Peter Wagner: SGUA – great support for Ukraine

Peter Wagner

Head of the Support Group for Ukraine of the European Commission, Brussels

“Brussels Reports” / Interview taken by “Promote Ukraine” 

Mr. Wagner, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

I grew up in the Southwest of Germany. After my studies and a few years of work as a journalist and then researcher I joined the European Commission in 1999. There I spent most of my career in the business and industry department, working on many different economic files, very often involved in structural reforms. Since end 2015, I have been head of the Support Group for Ukraine (SGUA) which the European Commission launched in spring 2014. Our role is to support the country in its many reforms.

Your work is related to Ukraine. How did this happen and what exactly are your responsibilities? Who do you report to? What was your job before the Support Group? Was Ukraine your choice or were you appointed?

In my previous job, I was part of a team setting up and then running for four years the Task Force for Greece, a group created to support Greece in its reform efforts as of 2011. After 4-5 years Commission managers usually change posts – so when the position in SGUA became available in summer 2015, I applied and was selected. Having worked for 16 years in internal policies, going into external relations added to the attractiveness of the post. The combination of the Maidan, the war, the economic meltdown and the democratic uprising gave an entirely new quality to the EU’s relationship with Ukraine. I wanted to support the positive developments, be part of a unique team with diverse expertise and hoped that I could add some value from my professional experience.

Our cooperation with Ukraine has many different forms. Very often it is what we call “assistance” – but also political dialogue. Assistance can mean big projects that the EU implements with partners – like the support we provide to the decentralisation reform together with our Member States Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Poland and Sweden mainly and which we closely coordinate with other international partners in this area, such as the US, Canada, Switzerland.  We also assist Ukrainian   small- and medium-sized enterprises with preferential loans or advisory services. Cooperation can also mean our colleagues providing direct advice to the administration, for example on the drafting of EU-compliant legislation or the design of new policies in various areas.

Political dialogue can take the form of formalised exchanges, like in the Association Council (the highest coordination body set up under the Association Agreement), but also of other direct encounters between officials or politicians where we discuss progress and exchange messages on political priorities. SGUA is part of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations and the mandate sets out that I report under the guidance of Commissioner Hahn to the Commission President and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

How many people work in your department? Are there any Ukrainians there? What is the percentage of women there?

We are over 70 colleagues, 46 of which are working in Kyiv as part of the EU delegation. This includes 7 colleagues, two of which Ukrainians, who joined the Kyiv team after the creation of SGUA. While the team in Brussels is completely made up of EU officials, we have Ukrainian colleagues in the EU delegation in Kyiv. The number oif women has been growing over time and do now make up over 50 percent of the Brussels team and almost 50 percent of the Kyiv team.

We are always trying to get the best available people for the jobs. I do strongly believe that diversity – regarding gender, nationality, professional background etc. – is one of our strengths, notably in the European Commission.

How often do you travel to Ukraine? Why? Where?

I have never counted my trips to Ukraine. I am traveling between 80 and 100 days a year. Mainly to Ukraine, but also to EU capitals to coordinate with Member States, many of which are very actively and substantially supporting our work, in addition to their bilateral relations with Ukraine. Most of my trips are to Kyiv, but where useful, I also visit Ukraine’s regions. Sometimes for the participation in EU events, sometimes to accompany EU parliamentarians or diplomats from Brussels. And very often to get a better understanding of the reform needs in order to better design and prepare our EU support by talking directly to those concerned. Before designing a major support programme for conflict-affected areas in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts under government control, for example, I went there with two other Directors from the European External Action Service and from the Directorate-General in charge of humanitarian assistance respectively.

What do you like about the country / people?

A lot – and that makes it impossible to single out just one or two issues. The resilience of the people towards all the external and internal pressure under which they are is outstanding.

Do you like Ukrainian food?

Very much. That is probably one of the reasons why I have added a couple of kilos since I began with this job.

What role does Support Group play in the relations of the EU with Ukraine? Are there any Support Groups to other countries?

There is no similar group for a Third Country – our group is another symbol of the unique attention and support that the EU is offering Ukraine. As President Juncker regularly stresses: As long as Ukraine carries on with its reform efforts, the EU will carry on with its extraordinary support. Our role is to provide and strategically coordinate support to Ukraine.

Do you work more with the government or more with the civil society?

It is in the nature of our work that most of our contacts are with state institutions. This is notably the case in our flagship programmes in support of decentralization and the reform of the public administration. Civil society is however an extraordinarily important partner in Ukraine, as there is such an active tissue of people here, working and fighting for positive change in their country.

How do you make sure you have an objective view on what is happening in Ukraine?

We have the reporting by the colleagues in the EU Delegation, we  interact ourselves with local, regional and national authorities, talk a lot with civil society, but also with businesses, academics and others. It is the diversity of views that helps establish a balanced perspective.

How did Ukraine change since 2014?

Very much and for the better. For sure more than during the 20 years before. I am following these developments directly since 2015, and while some of the immediate post-Maidan speed has – to some extent, naturally – slowed down since then, it is still impressive how many reform initiatives continue being started and implemented. Often under difficult circumstances and against growing resistance, but reforms are alive and kicking. This is important, as still a lot has to be launched and even more still requires full implementation before the people of Ukraine can fully feel and see the benefits of their work and sacrifices.

Importantly, young people are having a tremendous effect on Ukraine’s development. This is true for politics and the public administration, but also for the economy where established business areas like IT continue growing, budding ones, like the cultural and creative industries, begin to flourish, and wholly new ones are opening up, in, for example, healthcare or energy efficiency. It is notably important that women grasp these opportunities. And that the young generation stays in the country to contribute to these changes from within.

When the task of the SGUA will be considered as completed?

The SGUA mandate has no end date. We will be working as long as it is needed, wanted and as long as this is the right instrument for our intensified EU cooperation with Ukraine.

You mentioned you were a journalist. From this perspective what is your opinion on the fight with propaganda? Is it better to shut down such media or are there other ways of fighting it?

I have always been skeptical about believing too much in legislation to address these challenges. Instead I am a strong believer in our EU approach, including with regard to Ukraine: firstly, we should actively debunk fake news. This is done, inter alia, by our colleagues from the EEAS Stratcomm East team. Secondly, we must not only communicate on budgets and other figures, but also show as an EU what we stand for, what our values are. We also have to touch on emotions. Our campaign “Moving Forward Together” is a good example for this. Thirdly, support to independent media is important. Here as well the EU is doing a lot in Ukraine, including at the local level. And this is also why we are so strongly defending the independence of the public broadcaster UA:PBC. Providing it with stable financing out of the state budget means ensuring its ability to act independently. Improving media literacy is also part of fighting propaganda and fake news. And finally, all international and Ukrainian actors in this domain should work together to ensure information integrity in the public space.

What would you like to say to Ukrainian people/civil society?

That their country and rest of Europe need them.  And that all those who know what is happening respect them much more than the citizens, the activists and the reformers might realise.