Behind the scenes: my story of European integration
May 9, 2024

Behind the scenes: my story of European integration

As I finish writing this challenging blog, I am reflecting on the first ever explanatory meeting of the European Commission with Moldova and Ukraine on the formal screening process under negotiating chapters 2 ‘Freedom of Movement for Workers’ and 3 ‘Right of Establishment and Freedom to Provide Services’. After intense preparation, now, the consultations begin. I was nervous that something would go wrong, in particular that there might be air raid sirens or interruptions in Kyiv, as our delegation participated mostly online, for obvious reasons. However, everything went perfectly, we clarified the issues of integration into the EU internal labour market, the coordination of social security systems, integration with EURES, the recognition of qualifications and more. Looking back, I realised how far we had come on the track of European integration during a full-scale war.

But how did this story begin for me personally?

It just so happened that I always wanted to be a civil servant, because I am convinced that change will not come anywhere unless we are involved in it. That’s why, at the age of 20, I did several internships in government institutions, and at the age of 21, I passed a competition for the position of a state expert, and in the area to which my soul was drawn. However, it was in the first days of the full-scale invasion that I fully realised what being a civil servant meant to me personally.

24 February 2022: the terrible sound of explosions, the uncertainty hanging over you, the smell that was incomprehensible to me at the time (as it turned out, this terrible smell was the smell of the aftermath of the explosions), and the atmosphere of death in the air. I grabbed my blanket, my emergency suitcase, which I had packed in the hope that I would never need it, and, of course, my laptop, and headed for the metro. The subway was extremely crowded, but I found a corner where I could plug in and work, trying to stay calm. I did my work like that for a while, but at some point, I realised that in order to ensure that it was as uninterrupted as possible under the circumstances, I had to move to a small village, where I stayed for a little over a month.

I cannot express my emotions, mixed with fear and excitement, when I see the video of the moment when Ukraine applied for membership of the European Union. And then I received a message with documents that were not quite clear to me at the time. It turned out that these were European Commission questionnaires for countries on their way to European integration, and very soon we would start working on a similar questionnaire.

At a time when it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to find a foothold, this work has been a lifesaver for me. I worked on both parts of the questionnaire: both the first, more general part, and the second one, which covers all sections of the EU acquis. During the evacuation, I wanted to go home, to the Kharkiv oblast, the most. I also missed Kyiv so much, although I never realised that I would miss it as my hometown. I wanted to hear: “The next station is the Golden Gate”. As strange as it may sound, the questionnaire gave me a foothold. “I have to do the questionnaire, we’ll finish it, submit it, and then I can go home,” was the thought that kept running through my head. After all, if everyone quits their jobs now because they are scared, what will happen to the country? I must drive away the thoughts that distract me from the questionnaire. But it’s not working out well. A missile strike on Kharkiv. A missile strike on Kyiv. A missile strike on the town where I’ve never been, but where such dear strangers died. Minus a piece of my heart. And so on countless times. Sometimes we question how much more our hearts can take.

“Yes, a questionnaire. Calm down, you’ll fill it out. What if you don’t?” We have no right to make such a mistake while our guys are holding back this invasion at the frontline.

And now, the first part is complete. In the first part, together with colleagues who were able to work, we wrote a section on economic criteria, namely the overall functioning of the labour market. In addition to preparing information in my area of expertise, I had to integrate and translate all the text we had prepared in response to the relevant section. The second part was more difficult. I was the main contractor for Chapter 2, ‘Freedom of Movement for Workers’. Technically, it was only 52 questions. However, these questions plunged me into the unknown, as they were about a set of mechanisms that are either very different in our countries or do not exist at all. My task was to find the equivalents in our legislation, describe how it works in our country, and identify where we have the biggest gaps for the future.

I also worked quite a lot on other sections as a co-executor. Most of all, as a co-executor, I was involved in Chapter 19 ‘Social Policy and Employment’. I won’t even mention that this work went on day and night, with lots of calls and clarifications, and all this against the backdrop of the horrors that were happening around me.

