The European Parliament is set to approve on Wednesday (12 February) a trade agreement with Vietnam, despite some MEPs and NGOs seeking to postpone their consent until the human rights situation improves in the country.
The agreement, concluded after six years of negotiations, would be the most ambitious deal signed with a developing nation.
It will eliminate 99% of the tariffs over a ten-year period and will reduce other non-tariff barriers for cars wines and spirits. It will also protect Europe’s geographical indications on products including Champagne, Rioja and Parmigiano.
“The deal will give a boost to the prosperity both of the EU and Vietnam, and represents a great opportunity for European exporters and investors”, said Parliament’s rapporteur, Belgian conservative Geert Bourgeois.
Vietnam is known for its textile and technology exports, especially smartphones. Samsung represents around 20% of the goods the country sends overseas.
But human rights organizations and some political groups were calling to postpone the approval until the country improves further its human rights and labour conditions.
During the debate held in the plenary of Tuesday, political groups including the EPP, Socialists, the liberal Renew Europe group and conservatives spoke in favour of giving their consent to their agreement, while the Identity and Democracy, the Greens and the Left-GUE were against.
Following the Parliament’s blessing, the agreement must be approved by the Council. The investment protection agreement must also be ratified by the 27 member states.
Speaking before the plenary, Trade commissioner, Phil Hogan, said that “the benefits of the agreement are many” and described the commitments taken by Vietnam to progress on some of the outstanding issues as “encouraging”.
He recalled that, thanks to EU pressure, the country has ratified six out of eight International Labour Organization conventions, and the remaining two will be adopted by 2023. In addition, he said that child labour has been significantly reduced.
But human rights continued to be “certainly an area of concern”, Hogan said.
He said, however, that “failure to ratify the deal will leave us with fewer options to pursue the reform agenda in Vietnam”.
A majority of MEPs spoke in favour of using the tools provided by the new framework to improve the human rights and labour conditions on the ground.
For example, as part of the agreement, Vietnam will set up an advisory board with the participation of civil society organisations to monitor the implementation of the deal and raise concerns in those fields.
The chair of the Parliament’s International Trade Committee, Bernd Lange, argued that the change in the country would come by getting closer.
“We have to try via dialogue to bring an improvement of the situation for the people in Vietnam” he added.
Speaking to reporters before the debate, Lange warned that failing to approve the deal at this stage could benefit the conservative wing of the Communist Party in the country against the reforms, ahead of their major party Congress next year.
But some MEPs recalled that their consent would come amid a worsening human rights situation in the country and criticised its poor environmental credentials.
“We have to note that the Green Deal and human rights are about not to be respected by this house”, said Green MEP, Saskia Bricmont.
Emmanuel Maurel, member of the United Left/GUE, also disagreed with the optimism expressed by some of his colleagues and the Commission about the positive impact of the agreement as it would affect European workers “in the most vulnerable sectors”, like textiles.
He added that “you are either extremely naïf or extremely hypocritical on human rights”.
A group of 28 NGOs sent a letter to MEPs on 4 February requesting a postponement of their consent “until the Vietnamese government agrees to meet concrete and verifiable benchmarks to protect labour rights and human rights.”
According to Human Rights Watch, “Vietnam did little to improve its abysmal human rights record in 2019,” and continues to restrict all basic civil and political rights and prohibits.
(Edited by Benjamin Fox)