The EU and Vietnam celebrated the first anniversary of the EU-Vietnam free trade agreement (EVFTA) on 1 August 2021. The overall picture is darker, however, and the EU must intensify use of trade as a lever for positive change.
Trade statistics published by the Commission confirmed the continuation of the pre-EVFTA upward trend in EU-Vietnam trade flows: Between May 2020 and April 2021, trade amounted to €45 billion, representing a 1.4 per cent increase compared to the previous 12-month period.
It’s important to remember that the EVFTA was only ratified by the European Parliament in January 2020 once a time-bound roadmap to ratify core International Labour Conventions had been agreed. At the time, Fern underscored the urgency for interested parties, both within and outside Vietnam, to closely monitor whether commitments around greater accountability mechanisms and transparency translate into reality.
Apprehensions now appear justified.
The civil society component of EVFTA, the EU Domestic Advisory Group (DAG), of which Fern is a member, have issued a statement and two letters regretting the lack of Vietnamese civil society involvement in monitoring the agreement’s implementation and expressing serious concerns about the arrest of two civil society activists, journalist Mai Phan Lợi, chair of the Centre for Media in Educating Community (MEC) Scientific Board, and lawyer Đặng Đình Bách, director of the Law and Policy for Sustainable Development (LPSD). Both were members of the VNGO-EVFTA Network’s Steering Committee, a group of seven development and environmental civil society organisations established November 2020, to raise awareness about EVFTA. Earlier in January 2021, independent journalist Phạm Chí Dũng and his colleagues Nguyễn Tường Thụy and Lê Hữu Minh Tuấn were imprisoned (15, 11 and 11 years respectively); Phạm Chí Dũng had urged the European Parliament to delay EVFTA ratification.
As for the Vietnamese DAG, it has now been formally established, but initial meetings with its EU counterpart were cancelled because the Vietnamese civil society monitoring mechanism had not yet been set up. The Vietnamese DAG is comprised of only three organisations, and other civil society organisations’ applications to participate have reportedly been rejected on unclear grounds.
In its second letter to Vietnamese trade focal points, the EU DAG highlights the EVFTA’s explicit stipulation that DAGs be composed of “independent representative organisations” (Article 13.15.4) and that “civil society engagement and scrutiny is essential with respect to the implementation of the agreement”. The EU DAG asks that a clear process be defined for further civil society engagement and participation.