HO CHI MINH CITY - Vietnam and Europe could be swapping more pomelo fruit and Portuguese cheese soon if a new trade deal comes into effect, linking two regions that have been looking for an alternative to the trade tensions brought on by the United States.
The European Parliament is scheduled to discuss the trade deal on May 28, after years of negotiations between Vietnam and the European Union. The deal is significant not only because it facilitates exports, like tropical fruit, but also as it lays out commitments on human rights, labor unions, and protection of the environment. Critics, though, say the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement would not really enforce human rights standards and would continue the offshoring of jobs that has left workers vulnerable.
For the EU, the deal is one more way to access Asia's fast-growing economies, set a model for trading with developing countries, and hold Vietnam's one-party state accountable on its promise to level the business playing field.
For Vietnam, it is a chance to call itself a country open for business, with many trade deals, as well as raise quality standards to those expected by European customers.
"It includes a lot of commitments to improve the business environment in Vietnam," Le Thanh Liem, standing vice chair of the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee, said at a European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam event.
Vietnamese officials often say that it helps to have an external factor to get difficult internal reforms over the finish line. For example it might be hard to convince conservatives to allow workers to form their own labor unions. But if there is an outside incentive, such as greater trade with the EU, that could bring conservatives on board.
Labor unions were one concern for Europeans. Another is the loss of blue-collar jobs to Asia, including to Vietnam. European workers worry that as they take gig jobs, like food delivery, in place of their old stable jobs, there is less of a safety net through long-term employers or through tax-funded government programs. And there is one more concern raised through the trade deal:"We have some concerns about human rights in Vietnam, but that has been discussed," Eurocham chair Nicolas Audier said at the chamber event.
Amnesty International reported this month that the number of Vietnam's political prisoners jumped to 128 from 97 last year, despite the fact that Hanoi says it does not jail people for political reasons.
Some question if the EU is applying consistent standards as it moves toward the trade deal with Vietnam, even while punishing nearby Myanmar and Cambodia for human rights abuses. Brussels is pulling back its Everything But Arms scheme of preferential trade access for the two other countries, based in part on Cambodia's crackdown on opposition politicians in the 2018 election and on Buddhist-majority Myanmar's mass killing of the mostly Muslim Rohingya.
But both Vietnam and the EU want more trade options because a major trading partner, the United States, is turning away from the world economy. Washington pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in 2017, removing a key reason that Hanoi signed the deal, which was to get Vietnamese textile and garment companies more access to U.S. customers. Europe was also hit when Washington slapped tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum in 2018, and now it is threatening more import duties on European cars.
So the EU and Vietnam are still working on their trade deal, and it is reflected in Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's schedule. He paid a visit to EU member states Romania and the Czech Republic in April, then hosted a state visit from Romania in May. Lobbying for the deal continued as he welcomed the Swedish crown princess this month, and he will return the courtesy, with the next trip on his calendar planned for Stockholm.