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EU-Ukraine relations come under the spotlight

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The EU and U.S are doing a lot for Ukraine on the issue of reforms, not only to economic reforms but reform of the justice system, writes Martin Banks.

Over the past six years, as part of legal reforms, Ukraine has developed and adopted amendments to its constitution, adopting about a dozen laws. 

 The new Supreme Court, the Higher Anti-Corruption Court were created, the qualification assessment of judges and other processes have started, all designed to have a positive impact on the judicial system and the fight against corruption. The EU was actively involved in all these reforms.

The result, though, has not yet met expectations. In 2019, an opinion poll by the Razumkov Centre for the Council of Europe Office in Ukraine showed 46% believe that the judicial reform has “not yet begun at all” and that 43% have a negative attitude towards a judicial reform.

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Corruption in Ukraine continues to thrive, and the judicial system has become even more ineffective than before. At the same time, some Ukrainian politicians are actively using the topic of judicial reform for their own interests. In particular, former President Petro Poroshenko used the topic of judicial reform to gain control over the courts. And he succeeded with only a few judges daring to make decisions against Poroshenko's will. 

As a result, the number of experienced judges who have left the system has increased since 2014. Some Ukrainian courts have no judges left at all and the courts have suspended their work, making it difficult or impossible for citizens to access justice at all. 

As of early 2020, the shortage of judicial personnel in the courts was almost 30%. This affects the quality of court proceedings and the timing of consideration of cases. Suspects stay in pretrial detention centers for an inordinate time, cases accumulate, and the dynamics of justice slow down, leading to social tensions.

Almost everybody agrees that the implemented reforms proved to be totally ineffective but why is this happening? Why have all efforts been in vain? The question was to be discussed at an international conference "Dialogue about justice - 2" in Kiev, but the event was badly disrupted.

EU policy makers and civil servants cancelled their participation in the conference, when they learned the day before that the panel consisted of some people with a “dubious” reputation.

Even those who decided to take part faced with problems. Immediately after it started, an anonymous message was received about the mining of the Parkovyi ECC building, where the conference participants were gathered. 

 All those present had to leave the premises and wait outside for an hour while police checked the building.

 Why did someone try to disrupt the conference? The Ukrainian edition of "Vzglyad” said the conference tried to “disrupt” organizations and structures that focus on Poroshenko.

Journalists talked to a representative of one such organization engaged in promoting judicial reform in Ukraine who said that in Ukraine only certain NGOs have the right to contact with Europeans on the topic of judicial and other reforms.

Ukraine, he said, has formed a "caste" of reformers who do not allow anyone else to discuss reforms without their permission and it is these who determine who in Ukraine is "dubious", that is, who EU representatives have no right to communicate. 

One of the conference participants was a well-known Ukrainian lawyer, Rostislav Popovich who noted it was the second such high-level discussion on judicial reform - the first one was held last year in the European Parliament. He wrote on his Facebook page:“The Kiev event was attended by people's deputies, judges of higher courts, leading lawyers, MEPs and specialists from Europe, the U.S and Israel. The composition was representative and the topics discussed were topical. But it was very difficult to hold it in Kiev - not because of the coronavirus, but because the conference was disrupted by people who wrote letters to MEPs, demanding that they refuse to participate, speaking of 'odious' participants. 

“Why such a strange reaction? It was because the conference wasn't held by them and they didn't select the participants. They did not want to allow Europeans to learn the truth about the real situation in the country and about those 'reforms' that have been implemented here.”

He believes that in Ukraine there are people “parasitizing on the problems of the judicial system and many other problems.”

According to Popovich, they “monopolize” the right to speak on behalf of the country with Europe and other Western partners."These people, as a rule, do not understand the topic, do not understand the real situation and promote "reforms" that fail one after another and only make the situation worse. At the same time, activists do not bear any responsibility for the result. Moreover, for them, worse is better. As long as there are problems in the country, these people receive grants to fight these problems.”

He argues that the EU communicates in Ukraine exclusively with a small group of people who call themselves civil society - mostly activists, funded by grants from the EU and international organizations. They purport to represent all Ukrainian people and are often the ones with whom European politicians often come into contact to discuss reforms.

In reality, says the lawyer, these activists “represent no one - they have neither support nor even respect among Ukrainians, and are often accused of corruption themselves”.

It was, he states at the insistence of those pushing for judicial reform that those who work directly in the judicial system were “eliminated” - judges, lawyers and lawyers. He says this is an abnormal situation for any country and one reason why the reforms failed.

It is quite understandable why few people in Europe seem to have a good understanding of what is happening in Ukraine, on reason why Europeans involved in promoting certain models of unworkable judicial reform worsen the situation.

