A group of European retail clothing brands is calling for the elimination of duties on apparel, along with more flexible rules of origin, as part of the free-trade agreement being negotiated between the European Union (EU) and Vietnam.

The European Branded Clothing Alliance, which represents around 60 brands with a major European presence - including Inditex, H&M, Levi Strauss, Gap Inc, Nike and VF Corporation - outlined its case in a letter sent today (13 August) to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, ahead of his official visit to Vietnam at the end of the month.

The move also follows a one-day visit to Vietnam on Tuesday by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, who said negotiations on the pact were making good progress. But she said "an acceleration of talks would be required to complete the FTA before the end of the year."

The diplomat added that President Barroso's visit on 26 and 27 August "will be an important opportunity to inject new momentum in FTA talks."

Outlining the case for the European Branded Clothing Alliance (EBCA), its president Ignacio Sierra Armas, who is also chief corporate officer of Spanish retailer Cortefiel Group, says the EU-Vietnam FTA is "a priority for our companies."

"EBCA members have structured themselves to operate with complex global value chains spanning many different countries, including Vietnam, and we are therefore supportive of a global trade policy environment which eases the operation of our supply chains."

With operations in the country including production, merchandising, quality control, shipping and retail, "we warmly welcome the intention for reciprocal elimination of import tariffs as part of this deal. In the best-case scenario, the agreement would provide for the full and immediate elimination of duties on apparel, without phase-out periods.

"At the same time, to be able to benefit from new preferential tariffs, our member companies require a more flexible approach from the EU on Rules of Origin for apparel, reflecting the global value chains we operate.

"Vietnam has limited fabric production available to international brands and this could severely restrict our ability to benefit from reduced tariffs, if the current model for Rules of Origin is maintained.

"We therefore call for adopting a single transformation model in the agreement, taking into account the realities of global supply chains and the Vietnamese industry. We also understand that this is a key request from Vietnam.

"Finally, we believe that textiles and apparel should no longer be classified as sensitive products by the EU."

The group also wants to see the FTA address non-tariff barriers that hinder European retailers setting up operations in Vietnam, such as cumbersome economic assessment tests and quality testing on apparel consignments.

"This agreement is important for the textile, clothing and footwear sector as it has the potential of significantly opening up a market with huge growth potential for European business," the letter continues. Furthermore, it has the potential of providing significant benefits for the economy of Vietnam, where the apparel sector accounts for 15-16% of total exports."

The value of Vietnam's garment exports to the EU increased 7% year-on-year in 2013 to $2.4bn, and jumped 25% in the first three months of 2014.

The aim of the two parties is to conclude negotiations before the end of the year. Once the deal is signed, it will head to the European Parliament where MEPs will vote to approve or reject the agreement but cannot change the content.