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Japan-EU relations and the maintenance of multilateralism in a complex era

By Julie Gilson
Reader in Asian Studies at the University of Birmingham
February 17, 2023
In 1991 The Hague Declaration cemented the start of formal relations between Japan and the then European Community (which became the European Union in 1993) and its member states. Based on their mutual commitment to ‘freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights’, both sides pledged in the Declaration to ‘intensify their dialogue and to strengthen their cooperation and partnership in order that the challenges of the future may be met’. Building on the foundations set by this document, subsequent agreements included the 2001 Action Plan for EU-Japan Cooperation, which set out a ten-year programme of initiatives and ambitions to shape a ‘common future’. The decades to follow would see this bilateral dialogue supported by a number of tangible initiatives in trade and non-trade arenas.
Flags of Japan and EU


Trade issues initiated throughout the 1990s included specific targets of interest around, for example, Geographical Indications (GIs) and trademark recognition, regulatory reform to tackle specific cultural and structural barriers to investment, and intellectual property rights, all expressed in a Cooperation Framework aimed at promoting two-way investment in 2004. Groups such as the EU-Japan Business Round Table, the Executive Training Programme and EU Gateway Programme and the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation all created new opportunities for business-to-business cooperation.

Throughout the 1990s growing multilateral engagement became increasingly important, particularly through international organisations like the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which became the World Trade Organisation, WTO in 1995). For example, in the first half of the 2000s, Japan and the EU continued to underscore the value and necessity of working through the WTO system, reaffirmed their joint commitment to ‘multilateralist principles,’ and expressed mutual support for the Doha Development Round, not least to ensure agreement over rules pertaining to market access. At the same time, however, concerns multiplied about the slow and stalling pace of negotiations within the WTO. Subsequently, the 2008 global economic crisis severely damaged Japanese exports in sectors like transport equipment, as the Japanese government and industries were already trying to grapple with the rise of Chinese economic power. Simultaneously, after 2008 the EU began to question its own commitment to the existing paradigm for global trade.

It is no surprise, given these circumstances and the continued rise in the number of new bilateral free trade agreements, that this was the moment in which the EU and Japan began to formulate plans for their own bilateral agreement. Furthermore, former US President Trump’s protectionist policies provided a stimulus to push through the EPA negotiations, as both Japan and the EU felt the strong risks associated with his actions. Fast forward to 2019 and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) was signed, covering one third of the world’s GDP, around 639 million people, and designed to remove 99% of EU tariff lines and 97% of Japan’s.

Security and Political Concerns

Broader areas related to political cooperation and security interests between Japan and the EU were pursued from the 1990s and included joint work on information and communication technology in 2004; the establishment of a Joint Declaration on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation in that same year; and a 2005 counter-terrorism strategy; cooperation in the field of disaster prevention, humanitarian assistance and civilian crisis management; joint efforts in the Western Balkans during the 1990s; and the inauguration in 2005 of a Strategic Dialogue on East Asia’s Environment. Multilateral cooperation in these fields focused on the United Nations, and this period saw pledges of a greater level of development assistance, as the summits sought to underpin the UN’s Millennium Declaration. For the EU, greater participation within international fora could showcase the common cause of the member states, whilst for Japan multilateral engagement – in regional and international fora – has supported its post-war quiet diplomacy and need to balance difficult neighbourhood relations (especially with China and Russia) alongside its close alliance with the United States.

These initiatives were brought together in the 2018 Strategic Partnership Agreement which accompanied the 2018 EPA, and which is designed to advance political and sectoral cooperation between Japan and the EU and formulate areas for joint action, for example, in disaster management, energy security and cyber-crime, and joint cooperation in support of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Multi-level Engagement

In light of global changes and bilateral agreements, the EU and Japan today continue to express the normative commitments underpinning global fora such as the WTO and UN, whilst simultaneously focusing on specific bilateral mutual interests and initiatives. The key development is that they have taken the most important step in their long history of bilateral relations to bind their relations in trade and security, a move which represents an attempt to respond rapidly to new concerns in an ever-changing world whilst honouring those principles and values upon which global multilateral frameworks are based.
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