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24th Jul 2021

Balkan summit highlights Juncker-Tusk leadership gap

  • 'We have a Tusk problem,' an EPP MEP said (Photo: Consillium)

By calling a mini summit on Sunday (25 October), European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has decided to push forward the Commission's role in addressing the migrant crisis.

By doing so, he has also highlighted an apparently widening gap with the president of the European Council Donald Tusk, a fellow member of the centre-right EPP party.

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The Commission announced on Wednesday that "Jean-Claude Juncker has called a leaders' meeting to discuss the refugee flows along the Western Balkans route."

"The objective of the meeting will be to agree common operational conclusions which could be immediately implemented," the Commission's statement said.

Leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia will participate in the meeting. They should be joined by Tusk and Luxembourg's foreign affairs and migration minister Jean Asselborn, who holds the EU Council rotating chair.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and the heads of the EU Asylum Support Office (EASO) and Frontex, the EU border agency, are also invited.

"We have been in contact with leaders of the Balkan route countries for days and we thought we had to meet and try to go further," an EU official told EUobserver. "We wanted a smaller, more operational format."

Protocol

In Madrid, where Juncker and Tusk arrived on Wednesday evening to participate in the EPP congress with EU leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel, party members pointed out that such a summit should have been organised by Tusk.

As president of the European Council, Tusk convenes regular EU summit and "special meetings of the European Council when the situation so requires", the EU treaty says.

Juncker's summit will gather only 8 out of 28 EU member states and 2 non-EU countries, an unusual formal which is, of course, not anticipated by the texts.

But Juncker's initiative demonstrates the high political profile he has maintained since taking office last year, during the Greek crisis in the spring and in the migrant crisis since the summer, sometimes at the detriment of the more discreet Tusk.

For some in the EPP, the urgency of the situation can justify Juncker's initiative.

"Juncker is sincere, he certainly has been touched by the images of thousands of refugees stranded in Slovenia," former commissioner Michel Barnier told EUobserver.

"The protocol is not important in these moments, there is an emergency to address".

But the differences between Juncker and Tusk on style and often on substance is now resented within their own EPP party.

"Tusk is too floppy," a top party MEP told EUobserver.

"The European Council doesn't work well. We have a real problem in decision-making," the MEP said. "Juncker is right to take the bull by the horns"

'Not an export product'

An EPP official admitted it would not be the first issue between the two institution presidents.

Since he took his position almost a year ago, Tusk has been criticised for being too remote, compared with Juncker and some EU national leaders.

His uncertain command of English has sometimes been cited as a reason for this low profile position. Others say he is too focused on issues which are of interest to Poland, his home country, like energy union or the war in Ukraine, and that there is not enough focus on other major issues such as Greece or the migrant crisis.

But some in the EPP see the problem as a more personal one.

Although Tusk was a strong Polish PM before becoming Council president, "he's not an export product," the MEP said. "We had the same problem with Prodi. He was a great Italian PM but a weak Commission president."

Tusk's two-and-a-half-year mandate runs until 31 May 2017. The question of whether to give him a new mandate has not yet been raised. But "seen from the European Parliament, there a general feeling inside the EPP... We think we have a Tusk problem," the MEP told this website.

In a speech at the congress on Wednesday evening, Tusk's predecessor Herman Van Rompuy tried to put on a display of party unity.

Juncker and Tusk are "both strong men of action", he said.

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