October 1, 2016 2:00 am JST
Interview

Belgian minister says Japan-EU trade deal this year is possible

MANABU MORIMOTO, Nikkei staff writer

BRUSSELS -- Though Japan and the European Union can reach a broad agreement on an economic partnership agreement this year, Brussels needs a "political decision" from Tokyo to open up public procurement, Belgium's foreign minister told The Nikkei.

The 17th round of negotiations took place here this week. In addition to the procurement issue, the EU wants Japan to accept more imports of such goods as pork and wine, while Tokyo is pushing for Brussels to scrap its 10% tariff on passenger vehicles. How much progress can be made before year-end on bridging the gaps between the two sides has been a point of keen interest.

Asked whether an agreement could be reached within the year, Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Reynders, who served as finance minister for more than a decade before

assuming his current post in 2011, expressed optimism. "Why not?" he said. "But it depends on the content of the negotiations."

Reynders stressed that expanding European companies' access to public procurement by the central government and municipalities, including purchases and project orders, will be key to achieving a deal this year.

The EU has asked Japan to let European companies participate in procurement by municipalities with at least 100,000 residents, a request at which Tokyo has balked. "Of course we are ready to open more of our markets to Japanese companies, more than now, but the only condition is to have reciprocity," Reynders said.

"That's the commitment that we are waiting for," he said, adding that he understands this would be "a real political decision in Japan."

Reynders noted that the EU spent six or seven years negotiating a free-trade agreement with Canada, which has a population of 40 million. Given the size of Japan's economy, concluding a deal of this scale so quickly, when talks just began in 2013, requires strong political will, he said.

The minister indicated that he will not insist on agreeing to an overall framework by year-end if talks do not yield a satisfactory result. "I prefer to have a very broad agreement" with a "real capacity to work together" than a "very light FTA" drawn up for the sake of getting results while pressed for time, he said.

Reynders also touched on the U.K.'s planned exit from the EU, saying he expects official notification from London at the beginning of next year at the earliest. Brussels' aim in trade negotiations will be "to rebuild the relation on trade and on other different issues for the future," he said.

The talks "will be a long process, maybe five or six years," he said.

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