In a recently completed three-day visit to Japan, the European Union's foreign
minister met her Japanese counterpart to discuss a long laundry list of
unresolved problems and areas of international politics and security. While it
only took a few hours, the EU's press statement points out that the meeting
covered issues in an "in-depth" manner.
Whether High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
Catherine Ashton and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba were really able to
discuss the above-mentioned areas and issues as profoundly as the official
record claims, however, must be doubted. Unless "in-depth" is diplomatic speak
assigning 10 minutes to solve the main political crises on the planet.
Either way and semantics aside, the meeting must have been very productive, at
least judging by the EU's press statement and the world record breaking number
of global hotspots it fitted a single paragraph, as Ashton was quoted as
We had in-depth discussions about a wide range of challenges
facing the international community: the Middle East peace process, the
transition in North Africa, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and the
fight against piracy off the Horn of Africa. These are all issues where the EU
and Japan are each making an important contribution, and where I see scope to
work in closer partnership with Japan in the future.
aside that it is arguably a bit of a stretch (to say the very least) to claim
that the EU and Japan make "important contributions" in the Middle East and the
Korean Peninsula, it remains also unclear what "scope to work in closer
partnership with Japan" is envisioned to materialize as.
Would this be real and quantifiable EU-Japan joint policies in the Middle East,
northern Africa and the Korean Peninsula or instead the continuation of
occasionally talking about these issues during official bilateral encounters?
Realistically, probably the latter.
As regards North Korea and the country's stalled and de-facto defunct
denuclearization, joint EU-Japan policies can be excluded as there is arguably
no political appetite whatsoever in Brussels to get involved in a process that
no longer is one since more than two years.
To be sure, ever since Europe showed fairly limited (read: none whatsoever)
enthusiasm to support Japan's near obsession to force Pyongyang to provide
Tokyo with reliable as opposed to bogus information on what happened to
Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea's secret service in the 1970s and
1980s as a precondition for the provision of financial, economic and
humanitarian aid, Tokyo's interest in involving Brussels in multinational
attempts to tame nuclear-armed North Korea is close to zero.
Joint headline-making EU-Japanese policies in the Middle East and north Africa
too take place on paper only and EU-Japan anti-piracy cooperation in the Gulf
of Aden off the coast of Somalia pretty much reached its potential through the
exchange of data and information between Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces
and the "EU Naval Force (NAVFOR) Somalia Operation Atalanta" in 2010 and 2011.
And there is more unfinished EU-Japan business that did not make it into the
EU's press statement. There is the repeatedly announced but never realized
joint EU-Japan police training in Afghanistan, setting a date for a joint donor
Afghanistan-Tajikistan donors' coordination conference and envisioned but
elusive joint border management projects in Central Asia.
A so-called "Framework Participation Agreement", proposed by the EU a few times
in the recent past as an instrument to institutionalize Japanese contributions
to EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) also did not make it onto the
November 2011 meeting agenda either. Whether this is the case because the
planned inclusion of Japan into European CSDP missions has been put onto the
backburner due to lack of progress or whether Ashton and Gemba had too much on
their Tokyo agenda is up for speculation.
The good news (arguably in a sad way) is that realistically nobody expects the
EU and Japan to jointly make major contributions towards the resolution of
global crises, so any progress or lack of it does not raise too many eyebrows.
As far the "real" (at least partially) good news is concerned, Ashton and Gemba
discussed the progress of what was agreed in terms of EU-Japan cooperation
agreements at the last EU-Japan summit in May 2011. Back then, this was
celebrated in Brussels as the bilateral big bang towards a new and
comprehensive institutionalization of EU-Japan cooperation in international and
security as well as trade and investment. The EU and Japan agreed to start
negotiating two new framework agreements "as soon as possible".
While one agreement will cover cooperation in international politics and
security, the other is planned to be the free trade agreement Japan wants so
badly (and South Korea already has).
Six months later, however, the reality on the framework agreement front is much
more sober than the November statement suggests: Negotiations of the two
envisioned agreements have not started and a lot of blanks have to be filled in
before joint signatures will make it under the two envisioned agreements.
As regards bilateral political, security and sectoral cooperation, the basics
have yet to be defined - it remains to be explained plausibly as opposed to
vaguely what exactly the EU and Japan meant in May 2011 when they announced a
"binding political agreement".
Whether "binding" would mean a "legally biding" agreement which de jure obliges
both Brussels and Tokyo to implement the policies and initiatives listed in the
(yet non-existent) agreement is yet unclear. Given the rather unimpressive
EU-Japan track record of actually implementing and adopting policies announced
in numerous joint declarations and statements over the last 10 years, adding
the word "binding" to "political" could be part of a "this-time-its-different"
public diplomacy campaign as opposed to a tangible qualitative change of future
EU-Japan cooperation in politics and security.
If the past EU-Japan framework for political and security cooperation - the
so-called EU-Japan Action Plan - is anything to go by, Brussels and Tokyo could
eventually give in to the temptation of putting far too many areas and issues
of cooperation into the political framework agreement. The current action plan
runs out at the end of this year.
The Ashton-Gemba meeting already gave a taste of what could lie ahead in terms
of an overly full and unrealistic EU-Japan working agenda in the months and
years to come.
As far as the adoption of a bilateral EU-Japan free-trade agreement is
concerned, the prospects are not that great either. While Japan wants an
EU-Korea FTA-style FTA quickly, Brussels insists that no such agreement will
even be considered before Tokyo addresses what European business refer to as
non-tariff barriers to trade and investment in Japan.
The EU's list of such barriers rendering European investments expensive and
bureaucratically cumbersome is long and includes amongst many others complaints
related to government procurement of public works, product safety in Japan,
certification and standardization of goods and services etc.
Until these non-tariff barriers will be abolished (we are talking long term
potentially extended to "never") European business will remain as
unenthusiastic as ever to support and advocate a bilateral free trade agreement
Unless there is a dramatic change in policy in the months ahead (which is very
unlikely), Japanese policymakers for their part will remain unwilling to tackle
bureaucracy-sponsored Japanese protectionism. The government has yet meet and
act on EU requests to abolish some of the red tape and market access obstacles
distorting fair competition between foreign and domestic companies in Japan.
To be sure, many of what the EU refers to as non-tariff barriers to trade are
so profoundly part of how the Japanese bureaucracy deals with foreign investors
in Japan that they are not even understood or referred to as such in Japanese
Fairly familiar and more often than not awkward Japanese attempts to explain
the persistence of non-tariff barriers with differences in business culture or
culture and traditions allegedly unique to Japan will continue not go down too
well with the European Commission and investors who care far less about culture
and all about cashing in profits.
In May 2011, no timetable was offered as to when Brussels and Tokyo were
planning to announce tangible progress as regards the adoption of the two
envisioned EU-Japan framework agreements. Instead, it was promised to start
negotiating the framework agreements "as soon as possible". Six months later,
the EU-Japan encounter could have been an occasion to give a hint as to how
soon 'soon as possible' actually is or at least could be.
Unfortunately it was not used as such and Tokyo and Brussels instead stuck to
the usual diplomatic nice talk and platitudes as opposed to adding substance
and relevant info on the current state of negotiations and joint on-the-ground
As long as joint EU-Japan action takes place on paper and largely on paper
only, bilateral encounters will continue to sound good but go down as jointly
and politely agreeing to do more together tomorrow but not today.
Professor Axel Berkofsky is Gianni Mazzocchi Fellow at the University of
Pavia, Italy, and Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Milan-based Istituto
per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).
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