The EU continued to be the most important market for many key exports of Vietnam, said Jean-Jacques Bouflet, Minister-Counsellor and head of the Trade and Economic section of the EU delegation to Vietnam.
Vietnamese exports to the EU currently enjoy the EU's Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which provides developing countries preferential access to the EU market through reduced tariffs. However, preferential tariffs under GSP are unstable since GSP is subject to revision every three years, according to Bouflet.
"It is high time for Vietnam to find a more predictable and stable legal framework for bilateral commercial trade, as the country has achieved a certain level of strong competitiveness in overseas market," he added.
"An FTA is definitely an answer for this as it is a preferential access arrangement for Vietnamese products contractually guaranteed by treaty," he said.
It would enable Vietnamese firms to enjoy lower export duties than that offered by GSP when exporting to the EU because, under the FTA, tariffs on most Vietnamese products exported to the EU would gradually drop to zero, he said.
The bilateral FTA would also have a wider impact, including an increase in the flow of quality investment from Europe, acceleration of shared expertise and transfer of advanced green technology, and the creation of more jobs and better incomes for the Vietnamese people.
The two sides had completed seven rounds of negotiation for the bilateral FTA, and the next round would take place next month, Bouflet said.
He added that the EU and Vietnamese negotiators had targeted the conclusion of the FTA by October.
However, to be able to enjoy the many benefits of the FTA, local companies needed to be aware of technical barriers to trade imposed by the EU and increase investment to improve product quality, delegates said.
The EU had many trade regulations to protect human health and safety, animal and plant life and health and the environment, Frank Juettner, general director of TUV Rheinland Vietnam, said.
They include REACH, the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use, FLEGT or Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade aiming to reduce illegal logging, and IUU, the regulation against illegal fishing.
Vietnamese firms should spend time studying the EU requirements and adjust their products and production processes to comply with such requirements, he said, adding that they should not sacrifice innovation for efficiency.
In addition, companies were urged to conduct research to understand European consumers' tastes and demands.
Le Ky Anh, an expert with the EU delegation to Vietnam, said the Export Helpdesk website for businesses on how to export to the EU would provide essential information for Vietnamese exporters, including information on EU tariffs, import requirements and preferential arrangements.
At the forum, Dang Hoang Hai, head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade's European Market Department, advised Vietnamese firms to work directly with and export their products to EU supermarkets.
Once their products can enter EU supermarket chains, they can enter other distribution channels there, he said.
Vo Tan Thanh, director of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in HCM City, said the EU had surpassed the US in 2012 to become Vietnam's largest export market and the second largest trading partner of Vietnam.
Last year, Vietnam-EU bilateral trade reached US$33.6 billion, a year-on-year increase of 16 percent, of which Vietnam's exports accounted for US$24.4 billion.
The EU is one of the biggest investors in Vietnam, with 1,401 investment projects with total registered capital of US$18.02 billion in various sectors, including industry, construction and services, he said.
Vietnam mainly exports apparel, footwear, coffee, furniture and seafood to the EU, while the EU exports machinery, medicine, aircraft, equipment and vehicles.
The "Vietnam-EU FTA: Opportunities and Challenges for the Business Community" forum was co-organised by the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in HCM City and the delegation of the European Commission to Vietnam.
Debuting in 2007, the annual event is held to promote mutual understanding and improve the two countries' trade and investment activities.