LONDON – Japan and the U.K. agreed Thursday to make a new economic partnership that is as ambitious as the Japan-EU free trade treaty, as the U.K. is scheduled to leave the European Union soon after the pact takes effect on Feb. 1.
After talks with her Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, who was visiting London, British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the envisioned bilateral arrangement, which would build on the Japan-EU deal, saying, “This gives businesses the stability and confidence to plan for the future, supports jobs and gives more choice and lower prices to consumers.”
During the talks, Abe told May that the world did not want to see a disorderly Brexit and that he fully supported May’s withdrawal deal from the European Union, which is now facing defeat in Parliament.
Some of Japan’s leading companies in Britain have warned that a no-deal Brexit could be a disaster. Abe said it was scenario no one wanted to see.
“It is the strong will of Japan to further develop this strong partnership with the U.K., to invest more into the country and to enjoy further economic growth with the U.K.,” Abe said through an interpreter at a joint news conference with May.
“That is why we truly hope that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided and, in fact, that is the wish of the whole world.”
Japanese firms have spent more than £46 billion ($59 billion) in the U.K., encouraged by successive administrations dating back to Margaret Thatcher promising them a business-friendly base from which to trade across Europe.
The future of Brexit remains deeply uncertain — with options ranging from a disorderly exit from the EU to another membership referendum — because British lawmakers are expected on Jan. 15 to vote down the deal May struck with the EU in November.
Abe has been one of the strongest international supporters of May’s Brexit deal since it was reached in November. When the two met at a Group of 20 meeting in Buenos Aires in December, he asked for May’s support to avoid a “no deal” and to ensure transparency, predictability and legal stability in the process.
“Japan is in total support of the draft withdrawal agreement worked out between the EU and Prime Minister May, which provides for transition to ensure legal stability for businesses that have invested into this country,” he said.
However, investors fear that if her deal is defeated as is expected, then the world’s fifth-largest economy could be plunged into a chaotic no-deal exit from the world’s biggest trading bloc, which would severely disrupt supply chains.
Britain’s business minister Greg Clark also said a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster and partners such as Japan need assurance that it will be avoided.
May told reporters that the only way to avoid such a scenario was for lawmakers to support her deal.
Carmakers Nissan, Toyota and Honda build roughly half of Britain’s cars and have warned about the loss of any free and unfettered trade with the European Union after Brexit.
Carmakers have warned that their factories, which rely on the constant delivery of parts to enter production cycles, would be severely damaged if Britain leaves the EU without a trade deal, forcing the need for customs checks at borders.
In a sign of such concerns, Honda said on Thursday it would shut its British operations for six days in April to help it counter any disruption.
“This is to facilitate production recovery activity following any delays at borders on parts,” Honda said in a statement. “These contingency provisions have been put in place to best mitigate the risk of disruption to production operations at the Swindon factory.”
Japan’s ambassador to Britain, Koji Tsuruoka, issued a blunt warning about Brexit last February when he said Japanese companies would have to leave Britain if trade barriers made them unprofitable.
Abe and May said they had discussed strengthening post-Brexit economic opportunities for both nations, with the Japanese leader welcoming Britain’s interest in joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade bloc.