Efforts to reach a deal, however, face fresh obstacles in Europe, where the new Lisbon Treaty gives ratification powers to the European Parliament, which, like the U.S. Congress, is home to protectionist sentiment and human-rights concerns.
The EU-Vietnam talks continue a recent trend of pursuing bilateral accords, which were set aside during most of the past decade as countries focused on an overarching, multilateral trade agreement. Now the Doha Round is on hold—after failing at summit after summit as the U.S. and EU balked at opening up their food markets—, bilateral trade ambitions are again the focus.
But it remains a Communist state, and leaders have grown more wary of reforms over the past year amid an increase in labor strikes and other forms of dissent. Political analysts say that jockeying within the ruling Communist Party ahead of its next congress in January 2011 —with conservatives angling for slower change—is contributing to the increasingly hostile environment. U.S. trade officials, for their part, aren’t idling. They are considering whether to join a trans-Pacific trade bloc that could include Vietnam along with Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei. Negotiators will meet in Melbourne, Australia on March 15. But U.S. human-rights activists will call for progress in Vietnam before Western countries deepen their ties there.
The U.S., however is unlikely to be able to match the EU’s bilateral free-trade ambitions. The Obama administration fears a voter backlash amid a souring economy. U.S. trade representative Ron Kirk has said the administration is focused on enforcing existing trade agreements instead of securing new ones.