What is special about VPAs?

What are Voluntary Partnership Agreements?

Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) are a key component of the EU Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan to address illegal logging.

A VPA is a bilateral trade agreement negotiated between the EU and a timber-exporting country outside the EU. Each 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 first decides which parts of its national legal framework it will use to define legality for the purposes of the VPA. A partner country also puts in place a system to ensure legal compliance and to issue FLEGT licences for legal products, as described in the VPA text and annexes. In most cases, a country will build on existing systems.

A VPA 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 the timber products they import are legal.

Why is a VPA special?

A VPA differs from a typical bilateral trade agreement in several ways.

First, although the EU and a national government 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 text and processes. 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.

VPA principles

The following principles explain the philosophy behind Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) and how they differ from typical trade agreements.

A VPA is voluntary, but legally binding. The EU and a timber-exporting country choose to enter into a VPA process. If ratified, a VPA binds both the EU and the partner country.

A VPA is participatory and reflects a national consensus. To ensure a VPA is credible and meets market expectations, the EU advocates that the private sector, civil society organisations and, where possible, local communities participate throughout a VPA process.

A VPA is practical and results-oriented. A VPA produces robust, transparent and feasible solutions to problems identified by stakeholders.

A VPA is transparent. Negotiations on trade agreements often take place behind closed doors. VPA negotiations take place with minimal secrecy.

A VPA is more than a trade agreement. A VPA also aims to promote social and environmental sustainability.

A VPA promotes good governance. A VPA aims to improve transparency, accountability and law enforcement, and to strengthen the rights of people who depend on forests.

A VPA is country-owned. Stakeholder engagement ensures national ownership of a VPA and that it works in the national context.

A VPA process is flexible. The VPA process is open to ideas and solutions, and adapts to the realities and goals of each partner. There is no blueprint and no strict deadline for concluding a VPA.