19th Mar 2018

Tusk takes up EU post, tells Russia to get out of Ukraine

  • 'Tusk [l] is Tusk. He will try to build on Van Rompuy’s [r] achievements, but he has his own views and he won’t be hiding them' (Photo:

The EU’s new Polish chairman has urged Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine in his first official statement.

Donald Tusk said in a communique on Monday (1 December) after speaking by phone with US leader Barack Obama: “We shared our concerns over the crisis in Ukraine and agreed on how important it is for Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, to stop supplying troops and equipment”.

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He noted that his symbolic first phone call “underlines the importance I attach to our relations with the US”.

He also underlined the strategic dimension of creating a free trade bloc with America, adding: “The TTIP [an EU-US free trade pact] is not just about free trade: It is an expression of our geopolitical partnership”.

His remarks on Russia are more direct than the EU’s recent joint statements.

The last EU foreign ministers’ conclusions, on 17 November, spoke of the “withdrawal of all illegal and foreign forces” from Ukraine without naming Russia.

The last EU summit conclusions in October likewise urged Russia “to prevent any movement of military … from its territory into Ukraine”.

Speaking at a handover ceremony in Brussels earlier on Monday, Tusk signalled his intention to be more outspoken than his predecessor, Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy.

Alluding to Russia's war on Ukraine, he told a crowd of EU officials assembled in the Council HQ: “Today, not only are eurosceptics questioning the EU's value, the Union even has enemies. Politics has returned to Europe, history is back”.

He added that his top priority in office will be: “unity against the threats to the Union … coming from both inside and outside”.

“Europe has to secure its borders and support those in the neighbourhood who share our values”.

Tusk, who led Poland since 2007 as its prime minister before taking up the EU job, will chair his first summit in December.

The current agenda is to gain EU leaders’ support for the European Commission’s new “€300 billion” investment plan and to draw up measures for long-term improvements in Europe’s investment climate.

But if Russia launches a new offensive in south-east Ukraine before winter sets in, as some predict, EU leaders will also debate increasing economic sanctions.

With countries such as Germany, Italy, and the UK split on how to handle the Kremlin, Tusk said at the handover event he plans to emulate Van Rompuy’s consensual style in building EU compromises.

Common sense, moderation

He praised Van Rompuy’s qualities of “trust, common sense, moderation and decency”.

“If you are a little nervous about this change of posts, don’t worry, I’m a little nervous too, maybe more than you, but this will pass”, he added, in a humorous reference to EU jitters on having the first-ever candidate from a former Iron Curtain state in the top job.

For his part, Van Rompuy said: “I’m confident the European Council is in good hands: Donald Tusk is a man of experience and wisdom, a true European”.

Tusk's priorities are reflected in his choice of top aides.

His chef de cabinet, Poland’s former EU affairs minister Piotr Serafin, is an Atlanticist who believes the Lisbon Treaty gives the EU Council chief a mandate to speak out on foreign policy.

His top advisor on foreign policy is Riina Kionka, an Estonian of US origin who used to work with the now Estonian president, anti-Russia hawk Toomas Hendrik Ilves, and with former Nato chief Javier Solana.

His top advisor on energy is also a Pole, Lukasz Kolinski, with Tusk hoping that leaders will next spring endorse European Commission proposals - on a so-called “energy union” - to reduce gas dependence on Russia.

Tusk’s other appointments show he doesn’t want to rock the boat too much, however.

His deputy chef de cabinet is Luxembourg’s Andre Gillissen, who has, since 2002, worked on drafting the EU summit texts which leaders agree. His top economic aide is Frenchman Jean-Pierre Vidal, a former European Central Bank official.

Despite the novelty of having a Pole at the top, Tusk has seven years of experience of EU summits as a national leader.

When the EU heads meet in December, Germany chancellor Angela Merkel, Romania's outgoing president Traian Basescu, and commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker will be the only people round the table with a longer memory of how the process works.

Tusk vs. Mogherini?

Meanwhile, Tusk will have to find a modus vivendi with the bloc’s new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

He plans to give her a bigger role in summits by inviting her to more sessions than her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, who used to come for the family photo and quickly go.

But there is a risk that his statements on Russia will clash with Mogherini’s, an Italian, who recently spoke of the need to “restart” Russia relations and to give “autonomy” to Russia-occupied regions in east Ukraine.

“Tusk is Tusk. He will try to build on Van Rompuy’s achievements, but he has his own views and he won’t be hiding them”, an EU source said.

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

Some compare Tusk, the new EU Council chief, to Merkel. But unlike her, he has “given up” on Moscow, with Russia relations set to make or break his EU tenure.

'Haiku Herman' quietly leaves EU stage

EU Council chief Van Rompuy is ending his five-year term true to his nature, with no glam or pomp. But his legacy is significant, particularly in the eurozone crisis and its institutional follow-up.

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