Commission comes under fire from European Parliament on its trade agreements.

(Brussels, Paris) On March 3, 2016, the European Parliament’s (EP) human rights committee invited EU Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, and FIDH to express their views on the European Commission’s handling of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

After roughly three years, the final round of negotiations of the EU-Vietnam FTA were closed on December 2, 2015. The deal still needs to be approved by EU Member States and the European Parliament. Far from being an exercise in rubber-stamping, the Commission’s management of the negotiations has come under severe scrutiny and its failure to carry out a prior human rights impact assessment (HRIA) could leave the EU with an unpalatable deal.

European Commission guilty of maladministration
FIDH and its member organisation for Vietnam, the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), filed a complaint against the Commission with the EU Ombudsman in August 2014. On March 26, 2015, in her draft recommendation, the Ombudsman recommended that the Commission carry out an HRIA “without further delay.” The Commission refused, claiming other instruments and human rights clauses in the partnership and cooperation agreement were sufficient for the purpose. The negotiations went ahead and an agreement was brokered. The Ombudsman concluded on February 26, 2016, that the Commission’s refusal to carry out an HRIA constituted maladministration.

European Commission ready to comply with policy changes

In a heated defence, Mauro Petriccione, Deputy Director General (Trade) of the Commission, declared that the Commission was bound by the policies determined by the EU. Should these policies be deemed insufficient and the EP and the Council adopt clear guidelines to change policy, the Commission would comply, M. Petriccione said.

A united dissatisfaction from the European Parliament

The members of the EP’s human rights committee showed a strong and united front and expressed their dissatisfaction with the Commission’s position. They pointed out that trade agreements are not a formality and can be instrumental in shoring up regimes violating human rights. Finally, they underlined the seriousness of the situation, stressing how problematic it could be for the European Parliament to approve an agreement of this nature as things stand. As committee chair Elena Valenciano concluded, this is a highly relevant subject setting a very dangerous precedent. This will not be the last time the European Parliament talks about the EU-Vietnam FTA or that the Commission will face stiff questioning about the way it negotiates its trade agreements, Ms. Valenciano said.

A word of warning

By repeatedly ignoring calls to conduct the HRIA prior to concluding the EU-Vietnam FTA, the Commission now leaves the EU faced with the prospect of ratifying a deal that puts it in breach of Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty.
FIDH and VCHR call on the relevant EU institutions to take the failure of the EU-Vietnam FTA to comply with EU laws as an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and ensure all its policies respect and consolidate human rights and the rule of law abroad. Trade and investment agreements should at the very least:

  • Impose clear obligations for the parties and the investors to respect international human rights law.
  • Provide mechanisms that modulate the compensation rights of investors depending on their respect for human rights and the need to address human rights damages.
  • Set up human rights monitoring mechanisms and establish complaints mechanisms for individuals and populations whose human rights are affected.
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