Initialling, signing and ratification of a VPA
A Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) only enters into force as a legally binding agreement after the legislatures of both parties have ratified it according to their normal procedures for ratifying international treaties. The process can take several months to over a year and involves three main stages – initialling, signing and ratification.
- Initialling. 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.
- Signature. 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'.
- Ratification, or ‘conclusion'. The obligations in a VPA only bind parties when each party has ratified the agreement and, if stipulated in the VPA, the timeframe for its entry into force has passed. Each party follows its standard procedures for ratifying international treaties. This may involve, for example, parliamentary scrutiny. In the EU, for instance, ratification includes steps that involve EU member states, their parliaments and the European Parliament. Once these steps have been completed, the Council of the European Union adopts a decision to conclude ratification of the VPA.
Upon ratification, the two parties notify each other that they have concluded the ratification process. The formal structures and obligations of the agreement then enter into force. In the EU, the notification is published in the Official Journal of the European Union. At this stage, the EC and the partner country make a formal announcement and the VPA's joint implementation committee becomes operational.
While ratification means that implementation of a VPA can formally start, in most VPA processes to date some implementation activities started before the ratification process ended. In some countries, the parties established an interim joint implementation committee (JIC), or pre-JIC, to maintain momentum between initialling and ratification.
In legal terms, a VPA enters into force after the parties have notified each other that they have completed their respective ratification processes. Entry into force does not imply, however, that FLEGT licensing can start. In practical terms, much of the work of implementing a VPA ahead of FLEGT licensing takes place after the agreement has entered into force.