By Tim Kelly
TOKYO (Reuters) – British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he wants to begin talks with Japan within weeks to conclude a trade deal this year, after a meeting with Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi, who asked Britain to drop European Union food import restrictions imposed after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“The aspiration will be to do it by the end of the year. We can certainly begin it earlier than Spring,” Raab told Reuters in an interview.
“Japan is right up there in the list of priorities partly because of the size of the market, but also Japan is an absolute central country in the Indo Pacific region,” he added.
Motegi, who said Japan also wanted a rapid conclusion of trade talks, met Raab in Tokyo during his first overseas trip following Britain’s departure from the EU, and as it negotiates its future relationship with Brussels and begins free trade talks with other major economies including the United States and Japan.
While in the EU, Britain was part of a comprehensive trade deal with Japan that last year began reducing tariffs across a raft of products, including Japanese autos.
Britain’s hurry to tie up new trade agreements could be to Japan’s advantage, as it seeks to secure better terms.
Motegi said he had asked Raab at their meeting to lift import restrictions on Japanese food and other products that were imposed by Brussels after the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011.
The EU eased those import regulations last year, but still insists on inspections and certificates of origin for some Japanese produce, including seafood.
“Obviously anything that affects food, health and safety standards we would want to look at very carefully. We understand the Japanese concern about this and it will be science led,” Raab told Reuters when asked whether the Britain would agree to Motegi’s request.
Raab also sought to ease Japanese concern that the EU exit could result in trade friction with the rest of Europe. Japanese manufacturers such as Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> built plants in Britain because it offered a convenient gateway to the EU.
There is, Raab predicted, enough political will in both the EU and Britain to conclude a deal that will decide their future relationship before a transition period finishes at the end of the year.
“We have too much in common, too much at stake for politics to trump the mutual economic self interest. On both sides we’ve got a chance now to focus on the positives in the relationship,” he said.
Raab, who traveled to Japan from Australia, will stop in Singapore and Malaysia before returning to London.
(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Sam Nussey; Editing by Stephen Coates)