“that is really the best thing about the EU — that we can stand and face this epidemic together”

Solidarity in action

Ambassador of the European Union to Japan Patricia Flor


April 2020 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Benjamin Parks

As the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, Ambassador of the EU to Japan Patricia Flor sat down with Eurobiz Japan — at a safe social distance — to speak about the EU’s response to the coronavirus, how it is supporting the European economy, and her hopes for the future, as well as a few other important recent events.

Ambassador Flor’s career in diplomacy began in 1992 and has had a particular focus on Central Asia. She has worked at the German Embassy in Kazakhstan, as German ambassador to Georgia, and as the EU’s special representative for Central Asia. She served as commissioner for disarmament and arms control for the German federal government, as well as director-general for international order, the United Nations, and arms control at the German Federal Foreign Office, before taking up her post as ambassador of the EU to Japan in 2018.

What has the EU’s response been to the threat of the coronavirus?

It’s a hard time for everyone amidst this global pandemic and we are all struggling. I don’t want to hide that the EU and member states also struggled with our initial response. But we have come together very strongly with a range of measures across all policy areas, which were jointly agreed between member states and the EU. Now we are seeing solidarity in action. We see patients being taken in by one member state to help another member state where the healthcare system is overwhelmed. We see that masks, medical equipment, food, and other deliveries are going across borders to get them to the areas where they’re most needed. I think that is really the best thing about the EU — that we can stand and face this epidemic together.

How will the EU be supporting businesses and the economy?

Everybody realises that the very strict measures in place — in terms of teleworking and travel restrictions — impose a big burden economically, and it’s particularly the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are at risk. Therefore, the EU and member states have agreed that, in order to give governments the option to respond, there needs to be a certain relaxation of rules, for example, state aid rules. Usually, you should not subsidise your country’s companies, but in this particular situation, it’s clear that all member states need to preserve jobs and assist SMEs, and this is now feasible.

It’s the same regarding the European fiscal framework. There are strict rules on indebtedness, for example, but the escape clause was triggered, so governments can now use all the budgetary means they see fit to support the economy as a whole. On top of that, the European Investment Bank has put up a fund of €20 billion to support SMEs, and there’s also a Covid Response Investment initiative offering €37 billion, which will come from other funds, that is geared towards investing in the economy.

What work is the EU doing on a Covid-19 vaccine?

We want to fight this epidemic together, so there is now a programme of €140 million to support the work of research teams across the EU in the development of a vaccine and treatments. Whatever their findings, they will be shared. Again, that’s solidarity in action. At the end of the day, it’s not about having a vaccine for only a certain group of people or for a single member state. It’s about all of Europe, and the rest of the world.

Europe and Japan are better placed than many other countries to deal with such a health emergency, but we have partner countries in Africa and in Asia that will be much harder hit. So, it’s also an opportunity for cross-border cooperation in assisting those who will be in most need during this epidemic.



What are your hopes for the EU once we get through this time of uncertainty?

It is particularly in times of crisis that a supranational club like the EU needs to prove its value. It’s a situation where everybody will be looking to see if we have been able to rise to the challenge. Have we in the EU fared better by supporting each other than each one of us could have alone? My hope is that, yes, the EU will be able to come out well from this challenge so we can reaffirm that, even in a situation where many borders have closed, cross-border cooperation is essential to weathering a crisis and moving forward again once it is over.

What is the Circular Economy Action Plan and why is it important?

The Circular Economy Action Plan, which was announced on 11 March, is a roadmap to arriving at a climate-neutral economy by 2050. It’s one of the basic pillars of getting the European Green Deal to work. In the circular economy, you reduce the amount of non-recyclable material you use and the waste you produce. There is less consumption of resources and, at the same time, you are still able to support the growth of the economy.

Under the action plan, the EU will be looking at the kind of standards and rules that govern production and industry, including those on the durability of products, the ratio of recycled content to waste, and energy and resource efficiency, as well as how, in the end, consumers will know that these are environmentally friendly products.

Although the coronavirus is preventing us from travelling right now, it doesn’t mean that high-level dialogue isn’t taking place. A few weeks ago, there was a discussion on the environment between the director-general of the Directorate-General for the Environment in Brussels and the vice minister of the environment, Mr Satoru Morishita, here in Japan, through video conferencing. One issue they discussed was green recovery after the epidemic and the importance of restarting our economies in a green way.

Can you tell me about your recent meeting with Minister of Justice Masako Mori?

I talked with her about Womenomics and the empowerment of women, because I think that equal participation and equal opportunities across all areas of public life, including the field of justice, matters a lot. By including many more women in this field, they will bring in their own perspectives, and we will arrive at an even fairer justice system.

We also discussed the Kyoto Crime Prevention Congress of the United Nations, which has now been postponed. The EU intended to have a few side events there, one of which was with the Japan Federation of Bar Associations about the death penalty. There are certain areas where Japan and the EU have different positions and, on this issue, I think it is important to have a discussion in society about why we abolished it and why Japanese people think it should be retained. It’s very important to support this public debate.

I also raised one other issue with her regarding child custody, because it’s of concern to European parents — but not only European parents. In Japan, there are situations where children no longer have contact with both parents. Of course, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is very important to the EU, and it asks that a child be able to engage with both parents. That’s another field where we are looking forward to cooperating further with Japan.

Could you give me a brief overview of the EU Commission’s digital strategy, which was announced in February?

At its core, it’s about making sure that digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and everything related to these is human centred. All of these new technologies should serve us as human beings, and they should be under our control. That’s something that needs to be spelled out, and the EU has come up with ethical guidelines for artificial intelligence, which outlines that you shouldn’t leave anything to the algorithm alone.

This comes together with the idea of having a single market for data, which means that we agree on the standards and the rules for sharing data and for sharing it across borders; on what kind of data can be made accessible; and on how it can be collected. Then, it needs to be integrated into an international approach. And this is another area where we highly appreciate the cooperation with Japan. Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s G20 initiative, “Data Free Flow with Trust”, is very important, because it’s the same idea.

I hope that the EU will become a leader in transforming society into a digital one — with all the benefits that promises — and also a leader in ensuring that this is a human future, one where people can use all the modern technologies, but where the human rights of citizens are safeguarded. If we can be a model in this regard, that would be very good. 

“even in a situation where many borders have closed, cross-border cooperation is essential to weathering a crisis”