And now, I am finally back in Kyiv. And so, we handed in the questionnaire. My happiness knew no bounds when we were granted the status of a candidate for membership.

Then we had to fill in the information for the Enlargement Packages, but the most ambitious was the initial assessment of the state of implementation of the EU acquis, the so-called “self-screening”. However, before this process, I was honoured to be selected for a specialised two-month programme for civil servants involved in the European integration processes, namely Natolin4Capacity Building at the College of Europe in Natolin, Poland.

Abroad, I rethought about the horror of what was happening. After all, when you hear a rocket with your own ears, you don’t think about existence, you think about how to take cover and where your loved ones are. And only then can you think about how much you still must do. However, two months at the College of Europe, the warm attitude of our mentors, peaceful streets and cities, relaxed my physical condition and gave me an outlet for my feelings. They ranged from despair to animal horror. But every day I kept my focus and my mission in mind: self-screening. 

I continued to work every day, while attending trainings at the same time. Before the programme, I had been promoted to head of the unit, so I could not focus solely on my studies. Often, I had to sleep just three to four hours so as not to harm either my studies or my service. And now I’m back in Kyiv in May, May 2023, in which there was hardly a single night in Kyiv that was calm, not to mention the rest of the cities. Night. A siren. I see on the monitoring channels that ballistic missiles are flying. So, it’s too late to run anywhere, as the approach time is a matter of minutes. The missiles were not long in coming: an explosion, the walls shake. Something heavy and loud flies over the house. In the morning I found out that it was the damned Kinzhal. But then my fear turned to admiration: I heard a completely new sound. Oh yes, it was the Patriot. Patriot, which saved hundreds of civilian lives that night. And maybe even mine. No one knows where the missiles were flying. And the next morning, completely exhausted, at 8am, I return to work on self-screening. And so on, day after day. Endless spreadsheets, calls, explanations, translations, and more spreadsheets. Sometimes I even dreamed about them. And believe me, I had more than one such dream. Or perhaps they were not dreams at all, but my thoughts in my slumber. After all, I slept very poorly at that time.

At the ministerial level, I was the main person in charge of Chapter 2 ‘Freedom of Movement for Workers’. Initially, about 300 EU acquis acts were identified, but after appropriate verification and reconciliation, there were just over 180. However, this section of the acquis is quite specific to us, and I had a déjà vu with the questionnaire. Nevertheless, together with my colleagues, we did it again because there was no other way out. I constantly and methodically proofread the relevant acquis, compiled compliance tables, made translations and made recommendations on where we had gaps. Based on the results of this work, my colleagues and I compiled a report with a narrative part and specific proposals. At the same time, I was actively helping my colleagues with Chapter 19 ‘Social Policy and Employment’, which is much larger, but already somewhat familiar to us.

Unfortunately, I do not know all the colleagues who worked on the questionnaire and self-screening. But I thank everyone, both those I know and those I don’t, for making it happen.

Another huge project was the Ukraine Facility Plan, and I was responsible for Chapter 7 ‘Human Capital’, but that’s a completely different and no less exhausting story.

Next, we have a lot of work to do as part of the official screening of the European Commission. My ultimate dream is to be part of the negotiation process itself, but time will tell if I can do it.

I still think, maybe I could have done more? Or maybe I don’t have enough experience for that? Why am I such a romantic? But would I have believed it if I had heard 10 years ago that I would be involved in such processes? Probably not. Is it difficult for me as a person? Of course, it is. Sometimes I give up, even though I know that we have no right to do so, but I constantly remember our path as a country, which has already been taken.

Of course, my contribution is not great. But for myself, I know that this is exactly the contribution I can make to our victory. The victory of light over darkness, life over death, and the free world over the terrorist state, which will surely come. Every day, all Ukrainians walk on the edge of an abyss, on the brink of death. But we continue to build our free European future. Because together we are stronger. Be brave like Ukraine and keep standing with Ukraine.

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