Von der Leyen and Abe’s Camaraderie: Strengthening alliances in times of uncertainty

  • + Von der Leyen and Abe are facing political challenges regarding public health, tourism and economy.
  • + The relation between the EU and Japan was reinforced by the EPA of 2019.
  • + Both leaders and Charles Michel agree on building stronger cooperation.
Source: European Council

Why is Ursula von der Leyen in camaraderie with Shinzo Abe?

Answer: Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and the EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission) and Charles Michel (President of the European Council) met in order to reaffirm their commitment in tackling global challenges and keeping their trade cooperation open. 

The relationship between these two – von der Leyen and Abe – has just started, but the previous EU leaders knew the relevance of building strong ties with Japan’s Prime Minister. Trade has conventionally been the main tie between the EU and Japan, which is characterised by trade surpluses in favour of Japan. This situation has led to the need of reaching agreements on cooperation and trade in order to facilitate their relation, as well as to widen the field of exchanges between both regions. 

The first day of February 2019 meant the entry into force of the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA), which joins other agreements on science and technology, anti-competitive activities, and customs matters. All the above established the path to an even closer relationship between EU and Japanese leaders – at least on investment and financial matters. And Ursula knows that she has to keep on strengthening the alliances made by her predecessor, Claude Juncker.

In a moment where two of the main powers on the geopolitics dashboard – Donald Trump and Xi Jinping – are enmeshed in political disagreements, there is a need of giving a boost to the European geopolitical strategy. This strategy is necessary to maintain Europe’s influence on the Asian area. 

As a result of the circumstances shaping tomorrow’s international politics, Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Shinzo Abe met online last 26th May in order to reinforce their commitment towards their – every day closer – relationship, and the need of defending multilateral mechanisms in the global order. 

In this meeting, they reaffirm their commitment in tackling global challenges together, as well as in promoting global coordination in the international fora. Also, von der Leyen, Michel and Abe agreed on accelerating their cooperation in the field of health research and making a step forward in science, technology, and innovation. Anyway, the last is not meant to be a closed list, as they showed their intention to reach more cooperation agreements on further areas.

It seems that both leaders, including Michel, have seen in each other someone to lean on when it comes to international instability. We are, indeed, witnessing a relationship which is intended to be long-lasting.

After the meeting, Charles Michel referred to Shinzo Abe’s country as a very strong partner regarding the defence of multilateralism. On the other side, von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, “global solidarity, cooperation and multilateralism are needed more than ever to defeat the coronavirus and ensure economic recovery”.

What does Shinzo Abe want?

Answer: Abe’s interests are very close to the von der Leyen’s ones. Having a strategic partnership with the EU allows Japan to step out of China’s shadow, and keep on advocating for multilateralism.

Shinzo Abe and his predecessors have seen in multilateralism an answer to be heard in the international dashboard. EU-Japan relations have only grown since 1991, when the first annual summit of their top leaders started to take place. First based on an industrial and economic point of view, the political dialogue saw a further development since the Lisbon Treaty. Since then, EU and Japan leaders have profited from a deepened relationship, seeing in each other a powerful ally. 

Sea power is a fundamental piece of Japanese security, so the maritime domain is an essential part of Abe’s policy. The Indian Ocean is a key player territory in Japan-EU trade, but also in relation to other nations. The main issue is that Xi Jinping also has important interests at stake in this territory in order to widen his international outreach. 

In a world where the gravity centre of power is moving towards the Indo-Pacific maritime axis, Abe knows that having the EU’s support would increase his factual power and, consequently, he could have a one-on-one dialogue with Xi Jinping – in other words, to keep his influence in his nearest geographic scope. Otherwise, Abe would find himself at the negotiating table with President Xi Jinping without the capacity to exert sufficient pressure to ensure that eventual agreements would serve Japan’s interests.

Shinzo Abe’s concerns are not limited to the field of maritime territory control and the maintenance of its influence, but also to the defence of multilateral diplomatic mechanisms. If Abe’s interests are to be heard in the international arena, the most effective mechanism is that of international organizations. This is opposed to the unilateralism that Trump is adopting in US foreign policy. For this defence to be successful, Abe needs von der Leyen’s cooperation as the representative of the EU, which is a staunch defender of multilateralism in its international relations.

What does von der Leyen want?

Answer: Ursula von der Leyen wants to improve the EU’s position on the geopolitical game. A European Union underpinned on multilateral mechanisms and structures. As China and the USA are embroiled in tensions between them, von der Leyen needs Abe’s support.

Among the six headline ambitions that Ursula von der Leyen established in her Political Guidelines for the five years she is – presumably – going to be the President of the EU Commission, one arouses especial interest from an international relations point of view. I am here referring to the fifth ambition, “A stronger Europe in the world”. 

One of von der Leyen’s political goals during her mandate is to reinforce the EU position as a global leader. An ambitious target some may think, as we see that the focus is currently on Trump, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. Regarding this last comment, both von der Leyen and Abe agree, as neither of them wants China dominating global politics. A polarised world in which two main powers dominate the political scene – US and China – is not a desirable alternative. 

In the words of von der Leyen, “multilateralism is in Europe’s DNA”, so the leading role to be achieved is going to be reached predictably through this mechanism. In order to do this, von der Leyen has to reach out to different types of agreements that will lead to a better positioning of the EU within the framework of geopolitics. Among them, to deepen the already extended ties with Shinzo Abe, which will supposedly provide for a greater representation of Europe in a territory where the influence of other powers is much greater.

In short, Ursula von der Leyen wants a strong European Union, through the most classic diplomacy, defence policy, development aid and trade, and all in strategic locations.

What is von der Leyen doing?

Answer: Von der Leyen is working hard on the image that the EU gives to the world. She is approaching and reaffirming a very relevant relationship on the trade field with Japan. Furthermore, she is looking to extend that partnership to other areas.

Von der Leyen, in this case with the collaboration of Charles Michel, is taking steps towards broadening the spectrum of the EU’s influence. In this case, by building bridges towards a deeper trade partnership with Japan, but also by getting public recognition of Shinzo Abe’s willingness to deepen his relationship with the EU. In this case, through residual areas such as security, global environmental issues and challenges, energy or health.

However, the meeting with Abe was not the first step taken by von der Leyen towards increasing the EU’s influence in East Asia. On March 20th, a EU-ASEAN videoconference was held, although it didn’t attract the media. There has also been an attempt at increasing the EU’s public relevance through a total of 350 million euros in aid to combat the consequences that the COVID-19 has brought with it. This aid has as its receivers the ASEAN countries, and is an action part of the Team Europe package, which is the EU’s response to its partners in the fight against the coronavirus. 

Progressively, Ursula von der Leyen is paving the way for a greater EU presence in more distant territories, although much remains to be done.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Everyone is winning, because it is not a movement with the purpose to create losers, but a wise movement on improving the EU’s political power in the area, and, as a consequence, achieving von der Leyen’s ultimate goal.

Japan and EU citizens are the main winners of the decisions and agreements that are taking place between their leaders, as long as they guarantee the continuation of multilateral mechanisms in the international arena. The meeting held last May 26th means a break from the protectionism that many political leaders are adopting. 

It is important to bear in mind that unilateralism and the rejection of cooperation mechanisms to face global challenges is not an efficient measure to protect the population. 

It will be interesting to see how this relationship continues to develop, and what impact it has on upcoming international meetings, such as that of the G7. And beyond that, to see if other leaders choose to join the position that the European Union is leading.

Summing up, I would describe this relationship as a bilateral agreement to preserve multilateral mechanisms – and the EU interests in East Asia. 

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern