Path Towards European Integration, or Results of the Long-Term Intervention of EU Anti-Corruption Initiative and EU Project Pravo-Justice. Joint interview of Project Leaders for NV

2.05.2024 |

10 years ago, Ukraine took the most significant and decisive step towards European integration. One of the key conditions of cooperation with the EU was the strengthening of the fight against corruption and the establishment of the rule of law in Ukraine, which was the reason for launching the EU Anti-Corruption Initiative (EUACI) and the EU Project Pravo-Justice. In mid-April 2024, these projects officially launched the third phase of their work, announcing plans for the next stage. We spoke with Head of EUACI Allan Pagh Kristensen and Team Leader of the EU Project Pravo-Justice in Ukraine Oksana Tsymbrivska, to find out what had already been achieved over the years, and what challenges and problems remained the most important in the Ukrainian anti-corruption and judicial systems.

After the victory of the Revolution of Dignity, the EU Project Pravo-Justice became one of the drivers in promoting the rule of law in Ukraine; bringing the country’s legislative framework in line with European standards; developing a strategic vision of reforms; forwarding judicial reform, advancing proper execution of court decisions, etc. Not only it promotes the spread of European practices across the Ukrainian justice system, by providing constant expert support to judicial bodies, but it also acts as a catalyst for change, by laying the foundation for Ukraine’ integration into the EU.

In turn, EUACI, launched in 2017 as a response to the urgent need for large-scale reforms, has played an important role in strengthening the country’s anti-corruption infrastructure and legal framework. Funded by the EU, co-financed and implemented together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, today EUACI focuses on strengthening the capacity of anti-corruption institutions; increasing integrity in the process of reconstruction of Ukraine; promoting transparency and accountability at the regional and national levels; and empowering civil society and the media.

We learned about the results which were achieved within the previous phases of implementation of EUACI and EU Project Pravo-Justice, while also discovering how the projects will help Ukraine on its further path towards European integration, from the leaders of the two projects – Allan Pagh Kristensen [hereinafter – A.P.K.] and Oksana Tsymbrivska [hereinafter – O.T.] – within their joint interview.

– At the end of last year, Ukraine became an official candidate for EU membership. How do EUACI and EU Project Pravo-Justice help bring the European future closer for Ukraine?

A.P.K.: Without a doubt, the fight against corruption was, is and will be an important issue for Ukraine in its preparation for EU membership. We know that this is a topic that EU member states will be watching very closely. The work of our program on European integration can be conditionally divided into two parts. The first one is more technical, related to legislation that will help Ukraine meet EU requirements. Ukraine surely needs to work in this field, and our program will continue contributing with expertise and international experience.

The second part is about reforms and strengthening of anti-corruption institutions. We must build capacity and support anti-corruption institutions so that they can work even better and more efficiently, achieving good results, having more corruption-related proceedings and more convictions by the High Anti-Corruption Court. In fact, these are the two main goals we pursue in the field of European integration.

О.Ц.: The EU Project Pravo-Justice tries to provide comprehensive support to its beneficiaries, in the first place; create a legislative framework to promote the rule of law; check the compliance of existing legislation with EU requirements and best global practices. Our key achievement that we always keep in focus is that we managed to support Ukraine in shaping a strategic vision of reforms with short-, medium-, and long-term priorities to facilitate qualitative transformations in the rule of law field.

It is also very important for us to work with regions and communities, rather than only with central authorities. Thanks to this, we were able to support regional legal communities and bring them to a political dialogue at the national level. Facilitating this interaction is one of our top-priorities. Professionals on the ground really know better what is happening there; they know the real problems and are at the forefront of our work. And they are the first to test and apply all laws developed by the government and parliament.

– What specific goals and tasks are facing the projects for the near future? What is the role of the public in the work of the projects?

A.P.K.: In the near future, EUACI will focus on three areas. The first one is European integration in the context of supporting training of Ukrainians in the fight against corruption. The second area is reconstruction, where we work to create a legal framework for the reconstruction process based on the principles of transparency, integrity, and accountability. The third area is what we may call the sustainability of the anti-corruption infrastructure. It is important for us to make sure that anti-corruption authorities can continue their work, even in these difficult circumstances, and become more sustainable in the future.

