Towards an enhanced EU-Japan partnership for sustainable development

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Izumi Ohno
Izumi Ohno

Director of the Japan International Cooperation Agency Research Institute (JICA-RI) and an Adjunct Professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)

As Japan celebrates the dawn of the imperial era, Reiwa (beautiful harmony), the partnership between the European Union and Japan has been elevated to a whole new strategic level. The recent 26th EU-Japan Summit, which took place on 25 April 2019, saw the coming into force of two landmark agreements: the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA).

The EPA is the world’s largest free trade agreement and serves as a model for high standard trade rules in the 21st century, while the SPA provides an overarching framework for enhanced cooperation and joint action over issues of common interest, including regional and global challenges. These agreements, through committing to the principles of cooperation, intend to uphold and support the fundamental values of free trade, multilateralism and the rules-based order.

It is particularly notable that the EU-Japan partnership has undergone these transformations during such a historic year – 2019. This is a highly important year for Japan, as the country will host both the G20 Summit and the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD 7).

Also being convened this year is the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), scheduled to be held under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. There, Japan plans to share the outcomes of these efforts and to articulate the progress of its own implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (the so-called, ‘Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs]’), adopted by all UN member states in 2015. In this sense, the EU-Japan Summit’s reaffirmation of its commitment to the 2030 Agenda with its 17 SDGs and to the Paris Agreement is hugely appreciated, given its relevance to the G20 and the UN Summits.

Japan can learn a lot from the EU when it comes to tackling country-specific, domestic challenges

As universal goals, the SDGs are applicable to both developed and developing countries. In this regard, they are a marked departure from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which had focused primarily on the challenges facing developing countries. For Japan, the SDGs are a main pillar of the national strategy for moulding Japan’s future and provide an overarching vision for international cooperation.

An enhanced EU-Japan partnership plays a critical role in promoting the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda, which calls for “leaving no one behind” – both domestically and globally.

Firstly, Japan can learn a lot from the EU when it comes to tackling country-specific, domestic challenges that face a mature economy and society. Today, Japan faces a number of pressing problems, including an ageing demographic, depopulation, the revitalisation of local economies, the elevation of women’s role in society, and the promotion of a work-life balance with improved productivity and innovation. The nature of these challenges is quite different from those found in developing and emerging economies, regions where rapid population growth and urbanisation symbolise the most pressing concerns.

A typical example is the growing acceptance of foreign workers to cope with labour shortages. In April 2019, the Japanese government adopted new measures to expand the acceptance of foreign workers and to facilitate their integration into society by revising the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. This signalled a major shift in Japanese immigration policy. It is expected that 345,000 additional foreigners will work in Japan over a five-year period in targeted industries. One-stop facilities, tentatively named Centres for Multicultural Information and Assistance, will be established in approximately 100 locations nationwide with the aim of providing consultation on administrative matters and daily life (in eleven languages).

The EU and Japan are also like-minded partners, sharing common values and principles

Free movement of workers is a fundamental policy of the EU, and Europe has also accumulated much experience in accommodating migrant workers from non-EU countries, including dealing with massive refugee flows. On this point, the EU could offer Japan its rich experience, particularly in ensuring the co-existence of foreign workers and local communities and providing enabling conditions for their living and working. Similarly, gender equality is an important issue in Japan today, and there is ample good practice within the European experience, from which can Japan can learn.

Secondly, the EU and Japan could collaborate on international cooperation to contribute to the solution of global challenges, to secure peace and stability and to support the economic transformation of developing countries. This is an area where ample opportunities exist for an EU-Japan partnership through strengthened development cooperation. The EU and its member states are the world’s leading development donors, and Japan is one of the largest bilateral donors.

The EU and Japan are also like-minded partners, sharing common values and principles, and have committed to working together both bilaterally and in multilateral fora. Some of their shared pursuits have included the encouragement of collaborative action to promote African development, addressing climate change and other environmental challenges – including marine plastic pollution – and promoting private sector engagement in sustainable and inclusive business. As such, the EU-Japan partnership for development cooperation is a powerful instrument to promote the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Given the significant level of influence that the EU and Japan hold over economic and social progress in the global sense, there is plenty to look forward to in the deepening of the EU-Japan partnership for sustainable development in the years to come, as laid out under the enhanced strategic framework. The year 2019 provides an excellent opportunity to move forward.

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