A top European trade official warned Friday that a free trade pact with Vietnam could be scuppered if the communist country fails to address rights issues, saying the matter was central to ongoing talks.
The European Union free trade agreement, which was signed by Brussels and Hanoi in 2015 and could be ratified next year after a legal review, would slash nearly all tariffs between the two economies. But Vietnam's dismal human rights record has been flagged as a sticking point to finalising the deal.
The communist country's stance on forced labour and freedom of expression are at the core of current talks, Bernd Lange, chair of European Parliament's Committee for International Trade, told reporters in Hanoi Friday.
"They are really at the centre of the discussion... if there are not sufficient solutions then the agreement will be in troubled water," he said.
Vietnam has been accused of waging a crackdown on critics in recent months, jailing and handing out heavy sentences to dissidents while also targeting current and former officials it accuses of corruption. It made international headlines in August when Germany accused Hanoi of kidnapping a former state oil executive wanted for corruption from a Berlin park, sparking a massive diplomatic row.
Vietnam said the accused executive and former communist party member Trinh Xuan Thanh handed himself in over the charges, while Berlin slammed the Cold War-style episode as a "scandalous violation" of international law.
Lange said he raised the incident on his latest trip to Hanoi, where he met with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, trade officials and civil society groups.
"We now have more clarity and common understanding that in (the) future we have clear procedures for investigation and prosecution," he said, adding he was hopeful the issue would not drag on the free trade talks.
The EU trade deal will be a major boon for Vietnam's export-led economy, which is one of the fastest-growing in the region and has been doggedly courting international trade partners.
It stands to gain enormously from better access to European markets, especially after the United States pulled out of the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) earlier this year.