Tuesday

18th May 2021

Who is Tusk and what does he mean for the EU?

Quiet, pragmatic, tenacious - some compare Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister and newly-chosen EU Council chief, to German chancellor Angela Merkel. But unlike her, he has “given up” on Moscow, with Russia relations set to make or break his EU tenure.

Tusk will take over the EU baton from Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy on 1 December.

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He might stay for two and a half years or five. But his fellow centre-right leaders have refused to give the job, a priori, to the centre left in 2017.

Opinion is divided on how he got the post.

For some, such as Charles Grant, the director of the London-based think tank, the Centre for European Reform (CER), the EU appointed a Pole as “a signal to Russia” it will not tolerate war-mongering in the east.

For others, such as Judy Dempsey, a Berlin-based analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank, it was more to do with internal EU logarithms.

In the run-up to Saturday’s (30 August) summit, Italy secured the backing of France and Germany for the Italian foreign minister to be the new EU foreign relations chief.

With Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker already installed as European Commission head, eastern European states threatened to create a deadlock in negotiations if they got nothing.

The EU’s eastern bloc began lobbying for one of its own to get a senior post two years ago.

For his part, Tusk decided to leave Polish politics for Brussels less than 24 hours before he said Yes last weekend.

Who is Donald Tusk?

The 57-year old was born in Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea coast, into a blue-collar family.

He studied history at Gdansk University and organised youth cells for Solidarnosc, an anti-Communist movement, later saying: “Communism was something so hideous that you had to be an exceptional conformist or a fool not to see the evil around you”.

He is married, with two adult children, and is a liberal Roman Catholic.

He speaks English, German, and Kashubian (a Gdansk dialect). He is wary of speaking English in public after people made fun of his accent at a US meeting in 2008, however.

He likes popular culture: Quentin Tarantino films; Lord of the Rings; football.

But he is deeply serious: “Politics was always my husband’s passion, and it’s impossible to compete with passion”, his wife, Malgorzata, said in her autobiography.

Tusk has led Poland since 2007 - the only Polish PM to get re-elected since democracy was restored in 1989.

The Polish economy grew 20 percent on his watch despite Europe’s economic crisis.

He has fought for Polish interests in the EU Council - for a bigger slice of the EU budget, to protect Poland’s coal industry from climate change targets - while managing not to make enemies.

He believes in deeper EU integration, but he believes in it mainly for security reasons.

When Poland took up the EU rotating presidency in 2011, he said joining the euro is like joining Nato in terms of cementing Poland’s place in the Western bloc.

He also sees the US as Poland’s most important ally.

Marcin Zaborowski, the director of the Warsaw-based think tank, Pism, described him as an "Atlanticist". He said that "in a situation like this [reacting to the Russia-Ukraine war], Tusk would look at what’s feasible in the EU sphere, but if push comes to shove, he knows you need to work with the Americans".

What does Tusk mean for the EU?

Zaborowski compared Tusk to Merkel: “They get on well at a personal level. The chemistry is good. She’s not hyped up with ideology. She’s pragmatic, and you might say the same thing about Tusk”.

But the similarities have limits.

When Tusk took up the EU job on Saturday, he named three priorities: to bring an eastern European “sensitivity” to Russia relations; to stop the UK from leaving; and to heal divisions between eurozone and non-eurozone states.

His first point was an understatement.

“The main expectation in Poland is that Tusk will make EU policy toward the east … represent the interests of central Europeans”, another Pism analyst, Sebastian Plociennik, said.

Carnegie’s Dempsey added: “Tusk’s appointment only has meaning if he can persuade member states to push forward with a much stronger European foreign and defence policy … This is Poland’s chance and he can’t blow it”.

It will not be an easy task.

For one, EU leaders do not like being upstaged by EU officials, especially if they disagree on substance.

“His [Tusk’s] approach to Russia is very different from Germany. The German approach is to find scope for compromise, to avoid confrontation. Tusk has given up on that. He doesn’t believe that by being softer and taking a step backward, we can accommodate Russian concerns”, Zaborowski said.

Meanwhile, events in the east might get so bad that EU institutions become irrelevant.

“So much could happen before December [when Tusk takes up the EU post], Russia could wreak so much havoc, that EU appointments no longer carry any weight”, Dempsey noted.

In other areas, Tusk’s Atlanticism could lubricate EU-US free trade talks. His pro-EU convictions, with the pro-integration Juncker by his side in the commission, bode well for EU economic reforms.

But if Tusk risks clashing with Merkel on Russia, he also risks clashing with the UK’s David Cameron on deeper EU integration, and with French president Francois Hollande on the eurozone.

The CER’s Grant said the fact that Tusk, whose country has not yet adopted the euro, is to chair summits of eurozone states, will cause “institutional tension”.

“Hollande wants to build up the eurozone summit as a separate institution and Tusk’s appointment might give him the argument he needs. We might see pressure from Hollande to create a separate chairman for eurozone summits”, Grant warned.

What does it mean for Poland?

Polish diplomats felt proud on Saturday, over what they see as a historic shift in European politics.

“There is a deeply-rooted suspicion that eastern Europe was seen as different, something between Russia and the ‘real’ Europe. This feeling can be alleviated by access to the top posts in the EU. Poland can start to feel part of core Europe”, Pism’s Plociennik explained.

But on a mundane level, Tusk’s appointment poses questions on who will be Poland’s next EU commissioner and next PM.

Poland had nominated its foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, to be EU foreign policy chief (and commissioner). Polish diplomats say he might still take the energy portfolio if he can, noting that Belgians held both the EU Council post and the (decent) trade portfolio in the EU commission.

But with Sikorski known for his big personality, CER’s Grant said “there would be too many big Poles doing big jobs” for other countries to swallow.

The Pism analysts said Tusk is likely to aim lower - for instance, the competition portfolio - naming Danuta Huebner (an ex-commissioner), Elzbieta Bienkowska (deputy PM), or Jan Krzysztof Bielecki (former PM) as Sikorski alternatives.

Meanwhile, Tusk has promised to name his successor for Polish PM later this week.

Pundits favour Ewa Kopacz, the parliament speaker. But they note that Grzegorz Schetyna, a former deputy PM, could battle her for the job, causing a rift in Tusk’s PO party and, potentially, snap elections.

PO beat the opposition PiS party, led by firebrand patriot Jaroslaw Kaczynski, by just a fraction of 1 percent in EU elections in May.

And so, the elevation of an EU-friendly Polish politician in Brussels could hoist an EU-troublemaker to power at home.

“Some people think it [the loss of Tusk] will weaken PO and open the gates for Kaczynski to come back. Other voices say it might push PO to reform and cause a renewal of the party. It’s too early to call”, Pism’s Zaborowski said.

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