Last month, President Zelenskyy again reminded European leaders that there can be no truly free Europe without Ukraine. The ambition of Ukraine’s leadership and society to become part of the European Union (EU) as soon as possible is not only a political necessity (the country needs an inspiring vision of the future to fight for) but also a very hands-on commitment.
As a result, laws are being redrafted, policies changed, safeguarding institutions of the rule of law reshuffled and reformed in an intense race to meet the European Commission’s 2022 list of seven steps to meet the requirements for candidate status as soon as possible – and then to sit down and begin accession talks.
The view from the offices of policymakers in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, and from EU think tanks, is somewhat different. The pressure exerted by Ukraine is not seen as a reason per se to make the accession process faster – indeed, the consensus is rather that a steady but measured pace should be maintained in order not to “put speed over quality of reforms,” as one German official source told this author.
The difficulty is the fact that the most influential western member states only want enlargement once the EU itself is reformed. There are practical reasons for this to be so (a very significant number of European Parliament seats for Ukraine based on its 40 million-plus population being the most obvious.) But on this subject, a consensus is elusive and is likely to remain beyond reach within the tight timeframe Ukraine is eyeing for its accession talks.
Ideas abound as to how to circumvent this obvious tension between the Ukrainian and the West European timeline for Ukraine’s EU accession, from admitting Ukraine to European Economic Area first (economically beneficial, but not nearly as prestigious for the Ukrainian people) to developing a “staged” accession process, with Ukraine gaining access to member state privileges bit by bit.
The first step, however, remains to achieve the Commission’s initial seven-point list of deliverables (including measures regarding the appointment of judges, anti-money laundering laws, and legislation on the media and oligarchs.) It contains significant legislative changes. Some of these are completed or well underway, and some are not yet underway. These are, however, only the tip of the iceberg of reforms that Ukraine has undergone since the days when it concluded its Association Agreement with the EU (2014) and is still undergoing, despite the war.
Two keywords can sum up most of these reforms – decentralization, and rule of law. For years, Ukraine has been shedding its Soviet administrative heritage, allowing local communities and municipalities to take responsibility for their own development. The success of the Ukrainian people’s faith in local initiatives can be seen in the resilience with which people have mobilized at the time of Russian aggression. There is much to admire in the powerful volunteer movement that has become the backbone of Ukrainian society in wartime. This wave of solidarity has not risen out of nothing — it was preceded by multiple networks of local activists, urban planning enthusiasts, and practical dreamers who have sought to transform their communities since the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan) of 2014.
Some of these civil society activists and organizations have chosen the thorny field of anti-corruption and rule of law as their domain, and as a result Ukraine today can boast an impressive number of good governance and anti-corruption experts and think-tanks, some of which provide expertise to the government, to the World Bank, and to United Nations agencies. As the international community is slowly gearing up to support Ukraine’s multibillion-dollar post-war reconstruction, activists are already setting up networks to monitor the use of funds for rebuilding, and civil society experts are conducting surveys of damage done by the Russian military, collecting data from the air by drones.
Over the years, many international donors, including the EU and some of its member states, have invested in Ukrainian civil society, but the momentum has always come from within. In the early and euphoric days after the Euromaidan, I remember endless initiatives and ideas on how to improve public administration, reform local governance, and generally make Ukraine a better place to live in. Only some of those got EU funding, but many more were implemented, one way or another, through the relentless enthusiasm of civil society.
Now, as Ukraine is set to progress on its European journey, one thing that seems missing from the EU architecture of support is a structured, statutory approach to the crucial role of civil society in reforms and reconstruction. “Soft” forms of participation like the (very inclusive) National Platform of Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and the EU-Ukraine Civil Society Platform are not sufficient, as their role is to consult and to comment, not to provide structured reviews of government reforms (although that would be of much benefit to European institutions.)
There is no clear national mechanism for sourcing technical expertise for public administration reforms from Ukrainian civil society, nor indeed any publicly accessible mapping that is available. Yet given the close links between civil society and government (many NGO experts became politicians in the aftermath of 2014, and some still remain in the parliament), it is quite common to see the ad-hoc engagement of civil society experts in working groups and other formats to underpin reforms. But a transparent mechanism for their engagement is still missing; the EU should now request and give financial support to such a system.
There is much to be gained by adopting a formal reliance on civil society experts for reconstruction and reform. For one, their knowledge and skills would complement and fill gaps in public sector expertise. Moreover, their heterogenous but locally rooted backgrounds would help to keep the spirit of decentralized governance alive, preserving it for better times after the war, when it can flourish.
Last but not least, there is no better way to ensure that Ukraine’s admirable societal resilience lives on beyond the war, and survives an inevitable sense of disappointment when the peacetime interests of politicians, parties, and economic groups re-emerge. Active communities with embedded values of democracy and the rule of law are the best safeguard of good governance and transparency in the future.
Marija Golubeva is a Latvian politician, political scientist, and historian, and is currently a Fellow at Robert Bosch Stiftung in Berlin. She served as the Minister of the Interior of Latvia and as a member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022.) She has been also active as a public policy researcher and international consultant.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.