Skip to Content

Change needed before EU’s timber trade deal with Vietnam is credible

This week, the European Union (EU) and Vietnam are expected to reach what should be a decisive moment in the fight against the illegal timber trade, by initialling [1] the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) which they have been negotiating for almost seven years

It should have been a cause for celebration. A moment of triumph for those – both within and outside of Vietnam – who have worked tirelessly to protect the country’s forests.

VPAs are rightly considered to be a gold-standard: unique trade deals that address the universal causes of illegal forest destruction.

Their strength lies in not being imposed from outside, but rather, evolving within timber-producing countries themselves through consultations with civil society groups, forest community representatives, the timber industry and governments. In this way, the definition of legality is supposedly reached through the consensus of all who have a stake in the country’s forests. Transparency is meant to be at the heart of it.

Yet as the agreement between the EU and Vietnam edges closer to being concluded, the VPAs’ rigorous standards are at risk of being undermined – devaluing what they are intended to stand for and sending out a wrong signal to those countries who have already signed similar deals with the EU, or are in the process of doing so.    

This is because the EU is on the verge of granting a clean bill of health to Vietnam’s timber industry, despite it being afflicted with serious problems.

These problems were highlighted in a report, which was also published this week, by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

It shows that huge quantities of illegal timber are being smuggled into Vietnam from Cambodia with the complicity of government officials and military personnel. Those involved, the EIA says, are “pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from timber smugglers for their part in allowing hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of logs stolen from Cambodia’s National parks to be laundered into Vietnam’s voracious timber economy.”

The EIA findings however, are a symptom of how the VPA has been negotiated:  without the full involvement of all stakeholders, a prerequisite for a credible agreement.

Outside of the officials from the EU and Vietnam and a few other privileged stakeholders, access to the texts of the agreement have been very restricted – in contrast to other VPAs. This is at odds with the EU’s Principles and minimum standards for consultation processes, as well the European Council’s conclusions in 2003 and 2016 on transparency and participation.    

This, and the EIA’s well-documented evidence, goes against the grain of the EU’s repeated insistence that it would not sign VPAs with countries where legality is not assured and verifiable: in Vietnam’s specific case, in fact, it has categorically stated there will be no VPA until Vietnam can demonstrate that its exported and imported timber is legal.

It is right to acknowledge that Vietnam has made steps towards stemming illegal logging within its own borders, and that the Vietnamese government has made some progress in recognising the value of civil society contributions in a country where the government prefers control to consultation. Yet for all this involvement, input has only been provided on the government’s terms.

If the VPA is signed under current circumstances, therefore, it will represent a major step backwards, threatening the credibility of what is the most pioneering scheme to ever tackle the illegal timber trade.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Without being able to see the loopholes in the agreement, how can they be closed?  Until the agreement is opened up to public scrutiny - made public, read and understood by all interested parties – and until civil society is able to fully participate in making any necessary improvements, the VPA must not be signed.

In the coming weeks Fern will produce a longer, more in-depth analysis of the VPA between the EU and Vietnam.

[1] Initialling of a VPA by the EC and partner government marks the end of negotiations but does not amount to a formal signature. Under international law, initialling confirms that both parties agree that the wording contained in the document initialled is the wording they agreed. Initialling does not imply consent to subsequent signature or ratification. In the period between the parties initialling and signing a VPA, each side must confirm the agreement through their own decision-making structures. In a partner country, this may involve a vote in parliament and/or approval from the president or prime minister. When two parties sign a VPA they formally express their intention to become a party to the agreement if it is ratified. According to international law, signature obliges signatories 'not to defeat the object and purpose of the agreement'. See: