Japan, EU paving way for free-trade talks in March

Kyodo

Japan and the European Union are arranging to hold a summit in late March in Tokyo to declare the launch of formal negotiations on a free-trade accord, government sources in Nagata-cho and Europe revealed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy are set to announce the inaugural round of talks on an economic partnership agreement at the summit, which may be held March 25, the sources said Saturday.

The initial discussions to forge an EPA between Japan and the 27-nation bloc, which together account for around 30 percent of global gross domestic product, will be attended by European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, among other senior EU officials, the sources said.

However, the negotiations will only commence on condition that the process will be suspended after a year if Japan refuses to eliminate a range of nontariff trade barriers. EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has said he believes it will take three to four years to conclude the envisioned EPA.

The EU’s move is thought to be aimed at preventing the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership initiative from dictating global rules for future free-trade agreements. In addition, the European Commission estimates that an EPA would boost EU exports to Japan by some 30 percent, equivalent to 1 percent of the bloc’s GDP, and create around 400,000 jobs in its member nations, according to the sources.

Abe’s government, for its part, hopes to kick-start the domestic economy through a free-trade deal with the EU and a trilateral trade accord with China and South Korea, as well as Japan’s possible entry to the ongoing, multilateral TPP discussions, they said.

Among other key sectors, the upcoming EPA negotiations will focus on the automobile industry, with Tokyo calling on the EU to eliminate its 10 percent tariff on imported vehicles and Brussels seeking a review of Japan’s car safety standards, which it considers nontariff barriers.

EU officials will also demand that Japan abolish nontariff barriers on food and pharmaceutical imports, and that it open up its public sector procurement of goods and services. The European Union decided to begin the negotiations at a meeting of its trade ministers in November.