On September 30, Marietje Schaake (ALDE) together with Bernd Lange (S&D), on behalf of the Committee on International Trade, submitted to the European Commission an Oral Question on human rights in EU-Vietnam trade negotiations. It was debated in the presence of Commissioner for Trade Malmström during the plenary meeting on November 23.
Negotiations on a free trade agreement between the EU and Vietnam are now completed in principle. This agreement is the first of its kind that the EU has concluded with a developing country; previous trade agreements have demonstrated the potential for economic growth and jobs on both sides. In relation to Vietnam there have been a number of human rights concerns, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. According to a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) signed in 2012, human rights, democracy and the rule of law are essential elements of the overall relationship between EU and Vietnam. It is essential these issues continue to be raised once negotiations have been concluded. 1. How has the Commission addressed human rights concerns during the negotiations with Vietnam on a free trade agreement? 2. How does the Commission plan to monitor human rights developments in Vietnam and draw on input from independent civil society, in order to uphold commitments made in the agreement? 3. How does the Commission plan to address the relationship between trade liberalisation and improving human rights in trade negotiations in the future, including in the new trade strategy that it plans to put forward? 4. Can the Commission outline how it plans to balance a policy of engagement and one of conditionality as regards human rights in trade agreements? Plenary debate Marietje Schaake, on behalf of the ALDE Group – Madam President, Madam Commissioner, the ALDE Group welcomes the fact that this trade agreement and trade negotiations, which are the first of their kind between the EU and a developing country, Vietnam, have been concluded. We think it is a good agreement. Trade, as an element of the broader EU foreign policy agenda, is one of the more concrete instruments and one where Parliament plays a leading and important role. But we should also think of development policies. We see, too, that citizens are increasingly and actively getting involved with this discussion, and we welcome this. People in Europe are very clear that they want to see human rights at the top of the European foreign policy agenda. I believe that human rights are key. I think that the EU has both the opportunity and the responsibility to lead in ensuring that universal human rights are respected worldwide. While trade must be an important lever, it cannot in and of itself be the solution to end all suffering and problems. Listening to the public debates, people sometimes have very high hopes of the impact that trade can have. But realistically, we must do what we can. I see this ambition and vision – tying trade and values – clearly reflected in the Commission’s new Trade for All agenda. Besides the anticipated boost to development and economic well-being, building on Vietnam’s efforts to lift people out of poverty, I would like to know what short-term measures are anticipated. How does the Commission address human rights in the context of trade and how does monitoring look after the agreement enters into force? There is a lot that has to be improved in Vietnam. Free expression, free association, freedom of assembly are all controlled and under pressure; torture and beatings unfortunately happen too regularly; and minorities, journalists, bloggers and opposition figures suffer as a result of this. In conclusion, these many challenges cannot be solved through trade alone. We need to work and build on the human rights dialogue and show political leadership. I look forward to continuing this discussion and monitoring the impact this trade agreement will have on human rights in Vietnam. I will continue to address it in other ways as well. Response by Commissioner Malmström Cecilia Malmström, Member of the Commission - Madam President, the Commission is, as you know, committed to promoting and protecting human rights in all our engagement with third partners, including, of course, with Vietnam, which we are discussing tonight. With this aim, we organised a Stakeholders’ Consultation in May, and the summary paper of the discussion published thereafter highlights the stakeholders’ suggestions for improving the situation of human rights issues and underlines our commitment to transparency and to regular and continued engagement with civil society. I can confirm that issues relating to human rights have been addressed in the context of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement negotiations, with the aim of embedding respect for human rights in the agreement, and also with a view to enhancing its positive impact and minimising the risk of adverse impacts. I have also personally discussed matters with the Minister. The preamble of the agreement reaffirms the EU’s and Vietnam’s commitment to key international human rights principles and instruments. There is also an institutional and legal link between the Free Trade Agreement and the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Vietnam. These links ensure that respect for human rights underpins EU-Vietnam bilateral relations, including the FTA, and enable us to take measures considered appropriate in the event of a breach of the agreement. The FTA also contains provisions ensuring