Ukraine is currently undergoing an immense internal reform process. One central element of this process is the decentralization of power, away from the nation’s capital Kyiv to lower administrative levels. In this context, a group of recently elected regional and local politicians from Ukraine came to Brussels to gain insights into regional development in Europe, but also to discuss options of cross-border regional cooperation between their country and the European neighbours.
Cooperation in Practice
To create an understanding of what regional development looks like in the EU and what cooperation opportunities exist, the participants met Silke Tönshoff, Head of Unit, Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs at the Committee of the Regions (CoR), also in charge of the CORLEAP unit. Tönshoff explained the role of the Conference of the Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP) as facilitator between consultative regional bodies within the EU and their equivalents in the Eastern neighbourhood. The CoR closely monitors the decentralization process of EU enlargement and neighbourhood countries, including Ukraine. After all, the Eastern Partnership should also show concrete benefits for local and regional partners and not just on the national level, Tönshoff underlined.
Internal Reform Essential to Improve Trade and Security
In addition to looking at general cross-border regional cooperation opportunities, the Ukrainian politicians also discussed specific policy fields which are essential for closer cooperation and pushing national reform processes. In a meeting with Gabriele Lo Monaco, Political Coordinator for Ukraine at the Directorate General (DG) Trade, they discussed the role and the potential of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), which is to be implemented in January 2016. According to Lo Monaco, the DCFTA also serves as a means to foster reform in Ukraine. As he argued, the value of the Agreement lies in the fact that it is not only about tariff barriers, but also about harmonizing custom procedures and trade services in particular. These additional components are of high importance since “trade agreements have to be about more than [tariff barriers] in the 21st century”. Lo Monaco, however, also showed concerns when it comes to trade and investment for Ukraine and repeatedly underlined the importance of reform: the country is currently under-invested, as it is a high-risk environment for many foreign companies and investors. High administrative burdens are in place on regional and national level. “The DCFTA is only an opportunity. You first need to have a good business climate”, he pointed out.
When talking about the future development of Ukraine, aspects of security and defence cannot be disregarded. Therefore, the group exchanged views on these aspects with both Amanda Paul, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) and Dirk Schübel, Head of Division for Eastern Partnership – bilateral at the European External Action Service (EEAS). Paul viewed the Minsk II Agreement as well as the EU’s overall behaviour towards the EU critically: “The EU mustn’t see Ukraine as a headache, but as a challenge and opportunity to strengthen its foreign policy.” Moreover she argued that the EU should send a clearer message to Ukraine to become potential member candidate. At the same time Paul also points out that posing an opposition to Russia is not primarily the EU’s, but Ukraine’s responsibility. According to Paul, the best chance the Ukraine has to gain back Crimea is to build a strong state, showing people that living under Russian rule is not a good alternative. From a European perspective, though, Paul concluded positively that the current crisis in the East has forced the EU to strengthen its Eastern Partnership.
Dirk Schübel also accentuated the strong emphasis the EU is currently putting specifically on Ukraine, giving the very practical example of the number of desk officer for Ukraine going up from two to eight recently. Similarly, Schübel expects the Ukraine to conduct a thorough public administration reform, including salary top-ups for regional and local council and administrative workers, in order to counter corruption. Naming specific support measures the EU is undertaking, Schübel emphasized the importance of providing decentralized trainings and courses for administrative and council workers in addition to supporting the central Ukrainian government. In regard to communicational support, he advertised the newly established “East Strategic Communication Taskforce” (StratComEast), which has been set-up to comprehensively counter Russian propaganda.
Gaining Liberal Perspectives
To gain specifically liberal perspectives, the Ukrainian delegation met with Petras Auštrevičius MEP, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Substitute Member of the Delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. as well as Bogdan Rogin and Alexandre Krauss, both Policy Advisors of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE ) Group, for the Committee on Regional Development and, respectively, the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security and Safety. They confirmed that Ukraine can expect deeper cooperation with the ALDE group also in the short term and outlined ALDE’s commitment to closer security and defence cooperation in the EU, i.e. by strengthening the role of FRONTEX. In addition to that, the Ukrainian delegation also received very practical support and advice from Philipp Hansen, Head of the Political Unit at ALDE Party, who informed them about membership options as well as further cooperation opportunities.
Sharing “on the ground” Experiences from Ukraine
The Ukrainian politicians also seized the opportunity to meet with Brussels based representatives from their own country to learn more about the work they do to promote the role of Ukraine in the EU. They exchanged perspectives with Oleksandr Irkhin, Deputy Head of Mission of Ukraine to the EU as well as Olena Prystayko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Think Tank Liaison Office in Brussels. Moreover, two participants of the group, Diana Sergiienko, City Council Member Tatarbunary, Odessa Region and Yuriy Bova, Chairman of Trostianets Municipality, Mayor of Trostianets, discussed their on the ground experiences of the recent local elections and the status quo of the decentralization reform with Sean O’Curneen, Secretary General ALDE, CoR, in a public event.
Optimism for Ukraine’s Future
The impressions the participants took home with them from Brussels were positive ones: they were reassured that European representatives are not forgetting about the situation in Ukraine and that they are trying to support the country on its way to implementing necessary reforms. This endowed the Ukrainian politicians with optimism about their own work and the future of their country as a whole.
Programme Coordinator FNF