BRUSSELS (AFP) - The EU and Vietnam on Wednesday signed a free trade deal that removes nearly all tariffs between Europe and one of the world's last communist states.
"Today's signature is not the end of our relations but the beginning of far more ambitious ties. The EU and Vietnam can do great things together," said EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker after talks with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung.
The agreement followed two and a half years of intense negotiations between the 28-nation European Union and Vietnam, whose two-way trade has grown three-fold to €28 billion (about S$40 billion) in the last 10 years.
The EU and Vietnam in August reached an agreement in principle and only had a few legal hurdles to overcome to finalise the deal.
In a statement, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem called the deal "a new model for trade policy with developing countries".
The agreement, which follows a similar one with Singapore last year, was a milestone in EU ties with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which includes Vietnam and Singapore, she said.
"Our ultimate goal is to have a region-to-region agreement," the former Swedish politician said in August.
The EU is holding separate talks with two other Asean members, Malaysia and Thailand, to secure similar free trade agreements.
The agreement is the first that the EU has concluded with a developing country and will remove more than 99 per cent of tariffs on goods traded between the two economies over a period of up to seven years.
Vietnam exports mobile phones and other electronics, footware and textiles, and agricultural products including coffee, rice and seafood to the EU.
EU exports to Vietnam, meanwhile, are dominated by high-tech products including electrical machinery and equipment, aircraft, vehicles and pharmaceuticals.
The EU and Japan are also negotiating a free trade agreement. Brussels and South Korea already have a free trade agreement.