Facilitator in EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement Fails to Disclose Links to Vietnamese Communist Party, Possibly Violating Code of Conduct

Politics

Member of European Parliament (MEP) Jan Zahradil, who is currently the rapporteur (or facilitator) for a free trade agreement (EVFTA) and an investment protection agreement (IPA) between the European Union and Communist Vietnam, has failed to disclose his links to the Vietnamese Communist Party, in possible violation of the European Parliament Code of Conduct, a letter to the President of the European Parliament (EP) has revealed.

The letter, sent by Philippe Lamberts, one of the co-presidents of the Greens/European Free Alliance Group, cites a recently published article by the EU Observer which accuses Zahradil of a “conflict of interest” after it was revealed that Zahradil failed to disclose that he was chairman of the Advisory Council to the Federation of Overseas Vietnamese Associations in Europe (FOVAE).

The FOVAE is itself set up under the guidance of the Vietnamese Fatherland Front (VFF), a broad-based political organization controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party. The Vietnamese Fatherland Front has been compared to China’s United Front in its influence operations, and a 2016 official report from the Czech government confirms that the VCP uses the FOVAE as a means to control overseas Vietnamese communities.

The EU Observer reports that Zahradil is also chair of a parliamentary “friendship group” to Vietnam, which is “[o]ften billed as a means to increase cultural understanding, promote values, and better inform the public […but is] in fact often backdoor entries for pariah governments seeking greater access to the European Parliament.”

In response, Zahradil sought to downplay the FOVAE and friendship group’s significance, citing the former’s inactivity and the latter’s informality. Ample evidence found by the EU Observer calls both of these assertions into question.

In particular, the EU Observer cites examples from Vietnam’s own state-run media which show a healthy relationship between Zahradil and active FOVAE chairman Hoang Dinh Thang (who is also on the Presidential Committee of the VFF). Another article from the Vietnam People’s Army website touts the efficacy of the parliamentary “friendship group” in advocating for the EVFTA.

Regardless of these two groups’ relevance, Zahradil’s failure to disclose his links may directly violate Article 3 of the European Parliament’s Code of Conduct, which requires that “Members shall disclose, before speaking or voting in plenary or in one of Parliament’s bodies, or if proposed as a rapporteur, any actual or potential conflict of interest in relation to the matter under consideration”.

Jan Zahradil is of Czech origin and has been an MEP since 2004. He is a member of the Civic Democratic Party and part of the rightwing Eurosceptic group “European Conservatives and Reformists” (ECR) in the EP. In addition to rapporteur for the EVFTA and IPA, he is also vice-chair of the EP’s International Trade Committee (INTA).

Although the EVFTA and IPA have both been signed by Vietnam and their EU counterparts, the agreements (and their amendments) must be formally ratified by the European Parliament at its plenary session in February 2020 in order to take effect. NGOs and democracy groups insist Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights record must be improved before the EU proceeds with these agreements.

Update: Jan Zahradil has resigned from his position as rapporteur for the EVFTA, effective December 10th.

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