Decentralization is often called the key success story after the Revolution of Dignity.
And this despite the fact that formally the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement does not provide for a legal obligation of Ukraine to implement decentralization reform.
However, the European Union and its Member States actively support decentralization both politically and through international technical and financial assistance projects. Thus, the U-LEAD project with Europe, aimed at improving the quality of administrative services in Ukraine, is perhaps the most ambitious European technical assistance project in Ukraine.
So how exactly does decentralization contribute to the development of Ukraine's relations with the EU? But what does it take for united territorial communities (UTGs) to become new centers of European cooperation at the local level?
How does decentralization contribute to European integration?
Unlike other current reforms (eg public finance management, public procurement reforms), decentralization plays a minor role in the system of conditions under the Association Agreement.
Therefore, from a legal point of view, successful decentralization is not a guarantee of deepening Ukraine's relations with the EU or obtaining certain European integration bonuses.
However, there are at least five key "crossroads" that make decentralization conducive to European integration.
First, according to German political scientist Andreas Umland, successful decentralization brings the domestic organization in Ukraine closer to existing forms of decentralization in the EU.
In particular, Umland mentions the principle of subsidiarity enshrined in Article 3 (5) of the EU Treaty, according to which decision-making and action are taken at a level as close as possible to the citizen. Therefore, the more deconcentrated and subsidiary Ukraine becomes, the closer it becomes to other European states and - potentially more ready for negotiations on accession to the Union.
In addition, decentralization can be seen as a departure from the traditions of the centralized state inherent in tsarist and Soviet times. Therefore, according to Umland, this reform in some way legitimizes Ukraine's European and Euro-Atlantic ambitions.
Second, decentralization reform is largely a response to socio-economic challenges, such as lack of resources, poor quality of administrative services and depletion of infrastructure.
Thus, if successful, the reform will contribute to economic development and, as a consequence, to the deepening of EU-Ukraine economic cooperation and cooperation in the field of regional development.
Third, decentralization is the "axis" around which a number of important European integration reforms are concentrated (the fight against corruption, the improvement of the public financial management system, etc.).
Fourth, the key link between decentralization and European integration is the development of local democracy. By developing local democracy, decentralization helps Ukraine demonstrate real progress in political development and increases its neighbors' interest in its positive experiences.
Fifth, the expansion of the powers of the united territorial communities and their resources is theoretically seen as a way to more active cooperation of Ukrainian OTGs with communities and cities in the European Union.
European OTG cooperation: figures and problems
Thus, of the 66 OTGs established in 2015, among which the survey was conducted, only 17 have formalized or informal twinning with at least one community outside Ukraine. In total, information was received on 34 formal and 13 informal partnerships, mainly with the communities of Poland (about 30 partnerships) and other Central and Eastern European countries.
With the exception of Germany, OTG respondents do not have partnerships with Western European countries.
Respondents identify a number of problems that cause such rather modest statistics of European OTG partnerships.
First of all, the lack of specialists hinders the development of partnerships, which the respondents mentioned as a problem № 1.
Thus, only 13 of the 66 OTGs surveyed have an international relations specialist on staff.
The lack of staff implies a lack of relevant experience in building partnerships. The study found that OTGs that already have partnerships are much more likely to form new partnerships (91% vs 58%); therefore, the most difficult step is to create the first partnership.
Among the obstacles to the development of cooperation, respondents also noted difficulties in finding partner communities abroad and lack of knowledge of a foreign language.
An important institutional barrier to "bottom-up European integration" is the unresolved issue of the division of competencies between OTGs and other branches of government, in particular the conflicts between OTGs and local administrations that go back to the days before decentralization.
Given the obstacles mentioned by our respondents, the intensification of European OTG cooperation requires at least such steps.
Steps to intensify European OTG cooperation
Strengthening the human resources of OTG through a partnership between the state, local governments (LCGs) and international donors.
A state or external technical assistance program to establish a first partnership or launch an international development project. New partnerships are mostly created by communities that already have experience of European cooperation. Therefore, the creation of the first partnership or international project is a key stage at which OTGs need support from the state or international donors.
Revision and "deformalization" of existing partnerships. To ensure that cooperation does not remain "on paper", it is recommended to initiate a "flash mob" among OTGs (initiated by both the OTGs and the U-LEAD program) to review and intensify existing partnerships.
Launch of a partner search program for communities in Ukraine and the EU.
Ukraine's inclusion in the EU's Europe for Citizens program, in which public authorities and non-governmental organizations from the EU, the European Economic Community and candidate countries are actively involved. OTG's potential participation in this program could help strengthen international community ties.
Publications in the section "Expert opinion" are not editorial articles and reflect only the point of view of the authors