EU ambassador: Visa-free regime – best way to counter fake news

Exclusive interview with head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine Hugues Mingarelli for the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency

Question: Ukraine-EU visa-free regime starts working in a few weeks. Do you expect an influx of Ukrainian tourists in Europe? Do you think Ukraine can pose a migration threat to the EU?

Answer: First of all, we are very happy that the decision on the liberalization of a visa-free regime has been adopted because Ukraine fully deserves this. Ukraine has fulfilled 144 conditions. Second point, we hope that a large number of Ukrainians will be ready to visit 30 European countries, not only EU countries, but others too without any visas. They can go for business trips, tourism, short-term studies, so we really hope that we will be able to benefit from this regime.

And in any case, this cannot be regarded as a threat because Ukrainians are not a threat to the EU. This is an opportunity. It should not be viewed as a threat.

All Ukrainian citizens who hold biometric passports will benefit from this new visa-free regime. All of them, regardless of where they are: in Donbas, Crimea or Luhansk region, or in the territories under control of the Ukrainian authorities, can visit the EU countries.

Question: How could trips for citizens who live in the territories beyond Ukraine's control affect their views?

Answer: Travelling to Western Europe is a good way to get first-hand information on how people live in the EU.

The EU Delegation is now conducting an information campaign on the rules and benefits of a visa-free regime. We found out that only 4-5% of citizens from the east visited the EU countries, while from the west – 20-25%.

So, our wish is that as many Ukrainian people as possible, especially from the eastern part of the country, could visit the EU, so that they could assess themselves and see what the EU is about, and the way how people live there. A visa-free regime is the best way to counter fake news because people can see themselves what the realities are.

Question: A few days ago Foreign Minister Klimkin said that the countries that received a visa-free regime with the EU, including Ukraine, deserve an "enhanced association" with the EU. What are the ways to achieve this?

Answer: In my opinion, our joint priority task for Ukraine and the EU is to implement the Association Agreement on the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). This is in Ukraine's interest. It's not a good idea to start asking for a new agreement, but to implement the existing one. If you implement the DCFTA with the EU, you'll remove all obstacles to trade and investment between Ukraine and the EU. This means Ukraine's economy will join the EU single market. And this is the maximum you can get for today.

Question: How soon can the ratification process of the EU-Ukraine Association be completed?

Answer: We hope that it will be ratified by the Dutch Senate in the next few weeks. I cannot be more precise. But what you should know that although it has not been ratified by one of the EU states, the most important provisions of this agreement are already under recommendation. We are not just waiting for the Dutch to ratify this agreement, we are implementing this agreement on a provisional basis, as they say de-facto.

I talked a lot with Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze [Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine] and Maria Ionova [the deputy head of the parliamentary committee on European integration] to implement the most important provisions of this agreement so that Ukraine could harmonize its legislation with the EU one in the most important sectors of economy in particular.

Question: The issue of increasing the volume of duty-free quotas for exports to the EU is a priority one for the Ukrainian side. What should the Ukrainian authorities do to make progress in increasing the quotas?

Answer: First of all, you should take over the norms and standards of the EU as foreseen and provided for in the DCFTA and you will be able to export what you can export to the single EU market […] Once the DCFTA enters into force, these quotas will disappear. Let's not focus solely on quotas that relate only to a narrow group of agricultural products (36 types of products, of which only nine are used) and instead accelerate the work on opening up much larger EU markets by adopting EU standards.

Question: Such anti-corruption bodies as NABU (the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine), SAPO (the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office), and NACP (the National Agency on Corruption Prevention) have been established and functioning for some time in Ukraine. Does the EU see any progress in fighting corruption?

Answer: For the last three years the Ukrainian authorities have passed new laws and created new anti-corruption institutions like NABU, SAPO and NACP and a new system of the electronic declaring of assets has been created. So, a lot has been done to combat corruption, but this is not enough. The Ukrainian authorities, first of all, are to consolidate the independence of these bodies. And in this regard the way the audit of NABU has been prepared is a matter of concern for us. Second point, they should endue NABU with wire-tapping power. Third point, they should ensure that NACP is a real means to verify e-declarations which is not the case today.

Then, they should move ahead with anti-corruption measures, and in this regard it is absolutely necessary to create anti-corruption courts as quickly as possible. This is something what should be done in the next few weeks.

And finally, they should avoid backtracking on anti-corruption reforms. And in this regard I would like to note that the extension of the obligation on obligatory e-declaration for NGO members was a mistake. And we hope that this will be corrected as soon as possible. Because anti-corruption activists are not civil servants and they are not accountable in the same way as civil servants, they are not responsible for public money. So, if the authorities want to establish the transparency of NGOs – this is fine. And we are ready to help them put in place the necessary mechanisms to check the funding sources of NGOs, but they certainly should not subject anti-corruption activists to this kind of control.

Question: What do you think the Ukrainian authorities should do to ensure the independence of anti-corruption bodies? And who, from your point of view, threatens this independence – economic factors or political forces?

