The EU’s Deepening Approach to Ukrainian Reform Is Paying Dividends

As a new European Commission takes office, it should not abandon the strategy.

Expert comment Published 30 August 2019 Updated 9 August 2021 2 minute READ
EU and Ukraine flags in Lviv town hall. Photo via Getty Images.

EU and Ukraine flags in Lviv town hall. Photo via Getty Images.

Since the Euromaidan revolution in the winter of 2013–14, the EU has adopted a significantly more strategic approach to reform in Ukraine, in order to address fundamental weaknesses within Ukrainian state institutions.

The EU Commission of 2014–19 launched a number of major innovations to support Ukraine, which represented a step-change in EU support for domestic reforms in a neighbouring country.

The most significant of these was the creation of the Support Group for Ukraine (SGUA), a special taskforce for delivering assistance and supporting Ukraine, which became operational during Jean-Claude Juncker presidency of the Commission. The SGUA, led by Peter Wagner since 2016, consists of 35-40 officials who have developed an in-depth knowledge of Ukraine and have experimented with new approaches in supporting reforms.

Ukraine is the only third country which has been allocated such a dedicated taskforce. Prior to 2014, support for Ukraine from international donors, including the EU, was mainly in the form of isolated, short-term technical projects conducted within weak domestic institutions which themselves lacked professional and motivated staff. As these projects did not engage with fundamental reform of state institutions, they, at best, had short term and non-sustainable impact.

The SGUA was an innovation at the heart of a series of initiatives designed to create strong institutions, recruit professional, capable and motivated personnel, and develop a comprehensive set of reform strategies which sequence the reform steps for decentralization, public administration, public finance management, the energy sector, transport and the environment.

As a result, the scale of assistance is now matched by its effectiveness. In coordination with other donors such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the EU has led the process of (re)building the Ukrainian state. By taking the lead on coordination, the EU has been able to more effectively deploy the resources available and avoid duplication and fragmentation. It has noticeably focused on public administration reform through the Ukraine Reform Architecture – a major multi-donor effort.

This kind of support is only possible thanks to a robust understanding of Ukraine’s needs by EU officials, who have gained a detailed insight into the workings of the Ukrainian government and the nature of the challenges and problems in each sector. It is this insight which has allowed them to devise specific and targeted support measures and, crucially, monitor mechanisms which look to long-term outcomes. The fact that these efforts are coordinated with other donors (a real achievement itself) magnifies the impact of their work.

Underpinning these efforts is an understanding that re-building the Ukrainian state will take time and requires patience and a readiness to avoid the lure of cosmetic changes that merely entrench vested interests. The in-depth knowledge of EU officials also allows them to sequence reform measures and support reformers within government, while putting pressure on laggards.

With new leadership both in Ukraine and the EU, it is particularly important to retain and sustain these innovations. Ironically, many in the EU institutions do not grasp the significance of those innovations. The prevailing lack of understanding and appreciation of their pivotal nature within the EU itself means that there is a growing risk that they may be abandoned, even if inadvertently.

It is important this does not happen. While rivalries within EU institutions could lead to a sense that Kyiv is being given special treatment, the state-building strategies that are working in Ukraine could also help in planned EU initiatives towards Georgia and Moldova.

The sustainability of the EU’s support is important because it takes time to develop expertise, establish links and gain credibility vis-à-vis national officials and experts. The recent presidential and parliamentary elections represent a complete renewal of political elites in Ukraine. This is highly desirable and overdue. During this transition, the support of the EU is vital, and through its work over the past five year, it could hardly be better positioned.