“we managed to reach solutions by finding an appropriate balance between the interests of the two partners”

The negotiator

An interview with Mauro Petriccione

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by European Commission

Mauro Petriccione speaks with the voice and authority of the European Union, and represents the collective interests of its member states during trade negotiations. He is chief negotiator for the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which reached an agreement in principle at the beginning of last month. A native of Taranto in Italy, Petriccione first joined the European Commission in 1987 and has worked in trade policy ever since. Today, he is the deputy director general of the Directorate General for Trade (DG Trade) at the European Commission where he deals in areas as diverse as services and investment, intellectual property, public procurement, Asia and Latin America, sustainable development, and agri-food and fisheries. Petriccione spoke with Eurobiz Japan about the negotiations on the EU-Japan EPA and what’s left to be done before the agreement is finalised.


How did the idea for a free trade agreement between the EU and Japan get off the ground?

The negotiations were officially launched on 25 March 2013, after an extensive scoping exercise. But the truth is that the idea of this agreement dates back a few years before. In 2009, when the negotiations for a trade agreement with South Korea were concluded, the Commission undertook to seek a negotiating mandate from EU member states. Concluding an agreement with Japan was a natural next step, in order to increase trade with more of Asia.

How much was the European Business Council (EBC) involved in the early and subsequent stages?

The EBC was closely involved throughout the entire negotiating process. They were one of our main sources of information and expertise to identify the non-tariff measures that European businesses were facing in Japan, and for which solutions were to be negotiated. Every time that a trade commissioner came to Japan, a visit to the EBC was on the agenda in order to gain insight into day-to-day EU business trading and investing in Japan.

Can you tell me about the process of negotiating the EU–Japan EPA?

It took us four years to reach an agreement in principle, which is reasonable compared to other trade negotiations. But it was a difficult and complex process. We had to take into account not only the intrinsic technical difficulties that we had to solve, but also the wider political environment in Japan, in Europe and in the rest of the world. Trade agreements do not happen in isolation, and it is only by always keeping the broader political picture in mind that you can find solutions.

From your perspective, how will it benefit the economies of the EU and Japan?

There will be benefits from day one. For example, for EU wine producers who will be able to export to Japan duty free as soon as the agreement enters into force. But the bigger benefits will probably only appear in the longer term.

With this agreement, Japan and the EU have agreed to closely cooperate in promoting and enhancing international standards, notably in the automotive sector where we are now working closely together in defining UNECE [United Nations Economic Commission for Europe] regulations. This is a strategic choice that will have far-reaching consequences. If Japan and the EU both manage to successfully promote these international standards, the benefits will be considerable for their producers and economic operators in the global economic environment.


Could you tell me about some of the milestones of the negotiation process?

We had tried to conclude negotiations by the end of 2016, but some more work was needed to bridge the gaps between our respective positions. In 2017, we have seen some important political changes, including the decision by the US to withdraw from the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership], which also played a role in accelerating the process that led to the conclusion of an agreement in principle last month. One could also highlight the decision by Japan to bring in a new negotiating team in March 2017 as a decisive step in the process.

What were the difficult areas in negotiating the EU–Japan EPA?

Not surprisingly, agriculture market access was the main difficulty as it was both the EU’s number one exporting interest and Japan’s biggest sensitivity. Procurement was also particularly difficult as Japan had never engaged in negotiating commitments with the level of ambition requested by the EU. On the EU side, further opening our market to Japanese cars was the main difficulty. On all these issues, we managed to reach solutions by finding an appropriate balance between the interests of the two partners.

Why has dairy specifically been such a difficult issue to reach an agreement on?

The EU is a competitive dairy producer, notably for cheeses, while the Japanese market has always benefited from a high level of protection. Here, again, we needed to identify very carefully the right balance to bridge the gap between our respective positions. The final balanced outcome proves that the EU was not a real threat to the Japanese agricultural sector.

Now that you have reached an agreement in principle, what needs to happen and how long will this process take?

We now need to fully conclude the negotiating process. Our objective is to do this by the end of this year. We will then proceed together with Japan to the legal revision of the negotiated texts. They will then need to be translated into all 24 official EU languages — and, of course, into Japanese. Only then will the agreement be officially signed and then submitted for approval. In the EU, this approval process begins with a decision of the Council, which is then followed by the consent of the European Parliament. It is a rather intense, but essential process, which we will try to make as short as possible.

Is there any risk of this ending up like the TPP?

I have not heard any fundamental criticism, on either side, of the agreement between the EU and Japan. Of course, there will be objections from some quarters, especially from those constituencies who may fear a negative impact. However, we have sought to build into the agreement all the necessary safeguards, and we will engage with all those concerned to see whether other measures are needed.

At the same time, I would like to note that the agreement in principle, which was only announced last month, has already received wide support both in Europe and Japan. This is because it is an agreement that brings important economic benefits to both sides and builds on the core principles common to our two societies: for consumer protection, food safety, environmental and labour standards. 

“it is an agreement that brings important economic benefits to both sides and builds on the core principles common to our two societies”