BRUSSELS - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday called on European Union leaders to help the U.K. avert a potentially disastrous departure from the economic bloc without an exit deal.
In a meeting in Brussels, Abe and the EU leaders — European Council chief Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker — agreed on the importance of free trade and cooperation toward the success of the Group of 20 summit to be held in Osaka in June.
Abe said at a news conference after the talks that Tokyo welcomes the European Union’s recent decision to give the U.K. an extended Oct. 31 deadline to leave the bloc.
The prime minister is in Brussels as part of a European and North American tour being conducted to lay the groundwork for this year’s G20 leaders summit.
Abe’s Brussels visit follows the April 11 summit in which EU leaders gave Prime Minister Theresa May an additional six months to get U.K. Parliament to endorse the exit terms she struck last year.
“A no-deal Brexit is what we have to avoid by all means,” Abe told a news conference in Brussels, with Tusk and Juncker standing at his side.
An orderly withdrawal, he said, is necessary because Japanese firms have invested so much in Britain as a European Union member country.
The companies, Abe said, need “legal stability” as well as transparency ahead.
“We strongly hope that it will be possible for Japanese companies to continue” doing business in the United Kingdom, Abe said through an interpreter.
“For Japan, the U.K. is the gateway to Europe,” he said, recalling he has made the same point to Juncker, Tusk and May. “So a smooth Brexit is what we hope for.”
Analysts have warned that the negotiations for Britain’s exit have in many cases accelerated the decisions of Japanese firms to leave Britain.
The agreement reached between May and European Union leaders during the April 11 summit saved the continent from what could have been a chaotic no-deal departure on April 12.
The April 12 deadline was already a delay from an original deadline of March 29.
The EU granted the postponements after May failed three times to get Parliament to adopt the divorce deal she struck in Brussels last November.
If London remains in the EU after May 22 then British voters will have to take part in European elections — or crash out of the European Union on June 1.
Around 1,000 Japanese companies operate in Britain, supporting about 140,000 jobs.
But automakers Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. have said they are axing production at plants in Britain, while electronics giants Sony Corp. and Panasonic Corp. are scaling back operations. Major Japanese banks are pulling out.
While there are specific reasons behind each individual business decision, analysts say the specter of Brexit is haunting Japanese firms across the board.
For its part, the EU is a major trading partner and a direct investment destination for Japan. Combined, the 28-member bloc and Japan make up about a third of the world’s economy.
The Japanese and European leaders also hailed the entry into force in February of their two-way free trade agreement amid an ongoing U.S.-China trade war, while reaffirming the strengthening of maritime security cooperation between the two sides.
The EU and Japan “look forward to intensifying security and defense cooperation in the fields of counterterrorism, cyber and maritime security, and crisis management,” Tusk said in the news conference with Abe.
Abe’s trip comes amid concern among some European Union members about the prospect of Beijing gaining a bigger foothold on the continent following Italy’s endorsement in March of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure development initiative, the first member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations to do so.
At a summit Wednesday in Rome, Abe agreed with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that they will pursue high-quality infrastructure that can achieve both economic growth and fiscal sustainability.