Europe should maintain contacts not only with professional activists, but also with a wider range of people in Ukraine to be able to form an objective picture of what is happening in the country. That would ensure the reforms really benefit Ukraine.Ukrainians have already shown that they are against external management by Russia. But now they say that Ukraine has fallen under the external control of the West and Ukrainian people will not accept such a situation.

This could have dramatic consequences and some politicians are already calling for a rejection of European integration with such appeals gaining support among voters.

Belgium

Cars and pavements washed away as Belgian town hit by worst floods in decades

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The southern Belgian town of Dinant was hit by the heaviest floods in decades on Saturday (24 July) after a two-hour thunderstorm turned streets into torrential streams that washed away cars and pavements but did not kill anyone, writes Jan Strupczewski, Reuters.

Dinant was spared the deadly floods 10 days ago that killed 37 people in southeast Belgium and many more in Germany, but the violence of Saturday's storm surprised many.

"I have been living in Dinant for 57 years, and I've never seen anything like that," Richard Fournaux, the former mayor of the town on the Meuse river and birthplace of the 19th century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, said on social media.

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A woman works to recover her belongings following heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
A woman walks in an area affected by heavy rainfall in Dinant, Belgium July 25, 2021. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Rainwater gushing down steep streets swept away dozens of cars, piling them in a heap at a crossing, and washed away cobbles stones, pavements and whole sections of tarmac as inhabitants watched in horror from windows.

There was no precise estimate of the damage, with town authorities predicting only that it would be "significant", according to Belgian RTL TV.

The storm wreaked similar havoc, also with no loss of life, in the small town of Anhee a few kilometres north of Dinant.

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Czech Republic

NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Czechia's €7 billion recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has today (19 July) adopted a positive assessment of Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €7 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF). This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. It will play a key role in helping Czechia emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF is at the heart of NextGenerationEU which will provide €800bn (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Czech plan forms part of an unprecedented co-ordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

The Commission assessed Czechia's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Czechia's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

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Securing Czechia's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 42% of its total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. The plan includes investments in renewable energy, the modernisation of district heating distribution networks, the replacement of coal-fired boilers and improving the energy efficiency of residential and public buildings. The plan also includes measures for nature protection and water management as well as investment in sustainable mobility.

The Commission's assessment of Czechia's plan finds that it devotes 22% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. The plan provides for investments in digital infrastructure, the digitalization of public administration, including the areas of health, justice and the administration of construction permits. It promotes the digitalisation of businesses and digital projects in the cultural and creative sectors. The plan also includes measures to improve digital skills at all levels, as part of the education system and through dedicated upskilling and reskilling programmes.

Reinforcing Czechia's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Czechia's plan effectively addresses all or a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Czechia by the Council in the European Semester in 2019 and in 2020.

The plan provides for measures to tackle the need for investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, sustainable transport and digital infrastructure. Several measures aim at addressing the need to foster digital skills, improve the quality and inclusiveness of education, and to increase the availability of childcare facilities. The plan also provides for improving the business environment, mainly through extensive e-government measures, a reform of the procedures of granting construction permits and anti-corruption measures. Challenges in the area of R&D shall be improved by investment geared at strengthening public-private cooperation and financial and non-financial support to innovative firms.

The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Czechia's economic and social situation, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

Supporting flagship investments and reform projects

The Czech plan proposes projects in all seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects which address issues that are common to all member states in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the twin transition. For instance, Czechia has proposed €1.4bn to support the energy efficiency renovation of buildings and €500 million to boost digital skills through education and investments in upskilling and reskilling programmes for the entire labour force.  

The Commission's assessment finds that no measure included in the plan does any significant harm to the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The arrangements proposed in the recovery and resilience plan in relation to control systems are adequate to prevent, detect and correct corruption, fraud and conflicts of interests relating to the use of funds. The arrangements are also expected to effectively avoid double funding under that Regulation and other Union programmes. These control systems are complemented by additional audit and control measures contained in the Commission's proposal for a Council Implementing Decision as milestones. These milestones must be fulfilled before Czechia presents its first payment request to the Commission.

President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Czechia's recovery and resilience plan. This plan will play a crucial role in supporting a shift towards a greener and more digital future for Czechia. Measures that improve energy efficiency, digitalize public administration and deter the misuse of public funds are exactly in line with the objectives of NextGenerationEU. I also welcome the strong emphasis the plan places on strengthening the resilience of Czechia's health-care system to prepare it for future challenges. We will stand with you every step of the way to ensure that the plan is fully implemented.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Czechia's recovery and resilience plan will provide a strong boost to the country's efforts to get back its feet after the economic shock caused the pandemic. The €7bn in NextGenerationEU funds that will flow to Czechia over the next five years will support a wide-ranging programme of reforms and investments to build a more sustainable and competitive economy. They include very sizeable investments in building renovation, clean energy and sustainable mobility, as well as measures to boost digital infrastructure and skills and the digitalisation of public services. The business environment will benefit from the promotion of e-government and anti-corruption measures. The plan will also support improvements in healthcare, including reinforced cancer prevention and rehabilitation care.”

