The trade agreement, which was approved by Brussels and Hanoi in 2015 and is slated to come into effect next year, would slash nearly all tariffs between the two economies.

Vietnam's rapidly-growing, export-led economy stands to gain enormously from broader access to European markets, especially as its hopes fade over the Trans Pacific-Partnership (TPP) trade deal in the wake of the US's abandonment under President Donald Trump.

But a delegation of European MPs stressed Thursday after a meeting with Vietnamese officials that the communist country's dismal rights record may stall the ratification process at home.

"If (human rights) conditions are not met, then it is going to be very difficult to approve the free trade agreement," Pier Antonio Panzeri, chair of the European Parliament's subcommittee on human rights, told reporters in Hanoi through a translator.

Vietnam remains tightly-run by its authoritarian regime, which routinely jails dissidents and bars independent unions.

Lars Adaktusson, another MP with the European delegation, stressed the need to improve the media climate in a nation where all news outlets are state-run.

"We were also very clear in the discussion we had that freedom of the press is one of the areas the government of Vietnam needs to do much more (about)," he said.

The free trade agreement was reached in December 2015 after years of intense negotiation and hailed as a milestone in the EU's efforts to boost trade ties with Southeast Asia.

Europe is Vietnam's third-largest trading partner, chiefly importing electronics, textiles and agricultural products like coffee, rice and seafood from the Southeast Asian country.

EU exports to Vietnam, meanwhile, are dominated by high-tech products including electrical machinery and equipment, aircraft, vehicles and pharmaceuticals.

Vietnam began embracing free trade in the 1980s, a move that helped lift the nation out of the penury of the post-war years.

The country is now one of Southeast Asia's star economies, with high growth rates driven by exports of cheaply made goods, from Nike shoes to Samsung phones.

Agence France Presse - February 24, 2017