The EPA is the ‘biggest bilateral trade partnership ever negotiated by the European Union’, and ‘the most significant and far reaching deal ever concluded by the EU in agri-food trade’, in the words of the Commission. Negotiations intensified and were finalised against a background of growing uncertainty and protectionist trends in global trade. During this period, the EU faced challenges such as the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the EU-USA talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) put on hold, and the limited progress at the WTO. Within this context, the Commission emphasised that the EPA signals the parties’ commitment to fair trade and open markets, and Japan’s partnership with the EU in supporting multilateralism and strong international organisations.
On Japan’s side, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s economic programme of 2013, known as ‘Abenomics’, identified three priorities, or ‘policy arrows’. The third arrow aimed at enacting structural reforms, including the promotion of economic partnerships. To reach this objective, Japan pursued its interests in a number of bilateral and plurilateral trade negotiations. In this context, it decided to give priority not to the EU-Japan talks, but rather to its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations with 11 other countries, among them the USA. Following the withdrawal of the USA from this agreement in January 2017, the EU-Japan FTA, later termed by the Japanese prime minister as a ‘”new engine” under Abenomics’, regained importance, not only for the economic opportunities it offered, but also for its contribution to curb protectionist pressures. At the same time, Japan has also become a driving force behind the conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTTP), a mega-regional trade deal that replaced the TPP, and it is also aiming for its swift implementation.
Analysts have also suggested that beyond the potential economic impact and strategic importance of the EPA, based on the rules and standards introduced in the agreement, the EU and Japan might play a leadership role in shaping the future of international trade, a role abandoned by the USA following the current US administration’s shift towards a protectionist trade policy.