The COVID crisis must not become an excuse for backtracking of achievements – Věra Jourová

On June 23 in the framework of the series of Zero Corruption Talks preceding Zero Corruption Conference we held an online panel discussion “The High Time for the Real Judiciary Reform in Ukraine” to discuss how Ukraine’s previous experience with the engagement of international experts and civil society can help to achieve successful judicial reform and ensure integrity and accountability of judicial governance. With a keynote speech from Vera Jourova, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency.

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I have two main messages today: First, that Ukraine is a key partner for the EU. And second, that continuation of judicial and anticorruption reforms are of the utmost importance. 

This remains the same since I was there [in Ukraine] in 2015. Both reforms, judicial and anticorruption, –  are important for the EU-Ukraine relationship, and above all they are important for Ukrainian citizens who want to live in a modern democratic and European country. 

The reforms in Ukraine since 2014 have been unprecedented, and so has been the EU support. I speak about EUR 15 bln mobilized in support of Ukraine since 2014. And there was always clear  emphasis on strengthening Ukraine’s resilience. Without resilient Ukraine there cannot be resilient Europe. Resilience requires genuine sustainable reforms. And we do want to wack? together with Ukraine in the full implementation of Association Agreement, deep and comprehensive free-trade area to make sure all its benefits are realised for the citizens. 

The EU continues to assist Ukraine with structural reforms and institution building. For example, our successful EU Anticorruption Initiative. 

And the EU also stands in full solidarity with Ukraine’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. I think i should have started with this strong message that we stand strongly with Ukrainian people and we wish you get out of crisis in good shape, good health and with good economic perspective, which is a big challenge now for all EU countries also. In the context of this COVID-19 pandemic the EU has quickly mobilized a package of 190 mln EUR, and this money should be used to support health sector, emergency needs, address the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, and support the most vulnerable groups of citizens. As part of the COVID-19 crisis response the EU has decided to make available a further exceptional macro- financial assistance program for Ukraine up to 1.2 bln EUR for which policy conditions are being negotiated now. The EU will include the conditions relating to rule of law and anticorruption reforms. its essential for Ukraine to stay on the reform path especially concerning the rule of law and anticorruption. The COVID crisis must not become an excuse for backtracking of achievements or giving into oligarchs’ interests. 

Let me say few words in general about the reforms.  

Since the Revolution of Dignity 6 years ago Ukraine has made unprecedented progress in reforming the country. It is important that the Government continues implementing an ambitious reform program to make it irreversible and sustainable. I welcome President Zelenskiy’s leadership in striving to fulfill the prior actions for the International Monetary Fund program. This allowed also the EU to disburse the outstanding 500 mln tranche of its current macrofinancial assistance program. 

I also want to stress the importance of continuing rule of law reforms in Ukraine. As i already said the rule of law has direct impact on the life of every citizen. It is a precondition for ensuring equal treatment before the law, for preventing abuse of power by public authorities and for decision makers to be held accountable. Respect for the rule of law is essential to ensure public trust in the state institutions. It is also crucial to sustain economic growth, create a transparent legal field and improve the business and investment climate in Ukraine. The fight against corruption and the undue influence of vested interest in media, economics and politics is an essential element of  strengthening the rule of law. 

Let me highlight the key role of civil society and independent media in this context. It is all important and cso and journalists can do their work without fear of violence or intimidation. 

The EU is not only expecting Ukraine to carry out rule of law reforms but it is also working on strengthening the rule of law within the Union and its member states. The Commission is setting up a comprehensive European rule of law mechanism covering all member states with objective annual reporting by the European Commission. The report will cover the justice systems, the fight against corruption, media pluralism, and other institutional issues relating to checks and balances. So you see, we are focusing a lot on our member states to do our homeworks at home and this Rule of Law Report (first edition) will be announced in September this year. 

On the reform of the judiciary. One of Ukraine’s success stories is the launch of High Anticorruption Court in September 2019. This court is expected to deliver convictions in high-level corruption cases. It is now important to ensure independence of the court including through adequate budgetary resources and permanent buildings. 

I remember in 2015 there were a lot of doubts whether this will come true, whether there will be strong enough institutions to go after the corruption cases  where big political and economic interests and people will be involved. So I must say I see this as really a very good progress. 

I also welcome the intentions to complete the judicial reforms announced when President Zelenskiy took office last May. However I am concerned the reform has been blocked for many months now. This is problematic because it has not been possible since last september to recruit new judges to fill more than 2,000 vacancies in the country. It is indispensable to unblock the reform as soon as possible. Without the capacities, without the knowledgeable people, without the professional judges who will fulfill all the very demanding conditions of professionalism, of integrity and high qualification, the justice reform cannot be work in Ukraine. You cannot do that without the qualified people. 

Again we need to see reform block, adopted which introduces amendment in accordance with the Constitution of Ukraine and the recommendations of the Venice Commision. The adoption of the judiciary reform legislation is of such fundamental importance that both the IMF and the EU have made it conditions of their respective memoranda of understanding. 

In order to achieve the sustainable judiciary reform it is important to not only ensure the principle of judiciary independence and the security of judicial tenure, but also to integrate it to the judicial corps. This requires a reform of the judicial governance bodies, responsible for selecting, appointing and disciplining judges, namely here I speak on the High Council of Justice. 

So, on the justice reform, I will try to finalise my part on this positively – the EU will continue to provide support for the judiciary reform in Ukraine. 

It’s important to say a few words about fight against the corruption. The continuance fulfillment of the anticorruption benchmarks was key in the decision of granting visa free access to the EU to  the Ukrainian citizens. Therefore the progress in Ukraine is closely monitored and reported by the Commission in the framework of the visa suspension mechanisms regular reporting.  

There have been positive developments such as the start of the work of the High Anticorruption Court, re-criminalisation of illicit enrichment, and granting the National Anticorruption Bureau  the right of independent wiretapping. 

But I am concerned regarding the increased politicization of the work of the anticorruption institutions. It is essential to preserve independence and effective functioning of all of the anticorruption agencies. This also includes ensuring competitive and merit based selection procedures conducted by depoliticized selection commission for management positions in anticorruption institutions and strong safeguards for their independence. Dismissal of the leaderships of anticorruption institutions should occur only in accordance with the current legislation. In this context let me express my concern regarding the reports of the possible changes of the leadership in the NABU. 

I appreciate the progress towards the effective and automated verification of electronic asset declarations, notably granting the national agency for corruption prevention access to all relevant registries and databases. At the same time I would like to express EU concern about frequent changes to the legal framework on the e-declarations that are introduced without sufficient analysis and consultation with relevant authorities. I also want to reiterate that the EU stands ready to provide the necessary assistance for Ukraine in the area of anticorruption.  

Last but not the least. Let me stress again the importance of involving civil society experts and academia, and ensuring the greatest possible transparency about the reforms. This is crucial for genuine reforms that can strengthen citizens trust in institutions that are supposed to serve them. 

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention. Thank you.

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