Energy & Environment, European Parliament, Japan, Latest news, Social & human rights

MEPs wrangle over Japan EPA labour and environmental provisions

Insiders don’t believe the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement signed this summer faces a serious risk of being voted down in the European Parliament at the end of the year. But as the assembly enters its last months of functioning, a vocal group of left-of-centre MEPs is making a last big stand on labour and environment.

The group is pushing the European Commission and the Japanese government to make as many political pre-commitments as possible on turning these provisions into tangible reality before the vote.

Pedro Silva Pereira, the Portuguese rapporteur on the agreement, and a social democract, has prepared two documents: a legislative resolution and a flanking legally non-binding motion for a resolution. In the first, Silva Pereira recommends that the parliament ratify the pact. The motion expresses some of the parliament’s further wishes on the deal.

The trade committee is clearly split and agitated over some of the wording tabled in the motion. During a meeting this morning, the public learned that MEPs had tabled a whopping 236 amendments to a text that only has about 20 paragraphs. On Monday, the shadow rapporteurs worked on 22 compromise amendments put forward by Silva Pereira. Discussions today reveal the exercise is no plain sailing.

Paragraph 11

One of the lightning rods is paragraph 11. The amendment “welcomes the inclusion of a review clause in the chapter on sustainable development and calls on the commission to trigger this clause as soon as possible in order to strengthen the enforceability and effectiveness of labour and environmental provisions, which should include the possibility of sanctions as a last resort.”

Many left-of-centre MEPs, leading among them trade committee chief Bernd Lange, have long been calling for EU trade agreements’ ‘trade and sustainable development’ chapters to be subject to sharper enforcement mechanisms. Methods envisaged include either subjecting the chapter to the entire agreement’s dispute resolution system – leading potentially to withdrawal of trade preferences – or introducing some form of penalty such as monetary compensation.

Although a very large group of MEPs is in favour of seeing the EU move down that path in its trade agreements, they have not yet been able to garner a solid majority in favour of shifting the EU’s way of treating labour and environment in trade agreements: cooperation and dialogue, and no sanctioning mechanism. The EPP, the largest political group in the parliament, is highly sceptical of more coercive mechanisms; so is the Eurosceptic centre-right ECR group.

“We are committed to effective trade and sustainable chapters, but for sanctions we are still negotiating,” explained Christophe Hansen today. “Japan has presented serious commitments to the effect of implementation,” said the EPP spokesman for the deal.

In response to the many questions and what appears to be subtle threats – the parliament has veto power over the deal – issued in the wake of a recent fact-finding trip to Japan, the prime minister’s office in Tokyo promised to set up an inter-ministerial task force in the Japanese government to look into implementing the labour and environment provisions. In a letter sent to MEPs on Monday, Japan’s ambassador to the EU made this official. The letter announces further that the inter-ministerial group would start working this month.

The EU-Japan deal enjoins the EU and Japan to implement a number of multilateral conventions in the area of labour and environment, to the United Nations Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, and to the effective implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change. Thematic areas covered include natural resource management (fisheries, biodiversity and forestry) and the ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organisation’s eight core conventions – of which Japan has yet to ratify two. It looks like Japan has not given any clear indication on when it will start examining the two ILO conventions, one covering forced labour, the other discrimination. “To date we have no guarantees on the ratifications of the ILO conventions,” said Maria Arena (S&D).

There have been rumours that the current timeline MEPs set themselves to ratify the agreement – a vote in committee on 5 November, then ratification in plenary before Christmas – could be in jeopardy. Insiders from the two main political groups overall remain sanguine. These sources have told Borderlex that they see no risk to the ratification and that – at least for now – the goal was to stick to the current timetable.

To Silva Pereira, the EU-Japan agreement is of “major” strategic importance. “It represents a timely signal of open, fair, and rules-based trade, opposing a protectionist agenda of Donald Trump. The agreement also promotes European values and standards in the Asia Pacific region.”

“It’s not about changing the agreement,” said Scottish Labour MEP David Martin. “The point of the rapporteur in the accompanying resolution is to pressurise both Japan and the European Union on the promises made in the trade agreement, to make sure these are actually delivered on.”

On the ‘populist’ – and generally  anti-trade agreement – benches of the parliament, not everyone is going to say no to the Japanese deal. Tiziana Beghin*, a member of Italy’s Five Star Movement, which is part of the ruling coalition in Italy, said that while she tabled amendments that criticised aspects of the accord, added: “I am in favour of the agreement.”

The arithmetic of reaching a 51% majority in favour of the Japan deal next December won’t be simple. Since 2014, reaching a majority in Strasbourg has always involved having one of the two main groups – EPP or S&D – supporting the agreement as a bloc, then having a large group of members from the other bloc on board, as well as at least one smaller group, such as the Greens, ECR or the liberal group ALDE. ALDE appears to be on board. The Greens tabled an amendment calling for the ratification to be postponed for one year.

What is clear is that the parliament will want to extract as many concessions from the commission and Japan as possible while it still can, and the more trade-sceptic flank of the S&D drive a hard bargain with its bigger rival the EPP – and pro trade pragmatists in its own camp – to help get the deal through plenary.


*An earlier version of this post made an error on the quoted MEP. With due apologies to Ms Forenza. ID.

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