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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.

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.

EU

Amid France-Turkey row, UK calls on NATO allies to defend free speech

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Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called on NATO allies to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on values of tolerance and free speech, in a veiled rebuke to Turkey which has been calling for a boycott of French goods, writes Estelle Shirbon.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has urged Turks to stop buying French goods and has accused France of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda. Britain, France and Turkey are all NATO members.

Erdogan is one of several leaders in the Muslim world angry with France over its response to the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who showed pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as part of a lesson on free speech.

“The UK stands in solidarity with France and the French people in the wake of the appalling murder of Samuel Paty,” Raab said in a statement. “Terrorism can never and should never be justified.

“NATO allies and the wider international community must stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the fundamental values of tolerance and free speech, and we should never give terrorists the gift of dividing us.”

Paty, a teacher at a state-run school in the far outskirts of Paris, was beheaded on 16 October by a man of Chechen origin. The teacher had been criticised by some in the local community for showing his pupils the cartoons because Muslims view images of the prophet as blasphemous.

The French government, backed by large numbers of citizens, saw the beheading as an attack on free speech and said they would defend the right to display the cartoons.

President Emmanuel Macron called Paty a hero and pledged to fight what he described as Islamic separatism, saying it was threatening to take over some Muslim communities in France.

The reaction to Paty’s murder has caused widespread anger in Muslim countries, where there have been anti-French demonstrations and calls for boycott. France has warned its citizens in several Muslim-majority countries to take extra security precautions.

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Customs Union: Commission proposes new ‘Single Window' to modernize and streamline customs controls, facilitate trade and improve co-operation

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The European Commission has proposed a new initiative that will make it easier for different authorities involved in goods clearance to exchange electronic information submitted by traders, who will be able to submit the information required for import or export of goods only once. The so-called 'EU Single Window Environment for Customs' aims to enhance co-operation and co-ordination between different authorities, in order to facilitate the automatic verification of non-customs formalities for goods entering or leaving the EU.

The Single Window aims to digitalize and streamline processes, so that businesses will ultimately no longer have to submit documents to several authorities through different portals. The proposal is the first concrete deliverable of the recently adopted Action Plan on taking the Customs Union to the next level.

It launches an ambitious project to modernize border controls over the coming decade, in order to facilitate trade, improve safety and compliance checks, and reduce the administrative burden for companies. Economy Comissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Digitalization, globalization and the changing nature of trade present both risks and opportunities when it comes to goods crossing the EU's borders.

"To rise to these challenges, customs and other competent authorities must act as one, with a more holistic approach to the many checks and procedures needed for smooth and safe trade. Today's proposal is the first step towards a fully paperless and integrated customs environment and better cooperation between all authorities at our external borders. I urge all member states to play their part in making it a true success story.”

The proposal, the press release, the Q&A and the factsheet are available online.

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coronavirus

Merkel plans circuit-break lockdown as German virus cases surge

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Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed regional leaders on Wednesday (28 October) to agree to a partial lockdown in Germany which would see restaurants and bars closed but keep schools open, a draft document seen by Reuters said, write and

The drastic measures, to take effect from 4 November, are aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus in Europe’s biggest economy as the number of new cases hit a record high.

Under the planned new restrictions people would only be able to go out with members of their own and one other household. Fitness studios, discos and cinemas would close, as would theatres, opera houses and concert venues.

Restaurants would only be allowed to offer takeaways, the document said. Shops could remain open if they implement hygiene measures and limit customer numbers.

Merkel will hold a virtual conference with the country’s 16 state premiers later to try to agree the nationwide rules and ditch a confusing patchwork of regional measures.

Almost all regions of Germany face an exponential increase in infection rates, said the document to be discussed, and local health authorities can no longer trace all infections.

“The aim is to interrupt the dynamic of the infection fast so no far-reaching limits on personal contact and economic activity are needed over the Christmas period,” it said.

Germany was widely praised for keeping infection and death rates below those of many of its neighbours in the first phase of the crisis but is now in the midst of a second wave. Cases rose by 14,964 to 464,239 in the last 24 hours, the Robert Koch institute for infectious diseases said on Wednesday.

Deaths jumped by 85 to 10,183, fuelling fears about the health system after Merkel warned on Tuesday it could hit breaking point if infections continue to spiral.

“If we wait until intensive care is full, it is too late,” Health Minister Jens Spahn, who last week tested positive for the virus, told broadcaster SWR.

The government has long insisted it wants to avoid a second blanket lockdown after an initial one this year hit economic growth, with the economy shrinking by a record 9.7% in the second quarter.

While economists expect a rebound for the July-Sept period, they warn that a further lockdown could wipe out growth in the last quarter. Third quarter data is due on 30 October.

Under the plans, the government aims to provide aid to firms hit by closures, including the cultural event sectors.

Only necessary overnight stays would be allowed, according to the document. Brothels, swimming pools, beauty and tattoo studios would close but physiotherapists and hairdressers could stay open. The steps would run until the end of November but are subject to review.

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