François Decoster: Empowering regional authorities will make governance more effective in Ukraine

We met François Decoster, Mayor of Saint-Omer in France and newly elected chairman of the European Committee of the Regions’ CIVEX commission, which also covers external relations policies, to discuss the recent evolution of the crisis in Ukraine, in particular the state of play of decentralisation reform. Decentralisation reform is part of the Minsk agreement and will tackle the sensitive issue of Eastern regions, but also the broader need for modern and efficient administration.

Could you please present us your analysis of the current crisis in Ukraine?

Ukraine has been facing complex challenges regarding its territorial integrity, peace and stability. The Minsk agreement of 12 February 2015 proposes a way forward for the future of Lugansk and Donetsk through a decentralisation process which could eventually lead to granting them a ‘special status’ within the Ukrainian state while respecting cultural specificities and taking into account the characteristics of these areas. As Federica Mogherini, EU Representative for Foreign Affairs, pointed out, this agreement is meant to be a turning point and to make peace possible in Ukraine. It is firmly supported by the European Committee of the Regions. The actions of separatists in Debaltseve are considered a clear violation of the ceasefire and are firmly condemned not only by the EU as a whole, but by the entire democratically-oriented world.

What are the most important challenges today?

Ukraine now faces serious territorial challenges in economic policy, such as significant inter-regional disparities in economic growth and productivity as well as in the provision of basic services. In addition, they must also tackle the economic, social and political aftermaths of a war. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 4700 lives so far. As a result of this conflict the gross domestic product fell by at least 7,5% in 2014. Investors have pulled money out of Ukraine. The hryvnia lost around 50 % of its value against the US dollar last year. Foreign currency reserves have fallen below USD 10 billion, the lowest level in a decade.

In this difficult financial and economic situation some Ukrainian local authorities now have to deal with extremely difficult situations, such as the humanitarian crisis of displaced people from conflict regions in the country. Ukraine urgently needs economic and fiscal reforms to be rigorously implemented, such as improving the budgeting procedure, reducing the government’s arrears, reducing public expenditures, budget balancing, decreasing taxes imposed on non-monetary bills, fighting corruption as well as bureaucracy, improving the investment climate, as well as further far-reaching reforms in order to achieve the intended benefits of regional policy.

We have seen the first laws of decentralisation reform that have been adopted…

Decentralisation is seen as an important tool for achieving stability in the country. Successful decentralisation should be envisaged alongside territorial reform with municipal mergers and increased inter-municipal cooperation and legal simplification. The possibility of joint bodies and co-operation could create much-needed economies of scale and increased efficiency in territorial governance structures. In spring 2014 the Ukrainian Government set itself the ambitious task of reforming local self-governance and the territorial organisation of power in the country by means of constitutional amendments which are currently being deliberated by the Ukrainian Parliament.

In spring 2014 the Ukrainian Government set itself the ambitious task of reforming local self-governance and the territorial organisation of power in the country by means of constitutional amendments which are currently being deliberated by the Ukrainian Parliament.

Is there any decentralisation model that would be most suitable for Ukraine?

There is no model at EU level that must be followed and applied. There is no prescription! Each country has its own way of identifying the correct steps and taking the necessary actions. The Committee has immense respect for each country’s autonomy and sovereignty and when it comes to local and regional authorities it is always ready to provide expertise, to share experience, to facilitate an open and fruitful exchange of ideas and to foster the dialogue on these matters. While acknowledging differences and country-specific characteristics, we cooperate on the basis of what we have in common, namely our values, principles and aspirations for democracy, solidarity and people’s welfare.

How do you envisage the support of the European Committee of the Regions for Ukraine’s reform efforts?

Relations between the European Committee of the Regions and Ukraine have been increasing of late, through cooperation in the multilateral body the Conference of the Regional and Local Authorities for the Eastern Partnership (CORLEAP). CORLEAP, initiated under the Polish Presidency in 2008 and established in 2011, brings together 36 regional and local politicians – mayors, members of local and regional assemblies or parliaments – 18 from the six Eastern partner countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and 18 from the EU Committee of the Regions.

We are ready to provide both political and technical support in order to help our Ukrainian partners make their way towards decentralisation, devolution and multi-level governance.

The Committee and CORLEAP held conferences, workshops and training events dedicated to decentralisation, including fiscal decentralisation, territorial cooperation and division of powers which also covered Ukrainian cases. The Committee supports the reform process in Ukraine. We are ready to provide both political and technical support in order to help our Ukrainian partners make their way towards decentralisation, devolution and multi-level governance. The empowerment of local and regional authorities can make governance more effective and can positively impact citizens’ daily lives. The Committee has a specific role to play in the implementation of the reform process as far as decentralisation is concerned. It can contribute by stimulating the necessary debate at the local level, with civil society organisations, government counterparts and all stakeholders. The reforms require this kind of debate in order for citizens to recognise them.

Recently a new Task Force was established to support our contacts with Ukraine. Could you present its role?

On 12 February, the Committee set up a Task Force to work with our partners in Ukraine with a view to exchanging best practices about political, administrative and financial decentralisation. A Roadmap for this cooperation is currently being drawn up. Human capital and capacity to effectively perform the duties of governance at the local level are crucial for successful decentralisation. To that end, the CoR is advocating for enlargement of the provision of EU support, such as the Local Administration Facility (LAF).

This could support the capacity building and institutional efficiency of local and regional authorities in Ukraine through the exchange of best practices, training and seminars at European and national level. This could start out as a pilot project in Ukraine that could eventually be considered for extension to other Eastern partner countries. I am confident that in 2015 we will continue our constructive engagement with our partners and help them on their path to the European future.

Interview by Branislav Stanicek