We understand how important it is to have partners among civil society, journalists who monitor the accountability of the government and public authorities. From the very beginning of the program, it has been a project of support of CSOs and investigative journalists. We will continue doing this by providing grants. It is not just about being a donor or a grant-maker. It is about our strategic dialogue and making sure that they are part of a more comprehensive fight against corruption.

O.Ts.: Our priority for the upcoming months is further promotion of transformations in the judicial sphere. This includes, in particular, support for the establishment of the Disciplinary Inspectors Service, which will consider disciplinary cases in respect of judges. The second task is to complete the on-going transparent process of selecting candidates for the justices’ positions in the Constitutional Court of Ukraine. The third one consists in working with various units of the Office of Prosecutor General in matters of war crimes, the number of which is daily growing.

Another important area of intervention for us is the support of the process of justice-related integration into the EU with a focus on issues of approximation of Ukrainian legislation to EU law. Significant weight in this process will have the support of civil society, which, as we know, has a unique ability to stimulate and influence reform processes. Our public sector partners are drivers of some very sensitive and challenging reforms. They are really advocating for important changes. Today, we support the development of an alternative report to Chapter 23 “Justice and Fundamental Rights” of the European Commission's Report on Ukraine in 2023 by a coalition of CSOs. For the first time ever, the civil society organisations will evaluate the progress of reforms in the justice sector and submit the evaluation to the European Commission.

– What is your assessment of the dynamics of reforms in the anti-corruption and rule of law fields in Ukraine? How did your projects help Ukraine to fulfil the EC’s recommendations to maintain the status of a candidate for EU membership?

A.P.K.:. Looking back at the time of the Revolution of Dignity, I believe that Ukraine has made significant progress by initiating important reforms that have been implemented over many years and have encountered various difficulties. One of the latter was the decision of the Constitutional Court in 2020, which put the entire anti-corruption system at risk. It took a long time to somehow get the activity back on track.

If we look at the last months, around the time since Ukraine received the status of a candidate for EU membership, it is safe to say that the pace of some reforms has accelerated significantly. Over the past six months, Ukraine has managed to adopt quite important legislative acts that help implement EU recommendations.

O.T.: If we talk about the rule of law and evaluate the last ten years of reforms in this area, then, of course, Ukraine has made significant progress after 2014. This implies the adoption of the Justice System Development Strategies (covering 2015−2020 and 2021−2023 respectively); this includes introducing the key changes to the Constitution of Ukraine in the area of justice in 2016; the reorganisation of the High Council of Justice; the introduction of a unified qualification evaluation of sitting judges; the setup of a new Supreme Court, and many other small and large steps that has been bringing Ukraine closer to the EU.

Undoubtedly, special mention should be made as to the last two years. Despite the war, they proved to be very progressive for the justice sector. We saw the great political readiness of the Ukrainian authorities to promote key reforms in the area of the rule of law. First of all, it comes to Ukraine’s implementation of the recommendations of the European Commission regarding the preservation of the status of a candidate for membership in the EU. As part of this process, the check and selection of members of the High Council of Justice, as well as the selection of members of the High Qualification Commission of Judges was carried out. That was the second requirement which was maintained and fulfilled with the full involvement of our Project.

It is also the development of legislation on the competition-based selection of candidates for the positions of justices of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, which was the EU’s first requirement. We closely cooperated with Parliament; provided our expertise to bring that draft law in compliance with the requirements of the Venice Commission.

– EU Project Pravo-Justice actively supports the investigation of war crimes committed in the territory of Ukraine. Could you tell more about how further work in this area will be implemented?

O.T.: In May 2022, the Advisory Group on War Crimes was established with the participation of the USA, the UK, and the EU. Our Project is part of this initiative on the part of the EU, and we provide strategic consultations to the Office of the Prosecutor General on the application of international humanitarian and criminal law, as well as on issues of prioritisation, categorisation, and mapping of the entire array of war crimes committed by the Russian Federation, of which more than 130,000 have been registered to date.