the transparency and inclusiveness of the decision-making process and any legal proceedings, thereby strengthening the enabling environment for the respect of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Vietnam. With regard to labour rights, the FTA includes an ambitious chapter on trade and sustainable development, and that includes not only respect for all core labour standards and ratification of fundamental ILO Conventions and their implementation, but it also pays special attention to corporate social responsibility and fair and ethical trade schemes. The monitoring of human rights development in Vietnam is, of course, very important. This will continue to be done primarily through the institutions and structures set up in the PCA framework, including the human rights dialogue – and there will be a meeting in a couple of weeks again. We also have a dedicated instrument, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, as you all know. The implementation of the commitments undertaken will be followed up in both the EU and Vietnam through the mechanisms and institutions established therein, as well as through the existing EU civil society dialogue and with ex-post evaluations of the FTA. I strongly believe – and I think Mr Lange said the same – that trade liberalisation and human rights can and must go hand in hand. The new Communication on trade and investment that the Commission published a couple of weeks ago makes it clear that EU trade policy must be for all: citizens; consumers; workers; the self-employed; small, big and medium-sized companies; and the poorest people in the developing countries. It must deliver growth, jobs and innovation, but it has to be responsible, and that means that EU trade policy must defend European values. It has to be effective at delivering economic opportunities and it has to be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Human rights are therefore a very important part of this trade strategy. The Commission wants to ensure that trade policy contributes to the advancement of human rights in the EU and in third countries, in conjunction with our other policies – foreign policy and development cooperation. Let me assure you of the importance of finding this balance between engagement and conditionality. The Commission is, as you know, convinced that the policy of engagement is more effective than a policy exclusively based on conditionality, even if that can also play a role. Engagement allows us to engage and to create channels for dialogue, keeping them open with a lot of stakeholders involved. We intend to make full use of those channels to promote change on the ground in Vietnam. Thank you very much for your contribution to this, and you can be sure that we will keep you informed very closely about the development once the agreement is finally concluded. Cecilia Malmström, Member of the Commission - Madam President, of course, trade alone cannot solve all of the world’s human rights problems, but it can make a contribution by enhancing respect for human rights and fostering sustainable development. That is what we are committed to doing in our agreements, especially the one that we are discussing tonight – the agreement with Vietnam. Nobody denies that there are severe problems relating to human rights in Vietnam. You have listed many of them, and I could add a few more. They are there and they are serious. That is why we need to address them and why we are engaging with the Vietnamese authorities. There have been some improvements – far from enough – but the Vietnamese authorities seem to be willing to engage with us. That is why we have developed tools for doing this. We have the legal link between the FDA and the partnership agreement. We will make evaluations, especially looking at the human rights situation. We do have the human rights dialogue that the EEAS is conducting. There will be another meeting in a couple of weeks, and we will set up advisory groups with civil society in order to monitor this on the ground with people who are there and are familiar with the daily situation. To explain all this, we will by the end of this year – in a couple of weeks – publish an ad hoc Commission paper explaining how the existing measures of the partnership agreement and the negotiated measures of the free trade agreement will contribute to human rights empowerment with the flanking measures that we will put in place and how the human rights I mentioned will be assessed once the latter agreement has entered into force. All this will, of course, be public and transparent so that you can follow and contribute to the dialogue. There is a conditionality clause in all of our agreements to cover very serious breaches, but we prefer whenever possible to work on engagement and to try to establish forums for dialogue to see if we can make improvements. If we have no agreement with Vietnam, we will, of course, say no to all such forums. I am not sure whether that would contribute to empowering the people of Vietnam. This agreement will be finally concluded next week. Very shortly after that it will be published so that you can read it and make your own assessment. Then, during the whole translation and legal procedure, there will be plenty of time for discussion, and the Commission is ready to enter into that dialogue with you. I can assure you once again that we will keep you informed at all stages and are always ready to take your input, ideas and views into account and to have a dialogue with you on this.