"The EU is open for business," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, before heading into a meeting convened to push for a swift conclusion of a free trade agreement between Japan and the EU by the end of this year.
Abe is also meeting European Council President Donald Tusk, who said that Japan and the EU were tied deeply together by their mutual commitment to maintain an open, free and fair global trading system.
"Let me assure you that the European Union is fully committed to concluding the negotiations," Tusk said.
Abe said it was important for Japan and the EU, in cooperation with the US, to fly "the flag of free trade" as a model to the world.
With regards to the free trade agreement, Abe said his aim was to find "an agreement in principle at the earliest possible date."
Ahead of the meeting, sources at the commission said Abe had personally initiated the meetings with Tusk and Juncker to affirm at the highest level Japan's interest in finalizing the trade deal that has been in the making since 2013.
On Monday, Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the growing importance of the trade accord between Japan and the EU in the light of protectionist sentiment in countries including the United States.
Japan is looking to expand trade links with the EU after the US withdrew in January from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), a major free trade agreement and key pillar in Japan's growth strategy for its export-oriented economy.
The EU's own free trade negotiations with the US as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are on hold as well.
"We believe this agreement is necessary because we believe in free, fair and rules-based trade. And so we will continue to look out towards the world, rather than return to isolationism," Juncker said, referring to the negotiations as being "in a decisive – and hopefully final – stage."
After 17 rounds of negotiations, the main sticking points are access to the Japanese agricultural market for Europe's farmers, as well as access to the EU's automobile market for Japanese car manufacturers.
Japan is the EU's second biggest trading partner in Asia after China.
Together the EU and Japan account for more than a third of the world's gross domestic product.