In parallel, we work with the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, assisting this special unit of the Office of the Prosecutor General in investigating cases having serious long-term and large-scale environmental impacts and bringing them to the status of war crimes. I also want to acknowledge the contribution of the military analysts we support. They are working on establishing facts in each of the high-profile cases of war crimes, as well as on the issues of personal criminal responsibility of the command.

We are convinced that we will not be able to succeed in the investigation of war crimes if we do not work with prosecutors and support their mental resilience. Therefore, EU Project Pravo-Justice intervenes together with the Office of the Prosecutor General on various problematic issues: burnout, psychological stress and its prevention, etc.

Another important area is trial of war crimes in national courts. We understand that at some point in time, all these cases will end up in courts, and it will be a huge challenge for the entire national judicial system. Therefore, a comprehensive approach is already being developed to address this problem. Our work includes training judges on international criminal and humanitarian law; learning from the experience of other countries that have faced similar challenges in the past. We also pay special attention to the treatment of witnesses and victims of war crimes.

– How did EUACI manage to strengthen the capacity of anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine, such as the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office?

A.P.K.: Indeed, one of our key areas of intervention is building up the capacity of anti-corruption institutions. We work comprehensively, starting with initial and general training and ending with study of narrow-profile modern cases.

For example, we facilitate studying cryptocurrency, as we have recently seen many examples of its use for bribery. This involves training detectives in very complex operative work — for which we involve international experts who are familiar with European best practices.

We also implement many IT projects together with our partners. One of the most successful examples is the eCase MS electronic pre-trial investigation system, which brings under one roof NABU, SAPO, and the High Anti-Corruption Court. I believe that this is the most modern system that unites the key institutions within the criminal process in Ukraine.

We also work on improving the HR management system of NABU in order to optimize their activities and expand their capacities.

– How does the EU Project Pravo-Justice contribute, in its turn, to up building of the capacity of justice sector institutions?

O.T.: The set of measures includes both initial training to improve the professional level of JSIs’ employees and extra-important work in the legislative field, namely the provision of expert proposals on the approximation of Ukrainian legislation to EU law. We also help to increase the transparency of these bodies’.

Besides, EU Project Pravo -Justice tries to implement and boost digital transformation of the justice sector institutions. We are currently concentrating our efforts on the development of the Electronic Court and its further modernisation, which is one of the EU’s requirements. After all, we also apply efforts in order to change institutional thinking to meet European standards and values.

– One of the scourges of Ukraine is the low level of execution of court decisions. What is being done in this area to improve the situation?

O.T.: We are aware that judicial reform cannot be completed if court decisions are not executed. Otherwise, one will keep ending up with a piece of paper of no practical use. Therefore, we are currently trying to support the development of the system of enforcement of court decisions to ensure real, rather than theoretical protection of people’s rights.

Ukraine followed the path of many European states and introduced the institute of PEOs back in 2016. Since then, it has proven its effectiveness and efficiency. We were at the origins of this legal profession and continue supporting its further institutional development.

EU Project Pravo-Justice contributes to the up building of the capacity of the state enforcement service to provide high-quality information and consultations regarding open enforcement proceedings. Thus, we have supported the creation and operation of the relevant call centre. At the same time, we work on the digitalisation of enforcement proceedings and improvement of legislation in this area, such as the introduction of effective judicial control. Raising the legal culture of wide public regarding the obligations imposed on a person by the state remains another important issue on the agenda. This is indeed of major importance, as unfortunately, it is still common to try to avoid fulfilling them.

Therefore, there are no simple solutions to increase the rate of execution of court decisions in Ukraine. It should be a set of measures.

– What measures did EUACI take to improve the legislative framework for combating corruption in Ukraine? What did the EU Project Pravo-Justice do to promote the rule of law in Ukraine?

A.P.K.: We carry out a legal assessment and provide our legal expertise; we cooperate with anti-corruption institutions, Parliament, the Parliamentary Committee on Anti-Corruption Policy, and constantly involve international experts. The best interaction we have ever witnessed is the possibility to bring together national and international experts. This allows getting both Ukrainian context and international experience.

