The European Parliament’s leaders sat down today to confirm that the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement and EU-Japan Economic Partnership were going to be put to MEPs for ratification next Wednesday in Strasbourg as planned. But persistent splits in the Socialists and Democrats group still cast a shadow over ratification.
The last weeks were marked by rumours of a possible postponement of the vote in Strasbourg. Now postponement looks much less likely, but a final decision by parliament leaders will be taken on Monday evening. That final nod depends on the leaders of the second-largest group in the assembly being confident they can secure at least half their MEPs to vote for the deal. And that is not a given.
Mike Pompeo to the rescue?
A factor that has played a role in MEPs’ decision to put the Japan deal on the table is the continuous deterioration of transatlantic relations.
During a visit to Brussels Tuesday, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was perceived as issuing threats to the EU. “President Trump understands deeply that when America leads, peace and prosperity almost certainly follow,” Pompeo said. He lashed out at a variety of international organisations and at “those bureaucrats in Brussels”.
Speaking at an event on EU-Japan relations yesterday, Elmar Brok, the head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the speech had focused minds in the European assembly. “Secretary Pompeo’s speech was a big encouragement for us. Our independence in the global order is at stake. I am sure this is understood in the European Parliament,” Brok said, adding that he thinks the deal with Japan is now secured.
But is it really?
The leadership of the Social-Democratic group is nervous about its election prospects at a time of meltdown of Europe’s traditional party system.
The head of the S&D group, Udo Bullman, and the chairman of the international trade committee, Bernd Lange, two MEPs hailing from a German political party that is facing the prospect of heavy defeats in European elections next spring, have been making a lot of noise to secure firm guarantees that the deal’s labour and environmental provisions are implemented. The MEPs want Japan to move quickly in ratifying two International Labour Conventions. The SPD in Germany is, according to observers, not in a position to offer clear guidance to its membership on the deal.
A letter sent by Lange to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself to ask for further reassurances on all matters labour and environment last month created consternation among colleagues. INTA members from other political groups – namely the centre-right EPP – were angry that Lange had not sought their green light for this letter. He dismissed these criticisms.
In October, Lange received a letter from Japan’s ambassador to the EU announcing the government in Tokyo had established an inter-ministerial task force charged with overseeing the implementation of the agreement’s famous ‘sustainable development’ chapter. Said chapter enjoins the parties to ratify and abide by the ILO’s eight ‘core conventions’, and a variety of international environmental conventions, not least the 2015 United Nations Paris agreement on combatting climate change.
Today, Lange received a letter from the Japanese embassy with a document that is several pages long offering details of Tokyo’s plans on labour and environment. This document is now under examination in the S&D.
It appears that changes to the resolution flanking the MEPs’ decision to consent to the EU-Japan EPA brokered by rapporteur Pedro Silva Pereira haven’t necessarily done the job of placating a group of politicians who are not sure they will have a job next year. The changes provide for the possibility to revise the TSD chapter and potentially introduce sanctions for non-compliance. The current version of the EPA with Japan only foresees dialogue among civil society groups to follow up on the commitments.
To secure a majority for the accord requires the two big groups, EPP and S&D, to be on the same page. If one of the groups is split, the parliament must secure the backing of other smaller groups such as the liberals (ALDE), the conservative ECR group and/or at least some MEPs from the Greens group as well as some of the ‘populists’ (such as those whose party now rules in Italy).
What proponents of the agreement with Japan want to see is a big majority for maximum international impact: after all, the pact is set to cover about a third of global trade. It is not at all clear that big majority can be secured.
Japan wants the agreement to come into force on 1 February. Its upper house is expected to vote on the deal tomorrow. February is when Tokyo is expected to start bilateral trade agreement negotiations with the United States — negotiations it had to sign on to under threat from Washington that its auto exports would otherwise face tariffs.