What is a VPA?
Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are a key component of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan to address illegal logging.
Each VPA is a bilateral trade agreement negotiated between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU. While parties enter into a VPA voluntarily, the agreement becomes legally binding when both parties have ratified it.
A VPA seeks to ensure that timber and timber products imported into the EU from a partner country comply with the laws of that country.
To achieve this, a partner country must first decide which parts of its national legal framework it will use to define legality for the purposes of the VPA. The country must also have, and describe in the VPA text and annexes, a system to ensure legal compliance and issue legal products with FLEGT licences. In most cases, a country will build on existing systems to achieve this.
A VPA's timber legality assurance system must also be independently checked to make sure it functions as described.
Under the terms of the EU Timber Regulation, products with FLEGT licences can automatically enter the EU market. For timber products without FLEGT licences, importers must undertake due diligence to demonstrate that they are legal.
At the time of writing, six partner countries have signed VPAs with the EU – Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia and the Republic of the Congo. These countries are now developing the systems agreed in VPAs.
Negotiations continue between the EU and nine other countries – Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Guyana, Honduras, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Another 11 countries in Africa, Asia and Central and South America have expressed interest in VPAs.
What is special about a VPA?
A VPA differs from a typical bilateral trade agreement in several ways.
First, while it is the EU and a national government that negotiate a VPA, the content of the agreement is decided in the partner country through a deliberative consultation process that involves stakeholders from government, the private sector and civil society. This means, for instance, that national stakeholders decide how to define legal timber according to the laws in that country.
Second, unlike in most other trade agreements, the two parties negotiate toward the same goals – eliminating illegal timber and improving forest governance.
Third, a VPA embeds legal and governance reforms in its processes and text. The reforms are those that stakeholders identify as necessary to ensure a VPA is credible. This means a VPA can improve transparency, accountability and participation in decision making.
As such, a VPA's unique combination of trade levers and governance reforms, and its multistakeholder approach to negotiation and implementation, can meet social and environmental, as well as economic goals.