The European Union (EU) and Vietnam have officially launched negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two markets.

The two sides are seeking a comprehensive agreement covering tariffs and non-tariff barriers as well as commitments on other trade related aspects, including procurement, regulatory issues, competition, services and sustainable development.

"I'm delighted to announce the opening of trade negotiations with Vietnam. The potential for both sides is enormous and the first negotiating round should take place just after the summer break", said EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht.

"Vietnam is our third partner in the ASEAN region after Singapore and Malaysia with whom we launch individual negotiations. After that, our door remains open. We are continuing our contacts with a number of other ASEAN Member States, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and Europe will be ready to move whenever they are."

The EU and Vietnam initiated a Partnership Cooperation Agreement in 2010, a first step towards establishing closer economic and political ties. While they are pursuing a bilateral approach to the talks, the EU said its ultimate goal is achieving an agreement with the ASEAN region as a whole.

The EU imported EUR12.8bn worth of products from Vietnam in 2011, with the main items including footwear, textiles and clothing, coffee, seafood and leather furniture. The EU's exports to Vietnam were valued at EUR5.2bn and were dominated by high-tech products, aircraft, pharmaceutical products, iron and steel.

The Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), which represents athletic footwear and active apparel brands such as Adidas, Puma, Lotto and Tecnica, said it welcomed the talks.

A successful FTA will allow the sporting goods industry to expand and develop production in Vietnam, while maintaining design, distribution and marketing in the EU, it said. 

When it is in place, a FTA, including full and immediate elimination of duties for footwear, apparel and bags, will boost growth and job opportunities for the EU and Vietnam, the FESI emphasised.