STRASBOURG, France – European lawmakers gave on Wednesday their backing to a free trade deal that will gradually eliminate almost all tariffs on commerce with Vietnam over the next decade.
MEPs in Strasbourg overwhelmingly voted in favor of the deal that will also abolish bureaucratic obstacles for investment and safeguard protected designation of origin products like feta cheese, cognac, and Rioja wine.
The EU-Vietnam FTA needs final approval from the European Council while the measure on investment protection requires the go-ahead from each member state.
Some 65 percent of products exported by the EU will automatically be free of tariffs when the FTA comes into effect while the remaining 35 percent of products will be slowly disentangled from the economic restraints over the next 10 years.
Similarly, 71 percent of Vietnamese products will be free of tariffs when the deal is enacted, while the rest will be erased over the following seven years.
Agricultural products such as Vietnamese rice, garlic and eggs, which must abide by the stringent standards of the EU, will also be tariff-free but tightly controlled, according to the deal.
Conservative MEP Geert Bourgeois, who has led the Vietnam FTA process in Parliament, said the elimination of tariffs would increase the volume of Vietnamese exports to the EU by 15 billion euros by 2035, while EU exports to Vietnam would grow by 8.3 billion euros annually.
The deal was not universally welcomed, however.
While he congratulated MEPs on Wednesday, the EU’s trade commissioner Phil Hogan has previously warned that human rights were still a topic of concern in Vietnam.
A group of 28 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, urged MEPs to postpone the vote until the Vietnamese government could demonstrate it would take verifiable measures to protect human and labor rights in the country, including safeguards against child labor.
It suggested the FTA should depend on Vietnam’s commitment to amending its “draconian” penal codes, which “are routinely used to prosecute peaceful human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, religious leaders, and political dissidents.”
The document signed by the human rights organizations also said Vietnam should release political prisoners before it is granted free access to EU markets and that all the stipulations should be monitored after the implementation of the deal.
“Either postpone consent to the agreements and send Hanoi a clear message that they are serious about their calls for human rights improvements; or grant consent despite the lack of any meaningful improvement or imminent prospect thereof, and send the opposite message,” the statement said.
Vietnam is the EU’s second-largest trading partner within the ASEAN nations, after Singapore.
Visiting Vietnam in October, EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmström described the deal as the most ambitious trade agreements to have ever been signed between the EU and a developing country.
Vietnam’s main exports to the EU include telecoms equipment, clothing and food.
The bloc exports such as machinery, transport equipment, chemicals and agricultural products to Vietnam.
Some 401 MEPs voted in favor of the FTA, 192 voted against and 40 abstained, while 407 backed the bill on investment protection with 188 against and 53 abstentions.