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Ukraine's civil service needs better advice, higher pay and greater agility to manage EU accession talks, ECFR fellow says

Photo by Marek Studzinski / Unsplash

Ukraine will have trouble negotiating its entry to the European Union unless the government raises the notoriously low pay for civil servants, the EU helps promote a more "agile" national civil service and Ukraine's neighbors offer advice based on their experience in joining the union, said a visiting fellow of a prominent European think tank.

Lesia Ogryzko, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, also argues that the Ukrainian civil service's lack of domestic prestige, its Soviet roots as a mere tool of Moscow decision-makers, and its lack of knowledge about EU processes further hamper progress toward EU accession.

"The state administration’s capacity and readiness to conduct negotiations with the EU appear unpromising," Ogryzko, who is also the head of analytics and strategic advocacy at Ukraine's Center for Defence Strategies, writes in an analysis published by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Kyiv and the commission are expected to agree on the negotiation framework in the coming months. However, efforts by European partners to help the Ukrainian civil service develop their skills and capacity are fragmented," she said. "At the same time, Ukraine’s civil servants lack sufficient knowledge about the EU’s official procedures and formal expectations around correspondence, and how to develop and submit documents in the ways required."

For the lengthy, detailed talks required to join the EU, Ukrainian civil servants will have to be adept at, for example, negotiating transitional arrangements when needed and postponing particularly onerous requirements such as the agricultural and environmental provisions.

This will require a "comprehensive understanding of the negotiation process and EU legislative policymaking cycle. They will need to know how to adjust their own official processes, formulate correspondence correctly, and master other related skills."

To achieve that, though, Ukraine and its allies face a series of major challenges.

"Primarily, Ukraine’s current leadership needs to express a political commitment to prioritise public administration reform," Ogryzko said.

Before the Russian full-scale invasion and the start of EU accession talks, policies of the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky impeded progress on civil service reform by scrapping many programs promoted by the EU, she writes.

"Their approach was to attempt to apply a business logic to bureaucracy,"  she said. "This has hindered progress on the front of good governance. However, after almost a full term for both president and parliament, there should now be an understanding of the crucial role civil servants play in implementing policy changes."

Another major challenge is the lack of prestige of civil servants in Ukraine, generated in part in the chaos of scandals and corruption that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"A vicious cycle developed in which the recruitment of talented and motivated teams in ministries and regional authorities is hindered by the deeply ingrained populist conviction in society that civil servants should be poorly paid," she wrote. "As a result, ministries are understaffed even while they grapple with the profound challenges created by the invasion."

Ogryzko also called on the EU to "reassess its public administration reform assistance, understanding that the war changes everything and demands a revised approach."

"For example," she wrote, "in 2017 the EU helped introduce a complex multi-stage hiring process for civil servants working on reform, which may have deterred motivated candidates with limited prior experience in public administration. It was suspended in 2020. In contrast, a more agile approach, recently adopted by Kyiv, to forming project teams in key governmental bodies has already proven successful."

And she called on the European Parliament, the European Commission and Eastern European nations in the EU, such as Romania and Poland to share their lessons after past waves of EU enlargement.

Such help could include "extensive on-site training and experience-sharing sessions on the negotiation process, the negotiation framework, access to structural funds, and related topics for civil servants as well as representatives of the private sector and civil society."

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