Interview with Daniel Popescu, official of the Council of Europe Secretariat, Head of the Centre of Expertise for Local Government Reform of the Directorate General ІІ.
An interview to the “Holos Ukrayiny” (ed. “Voice of Ukraine”) newspaper took place shortly after Mr. Popescu's return from Kramatorsk, that last week hosted the 4th Forum “Effective Local Self-Government as a Democratic and Lawful State”, with the support of the Council of Europe.
— How would you, Mr. Popescu, briefly describe the state of local democracy in our continent in general and in Ukraine in particular?
— Europe has a different situation with local democracy. The Nordic countries are sufficiently decentralised, have highly developed local self-government, and at the same time continue to work on improving the efficiency of their local governments.
Many countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe are now carrying out decentralisation, seeking and implementing their own effective models of regional development and territorial organisation of power.
In a broad context, your country is still sufficiently centralised. However, fiscal, budget decentralisation reforms have been quite successful, making Ukraine no longer among the 7-10 countries of our continent, which are considered too centralised.
Ukraine has envisioned a rather ambitious reform. Much has already been done, but now the work has to be completed. Then you will really feel the benefits of such a democratic way of managing territories.
We advise, however, it’s up to you to decide
— The CoE Secretariat’s Department of Good Governance, which you lead, has supported our reform since its very start. This is perhaps why the Ukrainian self-governance activists call you the European godfather of our decentralisation. We are grateful for your support, organisation of highly qualified expert assessments and thorough in-depth professional reviews, for the tireless, persistent and at the same time unobtrusive assistance to Ukrainian reformers throughout the reform years. What motivated you personally to do this?
— Thank you for such words. We are an international organisation, and through our programmes we try to give you sound advice, but we never impose our say. Ukraine is a sovereign state. It has its own public administration and elected authorities, empowered to make decisions for their own state.
Since 2005-2006, I have been watching the situation in Ukraine, especially since 2014. And, of course, during this time my relations with your country, representatives of state power and local self-government we cooperate with have formed.
However, every morning when I look in the mirror while shaving, I try to remind myself that, first of all, I am a bureaucrat who works in a standalone mode, I have to make very balanced decisions and must always remain unbiased.
On the risks and window of opportunities
— A few days ago, speaking at a forum in Kramatorsk, you compared decentralisation to marathon distance. What are the risks facing Ukrainian reformers on this path and how to best avoid them?
— Indeed, the reform is a certain marathon in all countries. In general, most European countries spent about 10 years on it. Though, as you know, when a marathon runner wants to win, then at the end of the race track he/she will try to switch to sprint.
I think that Ukraine is now in a favourable situation to make such a leap. The population supports the reform – this is confirmed by the sociological surveys we conduct every year. The current Ukrainian government demonstrates their desire to work hard, fulfill their promises and accelerate the course of events in the country. You have your own experts and local managers who have considerable reforming experience, as well as many foreign friends who are ready to support your efforts and needs that arise along the way.
In addition, you have, so to speak, a landmark, a very important factor – the end of October 2020, when the local elections are to be held in accordance with the Constitution. The window of opportunities is open until April next year.
— What do you mean?
— This window will remain open until about April-May. By this time changes to the local election law should be made. The aforementioned law cannot be adopted directly on the eve of the election race. Moreover, it can only be approved when the situation around local self-government and territorial organisation of power is finally fully understood. It is about changes to the Constitution, a new administrative-territorial division, including hromadas’ amalgamation and a reformed system of existing rayons.
Now as far as risks are concerned. There are two of them: either to do everything too fast, or to move slowly. In the first case, there is a threat that the process will be carried out without proper consultation with all stakeholders. This means that the reform will not be understood and accepted, that is, it will not be of high quality.
Our advice is to adhere to the European standards, use the best of your own experience and practical experience of other countries. The main thing is that people also accept the reform and that it satisfies the official authorities.
The second risk is the loss of pace and the inability to complete the reform before the next election. Of course, life will not stop there. Then the Ukrainian authorities will have two more years to complete decentralisation.
Still, I very much hope that your current government will benefit from the tremendous support of society it has today. Dedication of your authorities to the announced innovations and efforts to complete the institutional and legislative parts of the reform by the next local election cannot but impress.
On Donbas and of “Strasbourg format” mystery
— Mr Popescu, how would you assess the progress of the decentralisation reform in eastern Ukraine, where you have just returned from?
— In Kramatorsk, there is a very high level of commitment to local self-government from those who spoke at the forum – representatives of the structures of regional executive authorities and local self-government bodies, leaders of the new AHs.
Of course, the situation is different, there are civil-military administrations. And, of course, there are serious issues, especially in places where territorial hromadas are separated by the demarcation line. At the same time, these problems affect a very limited, small number of hromadas and municipalities and not many people live there.
However, in major part of Donbas, I have seen that amalgamation of hromadas, decentralisation go even faster than in some other regions of the country. There are compelling success stories, effective best practices worth of dissemination, bright leaders of new AHs appeared. Therefore, in my opinion, with the exception of the small areas where some specific decisions are to be made, the process of completing decentralisation described above can be carried out here as in the rest of your country.
— Please comment on what is to be expected from the implementation of the Council of Europe Action Plan for Ukraine in this very important period of national decentralisation sprint?
— First of all, I want to correct you: the Council of Europe is developing plans not for Ukraine, but together with Ukraine. The current assistance plan is coming to an end at the end of 2021, and we are implementing all of its provisions step by step.
It is worth noting that we work solely at requests of your country, its legislative and executive authorities.
What are the main products offered by the CoE in the legislative work? First, we can provide experts to help your government develop projects that meet the European standards. Secondly, we prepare such expert opinions before your legislators pass the relevant bills. And now we have a very large list of such proposals, requests, queries.
Thirdly, when serious, fundamental issues arise, we prepare thorough professional reviews. For this, we invite high-rank managers from different countries, as well as experts from local stakeholders to discuss the issues and express their views.
Fourthly, sometimes we resort to the so-called Strasbourg format. I will reveal the secret – it is about closed-door meetings. We resort to them when it comes to the problem of an overly controversial plan. The Council of Europe moderates such negotiations, involving all stakeholders. The peculiarity is that the list of issues to be discussed is received by the participants immediately before the meeting.
In my observations, Ukrainian officials are willing to stick to this format and it usually produces a positive result. However, we do not initiate these things, but do so only when asked.
I expect that in the nearest future we will have to give a lot of expert opinions on the bills on amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine, the new administrative-territorial division, local elections. And this list can go on. Your Ministry of Development of Communities and Territories would like the Council of Europe to give its opinion on all new legislative acts.
We will continue our cooperation in other directions – on building the organisational and technical capacity of localamalgamated hromadas, the Leadership Academy, “Best local self-government practices” competition, training of modern staff for the municipal service.
As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. This is, of course, a joke. We try to be very flexible, so often our plans change on a monthly basis, based on the needs received by the Council of Europe.
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