O.T.: We have been providing comprehensive support in the justice sector for ten years; as well as actively supporting transformations in the judicial system; public prosecutor’s offices; enforcement of court decisions; the penitentiary system; ensuring access to justice, and digitalisation. We strive to help bring Ukrainian legislation to European standards, thus, we actively work with Parliament and provide our legal opinions on various issues.

– Could you elaborate on EUACI’s efforts to empower media and civil society representatives to monitor corruption and support dialogue processes?

A.P.K.: We provide grants and financial support to a number of CSOs and media, primarily to empower them to perform their supervisory functions. We understand how important it is to have an active civil society in Ukraine that will oversee the government. In parallel, it may also involve support for non-governmental organisations in outreach activities or in working with local authorities on local legislation.

A vivid example of such cooperation is the investigative journalist project Bigus.Info, which has been our permanent partner since 2017. At that time, it was a small group of journalists who were practically unknown. Today it is probably the most famous media that exposes corruption.

We also support some reputable non-governmental organisations and a number of regional NGOs. Sometimes there are difficulties in working with small NGOs, because they do not have the opportunity to comply with our accounting and reporting rules. However, working with larger regional or national NGOs allows us intervening at the local level as well.

For example, we cooperate with the Lviv Regulatory Hub, which is now developing regulatory legislation for local authorities, which will contribute to a more effective economic recovery. There are plans to expand our work in this area at a new stage of the program. We are very much looking forward to it.

– How does EUACI assess the effectiveness of Ukraine’s anti-corruption system, its key achievements and challenges, especially during wartime?

A.P.K.: We share the assessment of the European Commission, which it presented in the report last November. The picture is mixed: there are major improvements, but there are also significant challenges lying ahead. We see that the effectiveness and capacity of anti-corruption institutions is increasing; more and more high-level corruption cases are being investigated and more sentences are being handed down.

Despite the war, budget cuts, staff leaving abroad, and other problems, we can see real progress. It is complicated to give an unequivocal assessment of improvements in the field of anti-corruption, but if we look at the Corruption Perception Index from Transparency International, we will see that Ukraine is improving its position every year. This year, it has even ranked the best ever before.

Working with anti-corruption authorities in Ukraine, we will need to expand our approach in the future, focusing more on preventing corruption at the sectoral level. It is obvious that Ukraine will not be able to eradicate corruption with the help of legislation and punishments only. We need to shift the fight against corruption to the “street” level; meet with ordinary Ukrainians, and show them that this fight is everyone’s problem and directly affects their everyday life. Thus, we will have a lot of work. At the new stage, we will also be able to evaluate the work with schools, where, as we know, there is also a place for corruption; there are also many other areas in which we can and should help Ukrainians.

– How do your projects plan to participate in the post-war reconstruction and recovery of Ukraine?

A.P.K.: Reconstruction has been one of our priorities since the summer of 2022. Our goal is to make sure that transparency, integrity, and accountability are integrated into Ukraine’s recovery strategy and process. First of all, it is about working with the cities to improve public procurement processes, audit, control and accountability in receiving international aid.

Together with the Ministry of Reconstruction and the State Agency for Reconstruction and Development of Infrastructure of Ukraine, we focus on the development of legislation, regulation and public procurement policy, as well as related training. At the new stage of our work, we will work at both national and regional levels. In particular, the Recovery Agency plans to involve a number of its regional offices in rebuilding at the local level, and we will fully support these offices in their work in compliance with our values.

O.T.: We do not work directly on issues of reconstruction and recovery. At the same time, I would like to emphasize that the issue of law enforcement and execution of court decisions plays a major role in reconstruction. We are all looking forward to investors coming to Ukraine. To achieve this, they must be confident in the national legal framework and anti-corruption system.

That is why we do not need to wait until the war ends to start working on specific areas of reconstruction and recovery. We are already helping to carry out reforms, strengthen the sustainability of state institutions, and at the same time we are trying to rebuild what was destroyed. We are not waiting for any specific moment; this work has already begun.

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