restoring an effective multilateral trade system via the World Trade Organization (WTO), will significantly affect Euro-Japanese relations in the near future.

Add to that a lethal mix of conventional and brand-new challenges including ISIS’s ‘sovereign terrorism’ in the Middle East and North Africa, modern piracy in the West Indian Ocean and North Korea’s persisting ‘nuclear gambling’.

Also, since his coming into office in late 2012, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has put forth an ambitious global agenda, including a deal-making impetus in international trade as the ‘third arrow’ of his ‘Abenomics’ formula to boost the Japanese economy, and the adoption of the country’s first-ever National Security Strategy, thus energetically reaching out to Japan’s old and new partners across the world, including Europe.

This calls into question the level of ambition of the historically deep-rooted but politically overlooked partnership between the European Union and Japan.

Towards a stronger economic and political EU-Japan partnership?

From their inception in the mid-1970s, EU-Japan relations have developed into a fully-fledged strategic partnership mostly focussing on economy and trade, foreign policy, development and security. These ultimately remain the key policy fields where further progress is badly needed if both sides truly intend to make the relationship a solid and mutually advantageous anchor in the troubled waters of international politics.

Since March 2013, the EU and Japan have been negotiating an ambitious Free Trade Agreement (FTA)/Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). Despite the political impulse given by the latest EU-Japan summit in May, the wishful target of finalising the deal by 2015 was missed.

Such a delay is partly due to the difficulty in reaching a compromise on technically complex areas such as agricultural products and processed food, public procurement, non-tariff measures and geographical indications.

However, the expected economic gains of such an agreement would be significant for both sides, and could potentially link up with the current making of ‘mega-deals’ such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), to the long-term benefit of world trade and investment liberalisation.

With the next round of negotiations taking place in Brussels at the end of next month, it is high time for the chief negotiators and their political masters to secure the domestic consensus needed, both in Japan and among EU member states, to move the bargaining to its final stage.

But EU-Japan cooperation also goes beyond economic relations. The two sides have been cooperating closely on issues such as stabilisation and post-war reconstruction in the Western Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, are maximising their synergies in operational theatres such as the Gulf of Aden and the Sahel, have been active in advancing the global debate on multilateral development aid and climate change diplomacy, and have swiftly adopted economic sanctions against Russia following its annexation of Crimea.

The on-going crafting of its ‘global strategy’ also provides the EU with a key opportunity to better reflect on what kind of distinctive role Brussels can and should play in the Asia-Pacific, including in its intricate and volatile security environment. The present negotiations over a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) will thus have to upgrade, and further prioritise, EU-Japan teamwork in the broader external relations domain.

Overall, EU-Japan relations are experiencing a delicate but promising political juncture. This was recently confirmed by the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and prime minister Abe, under their joint auspices, during the November G20 summit in Antalya, in which they pledged to see the FTA/EPA finalised during the course of this year.

Yet, stronger political will, and a consensual but far-sighted vision, remain essential pre-requisites for success. 2016 will be a crucial year for EU-Japan relations to deliver on the ambitious goal of a comprehensive and meaningful strategic partnership for the next few decades.

Time has come for the European stars and the Japanese sun to shine bright again – this time, together.

Andrea Frontini and Romain Pardo are both policy analysts at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank.

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