BRUSSELS (AFP) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged on Tuesday (March 21) to seal a EU-Japan trade deal as early as possible in order to make an important stand against protectionism.
Abe met with EU Council President Donald Tusk as well as European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker at EU headquarters in Brussels.
"We shall try to aim for agreement in principle on the (EU-Japan trade deal) at the earliest possible date because it will give the world a symbol of free trade," Abe said as he entered the talks with Tusk and Juncker.
Abe's comments came just days after the Trump administration irked its traditional allies at G20 talks by blocking a pledge to reject protectionism.
But Abe, who is in Brussels as part of a European tour, added that deepened cooperation between the EU and Japan should be done in conjunction with the United States.
"In the midst of troubling protectionist trends, I find it important for Japan and the EU to cooperate with the United States as well, to give the world a model of free trade," he said.
Abe has chosen to pursue close ties with the unpredictable US President, even jetting down to Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a day of golf with him in February.
Trade talks between the EU and Japan began in 2014 and were at a point of near-collapse before Trump took office as US president.
But after just days in office, Trump withdrew the US from a trans-Pacific free trade pact, which was widely seen as a crucial defense against the dominance of China in Asia.
Key to the deal with Europe is a vast reform of the Japanese dairy sector that Tokyo insists will be adopted before summer.
The Europeans will also be keeping a close eye on the auto sector.
A senior EU official said Europeans would only agree to abolish tariffs for Japanese cars once Tokyo had given ground on all the bloc's key demands, including access to Japan's public procurement markets.
Juncker said the EU-Japan deal could be reached by the end of the year.
"Together our economies count for more than a third of the world's GDP," Juncker said.
"This agreement is necessary because we believe in free, fair and rules-based trade," he added.