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €7bn in grants to Czechia under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €910m to Czechia in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total amount allocated to Czechia.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said: “This plan will put Czechia on the path to recovery and boost its economic growth as Europe gears up for the green and digital transitions. Czechia intends to invest in renewable energy and sustainable transport, while improving the energy efficiency of buildings. It aims to roll out greater digital connectivity across the country, promote digital education and skills, and digitalize many of its public services. And it places a welcome focus on improving the business environment and justice system, backed by measures to fight corruption and promote e-government – all in a balanced response to the Czech economic and social situation. Once put properly into practice, this plan will help to put Czechia on a sound footing for the future.”

The Commission will authorize further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress on the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

More information

Questions and answers: European Commission endorses Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and answers

Factsheet on Czechia's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Czechia

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Czechia

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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Belgium

Death toll rises to 170 in Germany and Belgium floods

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The death toll in devastating flooding in western Germany and Belgium rose to at least 170 on Saturday (17 July) after burst rivers and flash floods this week collapsed houses and ripped up roads and power lines, write Petra Wischgoll,
David Sahl, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Bart Meijer in Amsterdam.

Some 143 people died in the flooding in Germany's worst natural disaster in more than half a century. That included about 98 in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, according to police.

Hundreds of people were still missing or unreachable as several areas were inaccessible due to high water levels while communication in some places was still down.

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Residents and business owners struggled to pick up the pieces in battered towns.

"Everything is completely destroyed. You don't recognise the scenery," said Michael Lang, owner of a wine shop in the town of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in Ahrweiler, fighting back tears.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Erftstadt in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the disaster killed at least 45 people.

"We mourn with those that have lost friends, acquaintances, family members," he said. "Their fate is ripping our hearts apart."

Around 700 residents were evacuated late on Friday after a dam broke in the town of Wassenberg near Cologne, authorities said.

But Wassenberg mayor Marcel Maurer said water levels had been stabilising since the night. "It's too early to give the all-clear but we are cautiously optimistic," he said.

The Steinbachtal dam in western Germany, however, remained at risk of breaching, authorities said after some 4,500 people were evacuated from homes downstream.

Steinmeier said it would take weeks before the full damage, expected to require several billions of euros in reconstruction funds, could be assessed.

Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and the ruling CDU party's candidate in September's general election, said he would speak to Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in the coming days about financial support.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was expected to travel on Sunday to Rhineland Palatinate, the state that is home to the devastated village of Schuld.

Members of the Bundeswehr forces, surrounded by partially submerged cars, wade through the flood water following heavy rainfalls in Erftstadt-Blessem, Germany, July 17, 2021. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen
Austrian rescue team members use their boats as they go through an area affected by floods, following heavy rainfalls, in Pepinster, Belgium, July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

In Belgium, the death toll rose to 27, according to the national crisis centre, which is co-ordinating the relief operation there.

It added that 103 people were "missing or unreachable". Some were likely unreachable because they could not recharge mobile phones or were in hospital without identity papers, the centre said.

Over the past several days the floods, which have mostly hit the German states of Rhineland Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and eastern Belgium, have cut off entire communities from power and communications.

RWE (RWEG.DE), Germany's largest power producer, said on Saturday its opencast mine in Inden and the Weisweiler coal-fired power plant were massively affected, adding that the plant was running at lower capacity after the situation stabilized.

In the southern Belgian provinces of Luxembourg and Namur, authorities rushed to supply drinking water to households.

Flood water levels slowly fell in the worst hit parts of Belgium, allowing residents to sort through damaged possessions. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited some areas on Saturday afternoon.

Belgian rail network operator Infrabel published plans of repairs to lines, some of which would be back in service only at the very end of August.

Emergency services in the Netherlands also remained on high alert as overflowing rivers threatened towns and villages throughout the southern province of Limburg.

Tens of thousands of residents in the region have been evacuated in the past two days, while soldiers, fire brigades and volunteers worked frantically throughout Friday night (16 July) to enforce dykes and prevent flooding.

The Dutch have so far escaped disaster on the scale of its neighbours, and as of Saturday morning no casualties had been reported.

Scientists have long said that climate change will lead to heavier downpours. But determining its role in these relentless rainfalls will take at least several weeks to research, scientists said on Friday.

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