On April 28, Japanese and European leaders will meet for the 19th bilateral Japan-EU Summit in Tokyo. At first sight, the summit is just another in a long series of annual events that began back in 1991 with the European-Japan Joint Declaration of The Hague. It will, however, be one of the most important summits to date.

Here are a few reasons why.

For the first time, Japan will be represented by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and his new government. The Hatoyama government is attempting to break Japan’s traditional dependency on the United States — the painful discussions on moving Futenma air station in Okinawa being a good example.

In addition, a ghost has been haunting the political circles of the capital since last fall. This ghost is an emerging Sino-American axis sometimes dubbed the “Group of Two.” The fear that such an axis would leave Japan without a strategic partner in global affairs and further reduce its political and economic clout is not insignificant.

Hatoyama is looking to Europe. He has repeatedly stressed his view of European integration as a role model for Japan and the rest of Asia. He also has emphasized how much his concept of “yuai,” or fraternity, was inspired by Austrian writer Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, regarded by many as the founder of the Pan-European Movement.

The EU, on the other hand, has finally signed the Lisbon Treaty and thus successfully ended a phase of inward-looking reforms. Now it is turning its ambitions abroad once again and has even appointed someone to permanently head the European Council, President Herman Van Rompuy. Add to this High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and the EU should be prepared to proactively engage its foreign strategic partners.

Significant progress in trans-Atlantic cooperation between the U.S. and the EU, however, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. No practical developments have emerged since former President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced high-flying plans for a “trans-Atlantic economic partnership.”

President Barack Obama has meanwhile declared himself to be America’s first Pacific president. He appears to be a pure pragmatist keen on winning European cooperation on specific issues, such as Afghanistan. But his general approach is to focus U.S. foreign and economic policy on the Asia-Pacific region.

This doesn’t mean Japan and the EU stand isolated on the global stage — they do not today and they will not in 10 years. But both now have solid reasons to think about seriously upgrading bilateral ties.

Just look at the efforts they have put forth in climate change policy and environmental technology. Japan and the EU proposed the most ambitious climate targets at the Copenhagen Summit last December but came home empty-handed.

European and Japanese firms are direct competitors in many branches of environmental technology, but their governments would benefit more if they had more practical forms of cooperation and a shared climate policy.

One proposal the Japanese will presumably make at the April 28 summit is to increase bilateral cooperation in the form of an economic integration agreement. This would not only result in scrapping import tariffs, it would also focus on measures such as harmonization and mutual recognition of business regulations and standards, as well as facilitate foreign direct investment.

An agreement also would likely produce significant reductions in, and perhaps the eventual elimination of, Japan’s infamous nontariff trade barriers. Many nations have long claimed — often rightfully so — that Japan has erected high barriers around its market to protect its domestic industries.

Whether it is possible to really remove them will eventually boil down to how negotiations pan out between the EU and Japan. Yet the opportunity to do so has never been greater. Europe’s leaders must thus decide whether Japan should be a real strategic partner who merits sincere efforts to improve cooperation in all spheres, including — but certainly not restricted to — economics.

The fear of isolation and the pressure to act are probably bigger in Japan, but only in relative terms. While these pressures certainly exist in Europe, not taking action is, of course, an option that the EU has. But keeping bilateral relations at a superficial level is simply a decision to inefficiently use resources that neither Japan nor the EU can afford to waste.

Back in 2001, Japan and the EU launched a 10-year action plan titled “Shaping Our Common Future.” Progress has been made but there is still a long way to go. The next 10-year action plan is to be set at the 20th bilateral summit in 2011.

That’s only a year away, but Japan and the EU need to act now. As we know too well, the preparation period for major political directives is much more important than the official event itself. The Copenhagen Climate Summit recently revealed how breakthrough opportunities can easily be wasted in that time. There’s no last-minute effort capable of repairing such damage.

It is to be hoped the EU and Japan won’t repeat this mistake and instead get their act together. What happens at the Tokyo summit in three weeks could set the course for a major breakthrough at the 20th bilateral summit in 2011. It is a chance neither side should waste.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K.

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