Vietnam: Cometh The EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement

The Vietnam – EU Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), a new-generation free trade agreement between Vietnam and the EU's 28 member states, is a comprehensive and high-quality trade pact that is expected to bring a range of benefits to both Vietnam and the EU.

For many years the EU has been the second largest overseas market for Vietnamese products and Vietnam's second most important two-way trading partner after China. On average, Vietnam's exports of commodities to the EU account for around 19 percent of its exports to global markets. This figure has seen double-digit growth for the past decade, annualised at 13-15 percent, and even reaching 25 percent in certain years.

The EVFTA, which is expected to be signed this year, will have a wide-ranging impact on bilateral trade and investment thanks to tariff cuts and strong commitments from both sides. The deal has been heralded as the most ambitious of its kind between the bloc and a developing nation, and one which will put an end to 99 percent of customs duties on goods. Some predictions are that the agreement will boost the Vietnamese economy by up to 15 percent of GDP and exports to Europe by a third or more.

On top of providing more development opportunities for Vietnam's industries it will also help to improve the country's investment environment and raise the quality of its export products.

What can investors expect to change with the new deal?

The most prominent benefits to be expected are an increase in the trade of goods promoted by the reduction or elimination of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, whereby key economic sectors as textiles, footwear and the high-technology industries in Vietnam would benefit most.

One sector in particular hoping for a big boost is fisheries. Under the EVFTA, aquatic products, excluding canned tuna and fish balls, will enjoy a zero tax for a maximum of seven years. Similarly, in good news for shrimp processing firms, Vietnam will enjoy a reduction in import duties on raw shrimp and export duties on processed shrimp to the EU.

The reduction of tariff lines will help Vietnamese seafood exporters reduce prices significantly, improve competitiveness and export turnover. Vietnamese aquatic firms will also have space to improve technology and product quality, join regional supply chains and diversify supply sources.

Additionally, Vietnam's commitments to ensure an open and transparent investment and business environment will help to boost high quality investment from the EU into Vietnam.

Sink or swim

However, Vietnamese companies should also be aware of the challenges brought about by free trade agreements, and especially the EVFTA. These are related to higher requirements from the EU market in terms of transparency and competition, both for private and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The FTA is not necessarily seeking complete privatisation, but rather the opening up of those economic sectors where SOEs are present. Vietnamese enterprises may expect to see an impact from this process, provided that the FTA promotes reforms in public procurement.

The tax cuts will put a greater burden of competitiveness on domestic producers in terms of prices, product quality and food hygiene and safety. Firms will face a choice – either adapt and move up the global supply chain, or stand by while imported goods flood the market.

The livestock industry is forecast to be at the biggest disadvantage as taxes on chicken and pork will be cleared under an 8 to 10-year roadmap, while import duties on beef, milk and dairy products will be eliminated over a shorter period of 3 years. Consequently, over the short and long term, the animal husbandry industry will be under fierce competition with products imported from the EU.

Additionally, many Vietnamese products have not yet met the necessary food hygiene and safety regulations or the technical standards of importers.

To benefit from the trade deal's incentives will require exports to satisfy the EU rules of origin, which presents its own challenges for several Vietnamese sectors. For instance, the EU has set rather stringent rules of origin on the cashew nut sector that depends on 63 percent of imported materials. To satisfy all EU regulations, Vietnam is required to use local raw material supply.

The EVFTA also stipulates detailed regulations on procedures and legally binding conditions covering the time-limit and manner in which countries must obey certificates of origin procedures for each specific case. This is a big challenge for Vietnam as the origin traceability capacity to prove those origins remain inadequate and the necessary system for such diligence is yet to be seen.

Short term pain, long term gain?

As Vietnam's economy grows and the country continues to integrate more deeply into the global marketplace, the kind of dilemmas thrown up by pacts like the EVFTA will become more commonplace. In the short term, domestic firms may feel the heat as increased competition takes its toll. However, greater export opportunities and requirements to reach higher standards will underpin future economic growth.

If predictions are correct and the EVFTA is signed within the next few months, Vietnam is destined to become the most promising business destination for European businesses in ASEAN.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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