* Agreement comes after concerns from France, Italy
* EU car industry fears influx of Japanese cars
* Negotiations could take several years
BRUSSELS, Nov 29 (Reuters) - EU trade ministers overcame
resistance from the car industry on Thursday and agreed to start
negotiations to create a free-trade pact with Japan, Europe's
most ambitious step so far in a strategy to tie up deals with
the world's biggest economies.
Agreement was reached only after France and Italy secured
safeguards for carmakers that are already cutting jobs because
of falling demand at home and worry a deal could lead to greater
Japanese imports and damage the industry.
EU negotiators were told they should pull the plug on the
talks - expected to last two or three years - if Tokyo failed to
remove the barriers to trade that Europeans say make it hard to
do business in Japan.
The country already has low or zero import tariffs, with no
duty on Scotch whisky or French cognac for instance, and the
real prize for Europe is removing special regulations on
everything from music to imported cars.
"Let's not be anxious, Europe is not naive, Europe is going
into this negotiation with our eyes wide open," EU trade chief
Karel De Gucht told a news conference.
Struggling to resolve a three-year debt crisis, Europe's
push for an accord is part of its ambition to supplement
stagnant domestic consumer demand with free-trade pacts with
A deal with South Korea came into effect last year, one with
Canada is near completion, and preliminary talks are underway
for an agreement with the United States.
Japan was the European Union's seventh-largest trading
partner in 2011, accounting for 116 billion euros ($151
billion)in goods trade. The EU and Japan are together
responsible for a third of global economic output.
The Japanese business group Keidanren welcomed the deal.
"We want negotiations to start rapidly in order to agree a
deal quickly," it said in a statement. "We want (the Japanese
government) to continue to put into effect regulatory and
SUSPICION IN EUROPE
The European Commission - the EU executive, which negotiates
on behalf of the 27 member states - says a Japan trade deal
could boost EU output by up to 1.9 percent, or 320 billion
euros, by 2020, thanks to increased exports including food,
drink and luxury goods. It says that could create 400,000 jobs.
But the EU carmakers' association ACEA estimated a trade
deal with Japan would cost the European auto industry up to
"I don't believe the Japanese have any intention to remove
their barriers to our vehicles," Ivan Hodac, ACEA secretary
general, told Reuters. "It is not clear at all how these
safeguard clauses would work."
On the surface, the EU car market has more barriers than
Japan's, with a 10 percent tariff on imported Japanese cars and
22 percent on trucks, compared to Japan's zero import tariffs.
But EU carmakers say numerous barriers hinder exports, such
as Japan's category of "light" cars. These benefit from tax
breaks, but most small European cars do not fit the category's
demanding criteria on size and power.
Such rules particularly annoy France and Italy, whose
automakers specialise in smaller cars.
France recently requested the Commission monitor the import
of South Korean cars, after the trade deal with Seoul was
accompanied by a surge in European sales for Korean car brands.
Still, France agreed to negotiations after the Commission's
assurances that EU tariffs would only be lowered if Japan's
non-tariff barriers were removed.
French Trade Minister Nicole Bricq said the safeguards
against excessive Japanese car imports were tougher than those
in the South Korea accord, though she did not specify how they
would be implemented.
"The Commission must take into account the needs of
sensitive sectors - carmakers," she told reporters in Brussels,
warning that Paris would fight to defend its industry during
Trade chief De Gucht cited victories over Japanese
regulation that the EU had achieved in preliminary talks, such
as the granting of new liquor licenses to European companies.
British Trade Minister Stephen Green said the complexity of
the European and Japanese economies meant the negotiations would
be very difficult.
"There was a clear recognition that this will be a long and
painful process," he told reporters.
For Japan, a trade deal with the EU could boost economic
output by 0.7 percent, according to the EU estimate.
"Given the potential of the Japan-EU (free-trade pact) to
contribute to economic growth of both sides, Japan will continue
to work towards a high level" agreement, Japanese Foreign
Minister Koichiro Genba said in a statement.
But the plan stirs little passion in Tokyo, where officials
are focused on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that would
link Asia, the United States and Australia.
The country is also distracted by a general election next
month, which looks likely to return to power the long-dominant
Liberal Democratic Party, which has been vaguer about its trade
agenda than the current Democratic Party of Japan government.