The European Commission may secure a mandate to push ahead with negotiations with Japan on a free-trade deal when trade ministers from the European Union's member states meet on 29 November.
An agreement – or a clear indication of a timeline – could also enable agreement on the timing of the next summit between the EU and Japan. Japan has said the EU's struggle to agree a mandate on the free-trade agreement (FTA) explains why no date has yet been set for this year's summit.
“The ball has been in the EU member states' court since July this year,” the Commission says.
This summer, one-third of the member states still had reservations about the mandate that the Commission was seeking, despite a statement that the Commission had “clear commitments written in stone” from Japan that would not normally be made at this stage. The objections at that point came from, among others, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and principally from car-producers, who want Japan to lower its non-tariff barriers.
The Commission has already agreed with Japan that it will halt negotiations if Japan has not agreed within the first year of talks to remove behind-the-border barriers to the EU's producers of, for example, cars and medical equipment.
However, the Commission says that “it is too early to speculate whether a decision to authorise the launch of negotiations with Japan can be taken” at the meeting. Another official indicated that the prospects are good.
FTA with China
Ministers will also discuss a proposal for a potentially bigger FTA. China has asked the EU to launch a feasibility study into an FTA, something that one EU official described as a “medium-term prospect”. A range of problems complicate trade relations between the EU and China. In the latest example, the Commission on Thursday (15 November) imposed provisional duties on ceramic tableware imported from China. The Commission now has six months to decide whether to ask member states to impose duties for five years.
The Commission's major ambition is to agree on an investment-protection regime with China. It gained the right to negotiate investment agreements for the EU when the Lisbon treaty was approved in 2009.
Singapore and Canada
Trade ministers will also discuss progress on two FTAs that may be completed this year, with Singapore and Canada. The Commission had originally hoped to agree an FTA with Singapore in 2011. Edmund Sim of the National University of Singapore said that agreement was held up by concerns that Singapore might be acting as a tax haven. He believes that the blockage has been removed following an agreement by Germany and Singapore in October on the exchange of financial information.
The drive to secure an agreement with Canada has seen negotiating teams criss-cross the Atlantic in recent weeks. Officials have held meetings in Brussels and Ottawa this month, and Canada's trade minister, Ed Fast, will meet Karel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, today (22 November) in Brussels.
Ministers are not due to review progress on FTA talks with India, Malaysia and Vietnam. The Commission began negotiations with India in 2007, and last year said it hoped an agreement might be reached early this year. However, tariffs on cars, visas for Indian workers, and generic medicines remain problematic. Talks began with Malaysia in 2010 and with Vietnam this year. Both are said to be progressing well.