Bilateral VPA negotiations
Bilateral Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) negotiations between the EU and a timber-exporting country are structured discussions that result in a legally binding treaty.
The bilateral negotiations draw upon ideas generated by national stakeholder discussions, which also take place during the negotiation phase of a VPA process.
Unlike in most trade agreements, the EU and a timber-exporting country are not adversaries in negotiating a VPA. Rather, the parties work together to develop a shared solution to the problems caused by illegal logging. However, there is no blueprint to follow. The processes of negotiating and implementing a VPA are different in each country, and national processes determine the content of a VPA.
The EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan frames EU expectations. The EU seeks to prevent illegal timber from entering EU markets by supporting efforts in timber-exporting countries to strengthen timber legality assurance systems, improve forest sector governance and maintain strong trade relations with countries in the EU.
The EU does not seek a trade advantage. The chief concern of the EU is that, to be credible, there is consensus behind the decisions outlined in the VPA and thus broad national stakeholder support. A VPA must include a robust system for ensuring legal compliance, while also being fair. As the FLEGT Action Plan states: "The challenge is to ensure that actions to address illegal logging, particularly enhanced law enforcement, do not target weak groups, such as the rural poor, while leaving powerful players unscathed."
In bilateral negotiations, instructions from the Council of the European Union guide the European Commission. The European Commission negotiators seek to keep the main text of a VPA simple and consistent among VPAs, and use the annexes for the country-specific details of each agreement.
The expectations in timber-exporting countries vary because of the range of stakeholder groups. Some stakeholders hope a VPA will create business opportunities. Others hope a VPA will protect forests or improve livelihoods for local communities. The range of priorities creates challenges and means stakeholders need time and space to understand issues, form opinions and express their views.
Negotiating structures differ between the two parties, and vary among timber-exporting countries. A team from the European Commission negotiates on behalf of the EU, supported by one or more EU member states.
The government of a timber-exporting country decides who will represent it in negotiations. In all six VPAs signed to date, partner countries have decided to include representatives from the private sector and civil society organisations in negotiating structures. The choice of chief negotiator is important, as this person needs a special set of skills and experience, including the ability to coordinate positions within the country. Some countries have struggled to identify a sufficiently high-level, active chief negotiator. In some cases this has delayed negotiations.
For more detail and examples see the section of VPA Unpacked on National VPA negotiating structures.
Bilateral negotiations take place both in face-to-face meetings in the EU and the timber-exporting country, and in video conferences. In addition to political-level negotiations, some VPA processes have involved technical exchanges. EU and/or EU FLEGT Facility staff and national representatives come together to discuss specific aspects of a VPA, such as the legality definition or timber tracking system, at joint expert meetings.
Most VPA processes have the support of a neutral facilitator and targeted technical assistance programmes. Read more about who these facilitators are, how they work and how they are funded in the section of VPA Unpacked on Support to VPA stakeholders.
The first bilateral negotiation session formalises the dialogue and sets the vision and scope for subsequent talks. The initial session enables each party to understand the other's expectations and the challenges stakeholders indicate the VPA should address. In these first meetings, negotiators have defined roles, responsibilities and procedures to follow. Negotiators may set out a ‘roadmap' or timetable for subsequent meetings. The parties then make a public announcement that reaffirms their intent to negotiate a VPA.
Bilateral negotiations then focus on developing the VPA text and its annexes. In addition to official negotiations, the process includes technical meetings to prepare for negotiations and fieldwork to test aspects of the agreement, such as the legality definition and/or other elements of a timber legality assurance system. Tests can identify gaps in company compliance or government enforcement.
Bilateral negotiations end when the parties have agreed the text of a VPA and its annexes. A VPA does not have to be perfect, but must be credible, ratifiable and implementable. The agreement should reflect the national consensus among stakeholders in the VPA partner country and have support from stakeholders in the EU. In the final negotiating session, parties discuss the timetable for ratifying and implementing the VPA. Parties signal the end of negotiations and start of ratification by initialling the VPA.
Speed and timing
The timeframe of a negotiation roadmap is only indicative. VPA negotiations may take several years and are often longer than parties initially expect because stakeholders need adequate time to participate in the process and find solutions to challenges as they arise.
Delays can also occur if the interests of governments and other stakeholders shift in response to political, economic and other dynamics, or if bilateral negotiations do not align with national stakeholder discussions.
In general, the quality of a negotiation process is more important than its speed, though this does not imply that a slow process will be a quality one. Factors that can affect progress include national elections or fluctuations in national, regional or global economies that affect timber production and trade.
Related sections of VPA Unpacked
Canby, K. 2013. Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs) or How to do effective consultation for national policies. Forest Trends PowerPoint presentation. [Download PDF]
Falconer, J. 2013. Overview of VPA processes: opportunities and challenges for projects to advance FLEGT. Presentation to FLEGT Project coordination meeting. 9 October 2013, Brussels. [Download PowerPoint presentation]Othman, M. et al. 2012. FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreements. ETFRN News 53: 109-116. [Download PDF]