Vietnam Looks to European Free Trade Deal

05 March, 2017

The government in Vietnam faces pressure from European lawmakers to improve its human rights record.

The rights issues are being raised at a time when European Union (EU) members are considering a free trade deal with the Southeast Asian nation.

The European Parliament recently sent its Subcommittee on Human Rights on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. The committee called on Vietnamese officials to permit more debate about political rights and freedom of expression and religion.

The EU and Vietnam signed the free trade deal in December of 2015. However, the European Parliament and the legislatures of all EU members must approve the agreement for it to take effect.

That may be easier said than done.

Frederick Burke is with the law office of Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City. He noted, "They have this daunting prospect of having to go through 27 national assemblies to get anything ratified."

EU officials had sought the trade deal so European companies could easily do business with Vietnam and its market of 93 million people.

The EU also hopes the agreement will serve as a starting point for a free trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam is one of ASEAN's 10 members.

Vietnam has been developing an export-driven economy. The country is seeking to diversify its markets and reduce dependence on China.

Future of Pacific free trade deal remains uncertain

Vietnam signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with 11 other nations last year. The deal would have sharply cut import tariffs on Vietnamese products in Japan and the United States.

However, the future of the agreement is unclear. In January, the United States, under president Donald Trump, withdrew from the TPP.

Now, Vietnam is looking to increase trade with the European Union. The value of trade between the sides is estimated at $40 billion. The EU is already Vietnam's third largest trading partner, after the U.S. and China.

Hoang Viet Phuong works at SSI Securities Service in Hanoi. She says Vietnam exports a lot of clothing and textile products to Europe. And she thinks the trade deal with the EU will help exports after the loss of the TPP.

The agreement would end almost all import tariffs between the two sides within seven years. It would also open Vietnam to European services, such as healthcare and packaging.

Activists demand greater attention to human rights

Nearly one year ago, the French group Worldwide Movement for Human Rights accused the EU of failing to study the effect the trade deal would have on rights.

Mauro Petriccione was the chief European negotiator. He said the deal included "strong commitments to protect people's basic rights at work, their human rights more broadly, and the environment."

But Fredrick Burke of Baker & McKenzie says Vietnam's free trade agreement with the EU is not as strong on human rights as the TPP.

Burke said the TPP would have required changes to Vietnam's labor laws, making them more supportive of labor unions. It also would have permitted fines on industries if pollution caused problems for trade. Violators would face extra tariffs.

"The EU FTA (free trade agreement) was not drafted as clearly as the TPP," he said. "The language is not as self-enforcing. It relies more on goodwill and people willing to do things."

Vietnamese prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, left, and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy stand trial at the Higher People's Court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.
Vietnamese prominent blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh, left, and his colleague Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy stand trial at the Higher People's Court in Hanoi, Vietnam, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016.

Vietnam has faced criticism from rights groups for its record on free speech, labor rights and other issues.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch says Vietnamese officials threaten and imprison bloggers and political activists. It also says workers cannot form unions and farmers risk losing land to development projects.

Another group, Open Doors, estimates there are 8 million Christians in Vietnam. But it says these people are sometimes arrested because the government sees religion as "being tied to foreign powers."

The head of the European subcommittee spoke about human rights in Vietnam. He said without meeting Europe's conditions on human rights, ratification of the trade deal would be difficult.

I'm Mario Ritter.

Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOANews. Mario Ritter adapted his report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

daunting –n. difficult to deal with, not easy

prospect – n. the possibility that something might take place

ratify – v. to officially sign and approve a treaty

diversify – v. to increase the different kinds of goods that are offered for sale

tariff – n. a tax on goods coming into or leaving a country