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30th Sep 2020

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Zahradil 'conflict of interest' over EU-Vietnam trade deal

  • The EU is poised to sign a major free-trade deal with Vietnam - accounting for 19 percent of the country's exports - while NGOs warn the human rights provisions are almost meaningless (Photo: World Bank)

An MEP spearheading EU trade talks with Vietnam says he does not have to declare his role in a group with ties to the ruling repressive communist state regime in Hanoi - despite European Parliament rules.

"I have no paid function there, this as I said before is a rather honorary function and it is not very active," Jan Zahradil, the Czech MEP and former Spitzenkandidat for the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), told EUobserver on Tuesday (3 December).

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  • MEP Jan Zahradil is vice-chair of the parliament's international trade committee, rapporteur on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and Investment Protection Agreement (IPA) - and member of a Vietnam friendship group (Photo: ECR)

Zahradil is vice-chair of the parliament's international trade committee. He is also rapporteur on the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) and Investment Protection Agreement (IPA) for a country whose penal code makes it a crime to criticise the state.

Such offences have led to scores of political prisoners and the recent jailing of journalist Pham Chi Dung, who had spoken out against the EU's free-trade deal given its light touch approach on human rights.

But Zahradil's brushing off of European Parliament rules when it comes to conflicts of interest raises questions on his neutral role as rapporteur and whether the trade deal will have any real impact on improving labour and human rights.

In 2016, he was appointed chair of the advisory council of the Konfederace svazu Vietnamcu v Evrope z.s. [the Association of Vietnamese in Europe (FOVAE) in English.]

Zahradil has largely dismissed the body's relevance and importance, despite reported plans that the association's second congress will actually be held inside the European Parliament next year.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament says MEPs must declare any activity regardless if it is "remunerated or unremunerated", something Zahradil has not done.

The rules are meant to prevent conflicts of interest, noting that people who lead big files on behalf of the elected assembly must disclose such information before taking the floor.

Zahradil confirmed he retains the role at the advisory council but says "this whole thing has not been very active."

Awards and ceremonies in Prague

But recent announcements by the Communist Party of Vietnam appear to suggest otherwise.

In late October, they awarded the leader of the group, Hoang Dinh Thang, a certificate of excellence at an elaborate ceremony held in Prague for his work on the Vietnamese Association in the Czech Republic, which is a member of FOVAE.

Such awards are only given by the Communist Party to people who have excelled in a position for several consecutive years.

And over the summer, Thang and Zahradil were also cited praising one another in news reports in Vietnam.

One press clipping has Thang thanking Zahradil for allowing FOVAE members attend European Parliament sessions in Brussels and in Strasbourg.

It also has him claiming the group will hold a large congressional meeting inside the European Parliament next year.

Thang is a well known figure within the Vietnam Fatherland Front, a political offshoot of the regime.

Its leadership in 2015 issued a directive demanding party loyalists press Vietnamese interests abroad. A year later the FOVAE was launched in the Czech capital, handing Zahradil an honorary role as advisor.

Among other senior members is Le Hong Quang, the former Slovak ambassador to Vietnam, who was reportedly implicated in the Berlin kidnapping of Vietnamese businessman Trinh Xuan Thanh.

"Everything and everyone you are dealing with is somehow linked to the Communist party in Vietnam. You cannot avoid that, it is the same with China," Zahradil responded, when pressed about the regime links.

But the ties between Zahradil and the Vietnamese regime are not limited to the FOVAE.

He is also chair of the friendship group to Vietnam, launched four years ago in Vietnam's embassy in Brussels.

Often billed as a means to increase cultural understanding, promote values, and better inform the public, the unregulated groups are in fact often backdoor entries for pariah governments seeking greater access to the European Parliament.

"It is just an informal group of MEPs that are somehow interested in Vietnamese matters, so that is not a formal organisation," said Zahradil, noting it has no secretariat or institutionalised charter.

But Zahradil is also cited in an article in the state run People's Army website praising the merits of the friendship group and its role in advocating the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement.

Zahradil says the release of political prisoners and journalists by Vietnam would be seen as "good will gesture" prior to the agreement's ratification.

Up to 300 political prisoners

But critics like Human Rights Watch, an NGO, have slammed the toothless approach in the EU free trade agreement when it comes to tackling rights abuse in Vietnam.

Even the provisions within the agreement meant to monitor the implementation of the trade deal are not taken seriously.

Among them are clauses designed to set up so-called domestic advisor groups (DAGs), composed of independent civil society. These groups are supposed to make sure the Communist Party sticks to the deal.

But Human Rights Watch says it means nothing because independent civil society in Vietnam is not allowed to operate in the open.

"There are according to the estimates between 150 and 300 political prisoners and people go to jail literally for a Facebook post. How do we expect them to up come and take this role and exercise it in a free and independent way," asked Claudio Francavilla of Human Rights Watch.

A joint-letter sent by NGOs in early November demanded that MEPs postpone consent to the trade deal until Vietnam meets a set of human rights benchmarks.

It notes the EVFTA has no binding timeline or penalties in case Vietnam fails to ratify a number of International Labour Organization conventions, which they should have already done years go.

And among the signatories of that letter was the Vietnam Association of Independent Journalists, co-founded by Pham Chi Dung - who is now sitting behind bars for having spoken out against the pact.

Asked to comment on Pham's arrest, Vu Anh Quang, Vietnam's ambassador to the EU, told EUobserver that he had sent a newsletter to MEPs explaining labour and human rights in the country.

"Of course in the first newsletter, we mentioned human rights on one page and labour rights and in the next newsletter, there will be a lot more details," he said.

The four-page newsletter, seen by EUobserver, claims the country has made substantial achievements and progress in human rights but makes no mention of Pham or political prisoners.

The European Parliament plenary is set to vote on the trade agreement, which aims to eliminate tariffs, in February.

The EU has for years been the second largest overseas market for Vietnamese products and Vietnam's fourth most important two-way trading partner after China, South Korea and the US.

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