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Prime Minister Naoto Kan said Wednesday he hopes to launch negotiations this year on a free-trade agreement with the European Union.

“I expect to start official FTA negotiations within this year,” he told Arianespace Chairman Jean-Yves Le Gall and Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) Chairman Hiromasa Yonekura, at a meeting in his office.

Kan said 2011 will be “a starting year to further open up” Japan to the rest of the world and pledged to address the country’s nontariff barriers, a key EU concern, at the political level to lay the groundwork for launching the FTA talks, administration officials said.

The business leaders told Kan they expect his strong leadership in promoting cooperation between the EU and Japanese business communities.

The Japan-EU Business Round Table is recommending that negotiations “start on a balanced and mutually beneficial bilateral trade agreement, as soon as the EU and Japanese authorities agree that the right conditions are met, in order to promote an ambitious expansion” of two-way trade and investment.

Le Gall said Kan’s leadership is “crucial to secure the removal of nontariff barriers falling in the fields of competence of various ministers,” while Yonekura said the Japanese business community will support the government in implementing new policies.

During its next meeting slated for April 28 and 29 in Rome, the round table is expected to present new recommendations to EU and Japanese authorities to further boost bilateral trade and economic relations.

Japan has been eager to start FTA talks with the EU because an FTA between South Korea and the 27-nation regional bloc will take effect in July.

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