After four years of grueling negotiations, the EU’s landmark trade deal with Japan boiled down to one intractable issue: soft cheese.
In an ornate room buried deep in Japan’s foreign ministry on the night of July 1, Phil Hogan, European commissioner for agriculture, saw time slipping away. His flight to Rome, where he was scheduled to attend a meeting of African agriculture ministers, was just hours from departure.
The world’s biggest trade deal was tantalizingly close but the Japanese were refusing to budge on dairy products, seeking to protect delicacies such as Sakura cheese from the island of Hokkaido, a creamy speciality flavored with cherry leaves. This was a potentially fatal hurdle. At its core, the deal needed Tokyo to open up its agricultural markets in return for Europe dropping tariffs on Japanese cars.
Higher up the political food chain, national leaders were clamoring for a free-trade deal as a counter-blast to U.S. President Donald Trump’s increasing protectionism, but that didn’t make the minutiae of a deal on dairy goods any easier in the diplomatic poker game being played out in Tokyo.
Yuji Yamamoto, Japan’s agriculture minister, had little room for maneuver because he was under heavy pressure from the powerful Central Union of Agricultural Cooperatives. On the EU side, the 6-foot-5-inch Irishman from Kilkenny was playing hardball, pushing for a yearly quota with reduced tariffs for 40,000 tons for European cheeses such as Camembert and Brie.
According to several EU officials at the talks, Yamamoto was almost tearful and pleaded with Hogan to back off. The European commissioner had built up a close rapport with his Japanese counterpart, who also happened to be chairman of the Japan-Ireland Parliamentary Friendship League. Softening his approach, Hogan consoled him, saying that he too was from a farming nation and understood the corner he was in.
After a huddle with close aides, Hogan played his gambit: Europe would reduce its market access demand for soft cheese to 31,000 tons in exchange for almost complete market access for hard cheeses such as Cheddar, skimmed milk and whey, which is used in the fast-growing protein shake market.
Yamamoto agreed. In that peculiar moment of lactic harmony, a political agreement was essentially done.
Five days later in Brussels, EU leaders and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe were able to announce their accord.
“Hogan’s role should not be underestimated,” said one senior European diplomat briefed on the talks in Tokyo. “His level of stamina was truly immense.”
It was a big European-level coup for a man who had left Irish politics under a cloud. Hogan was renowned as a tough back-room fixer in Ireland, but he burned much of his political capital through the introduction of water charges as part of Dublin’s bailout program during the financial crisis. The massively unpopular measure — water use had been free for decades — triggered some of the biggest protests in Irish history.