Interview: Bernhard Zepter, EU Ambassador to Japan

Since last year (2004), when an additional ten countries joined the European Union, all eyes have been on Europe. The perfect person to answer queries about the new, enlarged Europe is Bernhard Zepter, Head of Delegation and Ambassador of the European Commission in Japan.

The complexity of Zepter's duties probably outweighs that of most ambassadors. While they only have to represent one nation with a single set of laws and institutions, Zepter represents 25 as well as the organization to which they belong. In fact, rather than a mere collection of nations or an international organization, the European Union is something completely new in World politics.

"On the one hand, we do not fit into the classical Montesquieu picture of nation states, and on the other, international organizations," he points out. "We are something in between an international organization and a nation state, and this is something that the international system has still to fully recognize."

The complexity of Europe in legal, institutional, and decision-making terms means that Zepter often plays the role of guide to Japanese companies and investors interested in doing business in the rising Euro-Bloc. Zepter's appointment as the first fully-fledged ambassador of the European Commission also reflects the greater importance placed on the EU-Japan relationship at the highest levels of government.

"My assignment was an upgrading to ambassador level of the Commission in Japan and maybe that had to do with the acknowledgement that Japan is a very important partner for the European Commission and it is important to send someone to Japan, in all modesty, who knows institutional issues very well and is always in a position to explain in detail our very complicated institutional legal and political structure."

Zepter's responsibilities also include keeping the European Commission, which is the executive branch of the EU, up to date on political, social, economic, external relations and trade developments in Japan. His long-term interest in the country apparently adds relish to his professional duties.

"I was interested in Japan at an early stage because my mother was an artist and she was interested in Japanese art and philosophy," he remembers. "So I studied Japanese philosophy and history at an early stage even though professionally I did not have a link to Japan. That came later through my activities as a German diplomat then diplomatic adviser to Jacques Delors, former Chairman of the Commission."

Since coming to Japan he has immersed himself in the local culture.

"I'm a very curious person and very much interested in where I'm living," he enthusiastically informs us. "I've invested a lot in order to learn a bit of Japanese and I'm studying it everyday. I'm very much interested in Japanese culture and I'm reading a lot. Right now, I'm reading the fourth book of Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Beach – and I'm reading modern and not so modern Japanese literature. For instance, I'm very much interested in Natsume Soseki. But at the same time I read books on the Japanese economic structure and the history of Japan."

He also believes that while Japan can benefit from its cultural and business ties to Europe, Europeans can learn a great deal from the Japanese.

"I think we can learn in all areas. For example, how they organize society. It's always reassuring when I come back from other countries to see how well organized life is in this country, to see how elaborate and sophisticated inter-human relations are. Also, as far as the economy is concerned, I am impressed by on-time production and the very determined way the Japanese achieve an objective, and their perfectionism, which is one of the secrets of the economic success of this country. And, as far as culture is concerned, this is a fascinating country. Looking back at our artistic and cultural development, we have learnt a lot from Japan. You can see it in modern art and design. While the Japanese have learnt from European classical music, modern classical music has learnt a lot from Japan. But interaction is not designed to create a 'melting pot' where we are all equal. It is something that inspires us to take on board interesting experiences from Japanese society while at the same time, of course, we offer our culture our possibilities to the Japanese."

His deep respect for Japan as a distinct culture and society apparently has its roots in his vision of Europe, one that he is keen to share in order to clear up many of the misunderstandings that have arisen in the wake of unprecedented EU enlargement, in particular the idea that the EU is part of a masterplan to create a new superstate or "United States of Europe."

"European unification is not a process where intelligent diplomats or politicians, according to a masterplan or blueprint, are creating a new nation state that is a European Nation," he firmly denies. "We look at our interests and the different advantages we have in cooperating, then we build some institution around it. If we, for instance, we identify a security problem, then we build something around that problem to ensure that our security is guaranteed. We are looking at our common interests and that builds Europe step-by-step as series of institutions surrounding specific common interests. We are a process, not a blueprint, a process of steadily trying to create common structures, but we do while preserving our specificity. If we started to say everything must be unified in Europe and we have to become a 'melting pot,' then, the European idea would be finished very quickly, because nobody wants a melting pot. Everybody wants to profit from the specificity of his own society to the extent that this doesn’t harm the common purpose.

"That’s the secret of the European Union. I am a German. I do not want to become an Italian, and the Italians do not want to become Nordic. The same is true for the British who do not want to become French. So we all remain as we are but at the same time we appreciate the differences. We go to France, we go Italy, we go to the Nordic countries to enjoy the food or the beauty of the country and the different lifestyle, and that, I think, is the secret for our cohesion. It’s not that we are all equal, but it is the fact that we enjoy to live in a community that offers so many diverse impressions and opportunities."

Maintaining the uniqueness of each country, while at the same time increasing exchanges and cooperation between them, is Zepter's model for EU success. It is also the perfect model for bilateral relations between Japan and the EU, especially since 2005 is 'EU-Japan Year of People to People Exchanges.'

Club Life
February, 2005
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