The mayor of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine told members of the European Committee of the Regions on 14 November that the city government has managed to transform public perceptions of his administration despite immense pressures created by the arrival of 100,000 Ukrainians displaced by the conflict the east of the country.
Speaking at a debate on the future of the Eastern Partnership, Vadim Boichenko said that Mariupol's policies have been driven not just by the need to cater for internal refugees and to adjust to challenges such as the closure of its airspace and effective blockade of its port. It also needed to stem the mass departure of young people from the city, which has found itself isolated and beleaguered since 2014, when Russia-backed separatists tried to seize control of the neighbouring regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Mr Boichenko, who has been mayor since 2015, said that 70% percent of young people have left, despite it being one of the ten largest cities in Ukraine at the heart of a region that accounts for 7% of Ukraine's GDP.
The city's response has been to address directly the principal concerns raised by young people – including corruption, security, and poor infrastructure.
Mr Boichenko said: "The city has started to breathe. We have elaborated a full-fledged support programme" with "very clear indicators about what we want to achieve".
A principal result, he said, is that – according to Transparency International, an NGO focused on corruption issues – the city is now viewed as the least corrupt in the country, with "80% of citizens say[ing] that corruption is diminishing". Mariupol once ranked 57th. This has translated into increase in investment, he said.
The EU has provided significant funding for anti-corruption efforts across Ukraine and the European Commission is currently considering the creation of city-to-city mechanism to support Ukrainian cities' efforts to improve governance.
Mr Boichenko repeatedly expressed his appreciation for the EU's financial support for the city. He did not direct new requests specifically at the EU, but he urged the "international community" to provide more support to house internally displaced people and said that the city was pressing the national government to grant Mariupol a special tax status.
The CoR is currently drafting ideas for the future of the Eastern Partnership, building on the current strategy that focused on '20 deliverables for 2020' with four objectives: a stronger economy, stronger governance, stronger connectivity, and a stronger society.
Rasa Juknevičienė (LT/EPP), Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's delegation to the southern Caucasus, said that the European Parliament is proposing the creation of an additional instrument to encourage a leading group of Eastern Partnership – Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – to maintain their reforms and to deepen relations, drawing on an investment-based approach used by countries in the Western Balkans Six (WB6) group.
Viorel Furdui, executive director of Congress of Local Authorities from Moldova (CALM), said that the EU should make decentralisation a priority, treating it "in the same way as fundamental rights", and should "focus assistance on the local and regional dimension", in part by aiming funding programmes directly at the local level.
The CoR's rapporteur, Tadeuš Andžejevski (LT/ECR), placed particular emphasis on draft proposals to provide greater support for cross-border cooperation and to invest in training civil servants working in regional and local government, with the creation of a dedicated academy. "The Eastern Partnership should become more ambitious," he said.
The CoR's opinion – entitled 'Local and regional authorities shaping the future Eastern Partnership' – will be adopted at the CoR's next plenary session, on 4 December. The recommendations will feed into inter-governmental deliberations ahead of a summit in mid-2020. The CoR has already contributed proposals to a now closed stakeholder consultation held by the EU.
Representatives of the European Commission and the European External Action Service told CoR members that they were still "digesting" the contributions, 14 of which came from local and regional administrations in the Eastern Partnership, with Belarusians particularly active. It is already clear, however, that issues linked to jobs and the transition to a greener economy are of "overwhelming importance" for contributors, followed by issues linked to the "democracy, rule-of-law and good-governance agenda", and support for young people, for civil society, and for areas outside the capitals.
On the same day, the European Parliament asked the would-be European Commissioner for enlargement and the neighbourhood – Olivér Várhelyi of Hungary – to provide supplementary answers after his confirmation hearing.