EESC members visit Japan to talk trade and sustainable development with authorities and civil society organisations

Members of the EU-Japan Follow-up Committee of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) visited Japan recently (27-31 January) to discuss the implementation of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) – in place since February 2019 – and to strengthen  cooperation with Japanese counterparts. The visit included a roundtable on the circular economy and the first EU-Japan Joint Dialogue with civil society under the EPA, with trade and sustainable development issues on the agenda. 

The main purpose of the EESC mission was to build on the good cooperation and contacts established with Japanese civil society organisations and institutions over the years and to make preparations for the first Joint Dialogue with Civil Society, which took place on 31 January. The EESC was assisted by the EU Delegation in Tokyo (EEAS) and the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation.

The mission included meetings with the main Japanese employers' and workers' organisations, such as the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), the Japanese Consumers' Cooperative Union (JCCU COOP) and the Japan Women's Innovative Network (J-Win). The EESC delegation had the opportunity at these meetings to learn from their Japanese counterparts about the implementation of the EU-Japan EPA and to learn more about the empowerment of women and their participation in the labour market.

The European Business Council in Japan also highlighted some very interesting aspects of the implementation of the EPA, such as the need to involve Japanese importers in its assessment, as well as looking at Japan's energy mix. The mission was also the opportunity to have a very fruitful discussion about further cooperation with the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

EESC members also met representatives of international organisations, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) to explore further the challenges facing Japan in its ratification of ILO Conventions, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which looked at the challenges of population ageing and SDG targets.

A far-reaching agreement

The EU-Japan EPA is expected to have a very positive impact for both parties. In the medium term, 97% of the tariffs on EU exports will be eliminated, delivering annual savings of EUR1 billion. EU exports to Japan could rise by up to 34% as a result and the EU Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would increase by up to 0.75%.

Eve Päärendson, president of the EU-Japan Follow-up Committee, commented: The EU-Japan EPA is of major global importance: it is the biggest trade deal in force so far for either side and will have a huge impact on both our mutual trade and investment. It accounts for almost a third of global GDP and 40% of global trade. But its significance is far greater than mere economics: it will develop international trade while taking into account environmental and labour aspects.

The mission marked a successful start to the EU-Japan joint civil society dialogue under the EU-Japan EPA and was also a perfect demonstration of the added value this kind of dialogue with counterpart organisations can bring.

Labour issues

In the course of the mission, EESC members met representatives of the International Labour Organization to inquire about the state of play regarding Japanese laws and regulation for the ratification of ILO Fundamental Conventions. Representatives from RENGO insisted that legal reforms were needed in Japan for these conventions to be approved.

Female participation in the labour market was also discussed with RENGO representatives. Laure Batut and Erika Koller, members of the EESC's Workers Group, asked about progress in the embedding of "Womenomics", an initiative promoted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to help women be more active in the labour market. The government was trying, they were told, to tackle the issue, given that in 2019 Japan ranked 121 out of 153 in the World Economic Forum's global gap index, which measures gender equality in each country.

Environment and circular economy

The mission's schedule also included a roundtable on the circular economy with a wide array of Japanese environmental organisations. Its main aim was to introduce the European Green Deal initiative, which highlights among other things the potential of the circular economy for creating new activities and jobs. EESC representatives also had the opportunity to see some examples of best practice, including from a visit to the site of the Tokyo Olympics 2020, which are aiming to be the most sustainable Olympic Games ever.

In her opening address, Eve Päärendson emphasised: The circular economy is important, as we are reaching the limits of our planet. Arguing that global cooperation was crucial, particularly at G20 level, to make the circular economy work, she added: The EU and Japan can be the leaders in this field, and there is no doubt that civil society organisations must be involved in this process.

Speaking at the roundtable, Peter Clever, from the EESC's Employers Group, introduced the European Circular Economy Stakeholders Platform, whose aim is to bring together information, knowledge and expertise by sharing examples of relevant practice in Europe. Michael McLoughlin, from the EESC's Diversity Europe Group, stressed the need for a just transition, which could also cater for those who were losing out. However, he insisted: We can't expect industry to do everything. Governments have to take concrete actions.

The role of civil society

For the first time ever, the EU-Japan EPA includes references to the Paris Climate Agreement in its Trade and Sustainable Development Chapter. The monitoring of the agreement is entrusted to Domestic Advisory Groups (DAGs) set up by each side, which submit opinions and make recommendations on implementation of the chapter within the EU-Japan EP.

From the EU side, the DAG already exists and includes members of the EESC's three groups (Employers Group, Workers Group and Diversity Europe). The Japanese side was represented at the first Joint Dialogue with Civil Society by members of the Central Environmental Council and of the Labour Policy Council.

On the role of DAGs, Krzysztof Pater, from the EESC's Diversity Europe Group, stressed the importance of persuading Japanese authorities to consult civil society and to provide scope for civil society monitoring of the EPA. He also said it was fundamental that DAGs' members share information and experience with their counterparts.

Eve Päärendson welcomed the successful start of the joint EU-Japan civil society dialogue, which demonstrated the added value this kind of dialogue can bring in strengthening the ties between the two  sides. Japan is the EU's most like-minded partner, she commented, and there are many fields where we should cooperate more. Trade is, of course, one of them. The next meeting will take place in Brussels within 12 months.

On the agenda for 30 January was a symposium attended by Japanese civil society organisations and designed as a forum for discussing civil society involvement in shaping policy, as well as in monitoring the implementation of trade agreements. This was followed by a briefing by the Trade and Sustainable Development Committee.

The mission concluded with a meeting with Atsushi Namba, Director of the European Union Economic Affairs Division of Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to discuss the outcome of the first Joint Civil Society Dialogue and exchange ideas on preparing for the next meeting in Brussels.