Free-trade agreements have seemed out of fashion since President Donald Trump took office. But now the European Union and Japan have agreed on the Japan-E.U. Economic Partnership Agreement (JEEPA). In front of the cameras, they swapped Japanese Daruma dolls, talismans of perseverance and good luck, and, they hope, of a win-win agreement.
The timing of JEEPA was just as carefully coordinated. When negotiations started in 2013, it was neither side’s main priority. But now both want to show that they can fill the vacuum left by America’s pullback on trade issues.
The deal is about more than political symbolism, however. Average tariffs between the two sides are already low. However, exporters from the E.U. pay the equivalent of $1.1 billion in export duties to Japan each year, and on agricultural products face average tariffs of 21 percent. JEEPA will slash Japanese tariffs on beef, pork and wine, eliminating 85 percent of the tariffs on agricultural food products going into Japan.
Tariffs on European exports of textiles and clothing will also be cut. An assessment of the impact of the deal found the deal could raise the E.U.’s exports to Japan by 34 percent, and Japan’s to the E.U. by 29 percent.
For all the doll-swapping bonhomie, however, the deal bore the scars of a difficult negotiation. Take cheese. Under both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and JEEPA, tariffs on cheeses like Cheddar and Gouda will be phased out. Other cheeses, like Camembert, were trickier. A strong domestic Japanese lobby had resisted concessions even under TPP, partly because Camembert is produced domestically. Plus, offering tariff concessions to the E.U. could scupper its efforts to revive TPP, as miffed mozzarella producers from Australia could demand better terms too. So JEEPA ended up with a compromise: a duty-free quota.
Described in these terms, as a deal easing the flow of cheese in one direction and cars in the other, JEEPA sounds like an old-style trade haggle prey to national vested interests. In theory, both Japan and the E.U. have higher ambitions. They see trade deals as a way to shape globalization by moving beyond tariff cuts to agreements on shared standards and procedures. But in practice, Japan and the E.U. may have different ideas about what this should involve. The agreement includes agreement neither on procedures for settling disputes between investors and governments, nor on data protection. Both will be dealt with separately.