EU and Japanese top officials pose before their working dinner as a part of the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations at Iikura guest house in Tokyo on Jun 30. (Photo: AFP/Franck Robichon)
Tokyo - 2 July 2017:The European Union's top trade official said Saturday that a Japan-EU free trade deal was "almost there", as the two sides look to ink an agreement seen as a push back against rising protectionism.
EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom was in Tokyo with agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan for two days of talks with Japanese officials.
After four years of negotiations the two sides are working toward signing a deal at the G20 in Hamburg next week.
"We are almost there," Malmstrom told reporters in the Japanese capital Saturday evening, saying a finalised deal could happen by the "end of autumn".
"We have sufficient convergence so that our officials can discuss in the coming days and iron out the remaining details.
"I am quite confident that our leaders can agree on their summit decided for next week on a package and give their blessing when they meet on the 6th" of July.
Japan's foreign minister Fumio Kishida, however, described the talks as "very tough".
"There was some meaningful progress but important issues still remain that both sides need to iron out," Kishida said, adding that he may go to Brussels in a bid to find an agreement.
Clinching a deal would be a victory for free-trade advocates after US president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership this year, dealing a possibly fatal blow to the mooted 12-nation deal.
"The package which we hope to conclude next week will tear down almost all customs duties between us that are worth a lot of money, billions actually," Malmstrom said.
"EU exports to Japan overall, according to our calculations, could be boosted by one third and that of course means many more possibilities and many jobs.
She added that a deal would send a "strong signal to the rest of the world that the EU and Japan believe in free trade."
Tariffs on European cheese have been a key sticking point in the talks.
Brussels wants Japan to eliminate its 30 percent tariffs on some EU-made cheese, while Tokyo wants duties cut on cars which it exports to the 28-member bloc.
The EU and Japanese economies combined account for some 28 percent of global GDP.