The European Parliament backed on Wednesday an EU trade deal with Vietnam which aims to eliminate almost all tariffs over the next ten years, but was heavily criticised over human rights concerns in the country.

The deal, that concluded after six years of negotiations, was approved with 401 votes in favour, 192 against and 40 abstentions and is set to enter into force in 2020, upon conclusion of the ratification procedure by Vietnam.

NGOs and lawmakers have been trying to postpone the approval until the country makes greater efforts in improving labour rights and environmental commitments.

According to Human Rights Watch, a group of 28 NGOs sent a letter to MEPs on 4 February requesting a postponement of their consent “until the Vietnamese government agrees to meet concrete and verifiable benchmarks to protect labour rights and human rights,” citing the country’s failure to “meaningfully meet repeated requests for human rights improvements.”

The European Commission welcomed EP’s approval of the deal, with Phil Hogan, EU Commissioner for Trade saying that “the EU-Vietnam agreement has a huge economic potential, a win for consumers, workers, farmers and businesses. And it goes well beyond economic benefits. It proves that trade policy can be a force for good.”

The trade deal now needs to be approved by the EU council and ratified by all 27 member states.

Vietnam is the EU’s second largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with trade in goods worth €49.3 billion a year and trade in services of €4.1 billion.

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