Answer: NABU is investigating high level corruption cases. So, if I had been a very rich Ukrainian citizen, who had been stealing money for years since the independence, I would not like NABU to be efficient and independent and I would have done everything to hinder its activities. There are many people in Ukraine who, as you know, present group and material interests, who are trying to prevent the work of NABU for these reasons.

Question: Are there such people in the Ukrainian government?

Answer: Sure. They are everywhere, they are in the Rada, the government, they are present in the civil society and their presentation is very strong in the Ukrainian media.

Question: An auditor of NABU has not been assigned yet. Do you think that the campaign that unfolded during the voting in the Verkhovna Rada on this issue was meant to create pressure on NABU?

Answer: It's clear there are individuals trying to put a number of limitations to the investigation power of NABU for the reasons we have just mentioned.

Question: If talking about the conflict between the Prosecutor General's Office and NABU – is it a manifestation of the processes you've just mentioned?

Answer: PGO has had very strong power in Ukraine for a long time. A new institution – NABU – arrives on the same market and it is natural that there is some tension between them.

And we, with G7 ambassadors, have already organized a number of meetings with Mr. Lutsenko [Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko] and Mr. Sytnyk [NABU chief Artem Sytnyk] to try to look at the reasons of this tension and call on them to work together rather than fighting with each other.

My conclusion is that it is possible for these people to find modus vivendi in the interests of the fight against corruption in Ukraine.

Question: Many people call NACP's performance unsatisfactory and recommend head of the agency Natalia Korchak to resign. Do you think this is necessary?

Answer: For me it's not a question of individuals – it's a question of NACP's structure. We were told a few weeks ago by Justice Minister Petrenko [Pavlo Petrenko] that the NACP structure will be reviewed to make it more efficient. And this is what has to be done. I don't want to talk about the resignation of a person. We should look at the structure, not at the person.

Question: However, does the current legislation on NACP ensure the agency's independence?

Answer: Yes, but there is no clear distribution of responsibilities and this is what we should change.

Question: Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman has recently presented a draft pension reform. Do you consider it necessary? And should the presented project be adjusted?

Answer: First of all, we share the views expressed by many observers or players including the IMF that the current pension system is not sustainable. Therefore, there is no other option but to reform it. It is important to reform it, first of all, to get sound funding, and it should be reformed as well to protect the most vulnerable population group, because we know that many pensioners live in poverty and the reform of the pension system should not lead to even more poverty.

But there are many so called best practices regarding reforming the pension system and I am sure that our IMF colleagues are well aware of them and will propose to PM Groysman a number of options and one of these options will be suited to the specific situation in Ukraine.

Question: Have there been any consultations on this draft law with European partners or is it exclusively the Ukrainian project?

Answer: There have been consultations. We are not on the frontline in this area because there are other international players such as the IMF, the World Bank, which are far more engaged than we are in this process, but we consulted as well and we are informed of those discussions.

Question: How would you evaluate the work of acting Health Minister Ulana Suprun and the reform she suggested? Answer: The European Union fully supports the reform promoted by Minister Suprun. We consider the current health system as collapsed in Ukraine and it is absolutely necessary to carry out the reform proposed by Minister Suprun and again for the sake of the poorest Ukrainians, the most vulnerable, not for those who can go to a private clinic. Question: Do you think sanctions are a sufficiently effective mechanism to curb Russian aggression? Answer: First point, the EU is a soft power and sanctions are restrictive measures and one of the most efficient tools when we face this kind of situation. Second point, my understanding is that these sanctions have had an impact on the Russian economy and the best evidence of it is that the Russian political leadership is doing its best to get these sanctions removed by all means. This means that these sanctions are effective, but clearly they are not an end in and of themselves. They are just a mean to pursue a political objective. Therefore, once the Minsk Agreements are implemented, sanctions should be removed. Question: Do you consider it justified to impose sanctions against such Russian Internet resources as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex? Answer: Ukraine is facing a hybrid war. Part of this hybrid war is a disinformation campaign by the 'big neighbor,' therefore we understand that Ukraine has to take a number of steps to counter this disinformation, this propaganda campaign. But at the same time this should not lead the Ukrainian authorities to restrict the freedom of information in the country. We have to look into the details and if these measures restrict the freedom of information, so we will ask the Ukrainian authorities to review these measures. Question: How can you determine the line where the struggle against propaganda ends and the media's possibilities for expressing their point of view start to be limited? Answer: It is a very thin line and I am not an expert who can say what this line should be. This is a very delicate and sensitive issue. Question: If talking about hybrid threats, including propaganda, how would you assess the EU's ability to confront them? Answer: From our side we are working on this issue which is relatively new to us. For instance, we have a team in Brussels which is working with the disinformation campaign to analyze the fake news, the disinformation campaign issue and the ways to counter it to be able to understand how we have to inform the citizens so that they know the truth about the EU and what the situation in Ukraine is.