Japan rushes to strike trade deal with EU in a bid to recover public trust

TOKYO, June 26 – As Japan and the European Union work to conclude the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) in early July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration seems especially eager to strike a free trade deal in a bid to recover the plunging Cabinet support rate.

In previous trade negotiations including the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and the Japan-Australia EPA, the Japanese government announced that the two parties reached agreement only after they have ironed out virtually all the thorny issues. These agreements had been called “broad” agreements because there remained legal technicalities to be taken care of before the member countries sign the final agreement, but “were almost 100 percent agreed upon,” according to a source close to the TPP negotiations.

In this sense, the Japan-EU EPA is believed to remain short of a broad agreement. But a senior Foreign Ministry official said the negotiations “can be regarded as reaching agreement, although differences between negotiators have not been narrowed down as much as in the TPP talks.” Even if they have one or two outstanding issues, they appear willing to announce they have reached what EU officials call a “political agreement” if they agree on what is important for either side such as tariffs.

What is behind the Japanese government’s rush to conclude the talks is the Abe administration’s intention to come up with something that appeals to the public as soon as possible and recover the plunging approval rate. “If they can reach agreement, it will be the first large-scale trade agreement to be concluded after the rise of protectionism including Britain’s decision to leave the EU,” says a source close to the trade negotiations.

The Japanese government apparently seems to think that the chance and the momentum to seal the trade pact would be missed if the two parties fail to strike a deal before the Japanese and EU leaders meet at the Group of 20 summit meeting to be held in Hamburg in July. However, some lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who are close to the agriculture industry are concerned over the government’s hastiness in reaching agreement. The EU negotiators “might take advantage of that and could try to push through unreasonable demands,” one of the lawmakers said.

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