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Results of pilot partnerships with Ukraine praised  

One-year pilot phase for municipal and regional partnerships ends with Ukrainian and EU cities and regions saying they will continue cooperation.

The Ukrainian government and members of the CoR called on the European Union on 13 February to support cooperation between cities and regions as a means to help Ukraine's decentralisation, a reform process hailed by top EU officials as a major success. The head of the EU's Support Group for Ukraine suggested that the EU would particularly like to nurture municipal and regional partnerships focused on good governance.

The calls, which were made at meeting of the Ukraine Task-Force created by the CoR in 2015, came at the end of a one-year pilot project in which European cities and regions – brought together by the CoR – partnered with local authorities in Ukraine to develop plans to cut energy use, help entrepreneurs, boost tourism, strengthen transparency and develop the rural economy. All the partners praised the results of the pilot project for their communities. The impact will now by evaluated by the European Commission as part of its review of its U-LEAD with Europe programme, which funded the project.

Peter Wagner, head of the EU's Support Group for Ukraine, said that achieving decentralisation is crucial to the success of wider reforms in Ukraine – a country that is "huge" and whose problems are "manifold". "This is one of the big reform successes in the country, one of the reforms that is moving Ukraine forward towards Europe," he said, adding: "You have hardly any other reform where you have as much aligned political support, where you have everyone working together towards the same objectives in a coherent way". He suggested that the model of the pilot partnerships – which are deeper and more intense than other current examples of partnerships with Ukraine, such as twinnings – could be continued with a focus on Ukrainian cities that have committed themselves to boosting standards of transparency and integrity in local government.

Dirk Lorenz, deputy head of division for the Eastern Partnership countries in the European External Action Service, said that "Ukraine has made impressive progress in many areas and decentralisation is certainly on top of the lists" alongside a number of other successes. He assured EU and Ukrainian politicians that Ukraine remains high on the EU's foreign-policy agenda, pointing, for example, to a debate in the Foreign Affairs Council on 18 February with Ukraine's foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin. 

Vyacheslav Nehoda, first deputy minister from Ukraine's Ministry for Regional Development, Building and Housing, said that Ukraine's government wants to complete the first phase of decentralisation in time for local elections in October 2020. So far, Ukraine has decentralised some powers, devolved some rights and responsibilities for spending and revenues, transferred ownership of infrastructure and land, created new administrative units, and focused on educational and health-care services. Public awareness and support for the reforms have risen sharply over the past five years, with 61% of Ukrainians in the new communities (hromadas) saying services have improved.

Karl-Heinz Lambertz, president of the CoR, reminded the audience that the CoR created the Ukraine Task-Force in 2015 in response to the dramatic change brought about by the people on Maidan with the purpose of supporting the new government on the path of democratic reforms. In the years since, the CoR has provided policy advice and, more recently, practical assistance, through the peer-to-peer cooperation initiative, for instance. This successful project, he said, "would have not been possible without the financial support of the European Commission and the technical advice and dedicated involvement of the U-LEAD with Europe programme for Ukraine. The sincere enthusiasm and wish to cooperate from all the peers was, of course, another key to success."

Among the contributors was Andreas Kiefer, president of the Council of Europe's local-government wing, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Mr Kiefer said that he believed "Ukraine has reached a critical mass of people who are willing to make this process [of decentralisation] irreversible".

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU, Mykola Tochytskyi, placed the transformation of Ukraine's governance system in sharp contrast. Five years ago, with 8% of Ukraine's territory seized and "the army in dire straits", most people thought that it was "unrealistic" when the government announced ambitious plans for decentralisation, as well as five other reform projects. Now, though, decentralisation enjoys wide popularity and the government is "very happy" with the results. He continued: "If we think of all the reforms, it is hard to say which is the most important, but decentralisation is the basis for the work of the nation. Unless we finalise it, the other reforms" – of education and health, for example – "will not work."

The pilot partnerships emerged out from the work of the CoR's Ukraine Task-Force, which the CoR created in part on the basis of a request from Ukraine's then minister for regional development, Volodymyr Groysman. Mr Groysman is now Ukraine's prime minister.

The ten partners in the five partnerships have all indicated that they would like to continue their collaboration, whether or not the EU makes money available to them.

The partners vary widely in their character and interests. The Polish region of Wielkopolska has partnered with the region of Kharkiv; both are roughly the size of Belgium and have had a working relationship since the 1950s, subsequently re-developed in 2002. Their cooperation included work on developing the rural economy. The smallest partners were three villages from the German municipality of Barleben in Lower Saxony, which teamed up with 28 communities from the territory of Shyroke in the ZaporizhiaOblast in eastern Ukraine, principally to help entrepreneurship among Shyroke's 13,000 inhabitants. Barleben's representative, Sven Fricke, said that "we have to take our hats of for what they [Shyroke] have achieved" over the partnership. Oszkár Seszták said Szabolcs Szatmár Bereg, a Hungarian county bordering Ukraine, said it wanted to continue working with the rural region of Ukraine, Khmelnytskyi, to help develop rural tourism. Andres Jaadla from the Estonian town of Rakvere described the experience of collaborating with the territorial commune of Vesele, as "brilliant" and its focus – on energy efficiency – as a natural extension of Rakvere's commitment to climate action as a signatory of the Global Covenant of Mayors.

The fifth partnership was between Zarasai in Lithuania and Chemerivtsi, a town in the Carpathian mountains; the two communities focused on ways of increasing local democracy and public participation.

Neither Arnoldas Abramavičius from Zarasai nor the five Ukrainian counterparts were able to attend the meeting because of a general one-day strike across Belgium.

Other CoR members at the meeting were: Markku Markkula (FI/EPP), first vice-president; Mick Antoniw (UK/PES), member of the National Assembly of Wales; Daiva Matonienė (LT/ECR), a city councillor from Šiauliai; Uno Silberg (EE/EA), from Kose; and Dainis Turlais (LV/ALDE), of Riga City Council.