After three years of a hard-won visa-free regime with the Schengen Zone countries, European Union officials say Ukraine could lose it due to a scandalous decision by its parliament that may undermine the independence of the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office (SAPO).
Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of European Parliament and vice-chair of the delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee, believes the decision undermines basic European standards.
On Sept. 17, the Verkhovna Rada voted to appoint seven out of 11 members to the commission that will choose SAPO’s new leader. But the candidates do not meet legal requirements to have an impeccable reputation and moral qualities and have limited anti-corruption experience, making their appointment illegal, according to the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Ukrainian non-governmental watchdog. The newly-appointed commission members deny that.
The EU is concerned.
“While the international community is occupied with Belarus, Ukraine’s government is hastily pushing candidates lacking experience and integrity to select (the) SAPO head,” von Cramon-Taubadel wrote on Twitter on Sept. 17. “This will not fly.”
It could lead to Ukraine losing the visa-free regime, she said.
And the visa-free regime may not be the only thing under threat. Ukraine might also not receive 1.5 billion euros in EU macro-financial aid to offset the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, von Cramon-Taubadel added.
According to Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the former prime minister of Sweden, Ukraine undermining its anti-corruption efforts has “implications also for economic support from European Union and the (International Monetary Fund) which is so crucial for the country.”
Rumor or truth?
After the Verkhovna Rada appointed the seven members to the committee, the ruling party pushed back against the idea that Ukraine was risking its visa-free regime.
On Sept. 17, David Arakhamia, head of the Servant of the People party, called it “rumors.”
“I will only respond to letters. There are no letters from anyone, neither from the lawmaker, nor from the (European) Parliament,” he said. He also emphasized that the anti-corruption body would remain independent.
But the lawmaker in question, von Cramon-Taubadel, was not joking.
“That‘s exactly what I said yesterday, Mr. Arakhamia. You might listen to this EU message because the consequences for your country won’t be good,” von Cramon-Taubadel wrote on Twitter on Sept. 18.
Von Cramon-Taubadel’s advice that Ukraine protect its anti-corruption agencies in order not to lose its visa-free regime with the EU isn’t the first warning Ukraine has received this month.
On Sept. 3, EU Ambassador to Ukraine Matti Maasikas said that the “fight against corruption, with strong and independent institutions, is a central part of EU-Ukraine cooperation,” including in visa freedom and macro-financial assistance.
“The principles (of anti-corruption institutions’ independence) also need to apply when the Rada nominates representatives to pick a new head for SAPO,” he said.
Besides the SAPO commission decision, Maasikas’ comments also came amid a Constitutional Court decision that threatens the independence of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and a corruption scandal involving a lawmaker from Servant of the People.
Promises from top officials
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has openly stated that he supports the EU position on the independence of Ukraine’s anti-corruption bodies. He says the commission will choose a professional SAPO head in a transparent way.
“I fully share their opinions. I think it can’t be done in any other way,” Zelensky said on Sept. 18 during a visit to Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast.
At the same time, Zelensky called the possible abolition of the visa-free regime “rumors” spread by the political party of ex-President Petro Poroshenko.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also said that nothing threatens Ukraine’s visa-free regime with the EU since the competition for the new SAPO head will be “open and transparent.”
“I am sure that everything will be done within the current legislation,” Shmyhal said.