28th Sep 2022


Donald Tusk and the case for EU optimism

  • "A more assertive European Council president could help build a stronger and more united Europe" (Photo:

Even for optimists, it is often difficult to be enthusiastic about the direction of the EU. However, the recent choice of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk as the next president of the European Council is an auspicious sign.

True, the selection process that brought him to power remains more about expedience than merit. Yet, replacing Herman Van Rompuy with Tusk as “president of the presidents” suggests the Council will have more determined leadership to enact Europe’s agenda. Tusk’s political style and already strong European connections can help drive the Council to more united policies on critical issues.

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First consider the outgoing European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. The haiku-writing “grey mouse” previously served as Belgium’s president where he achieved success by keeping his government and country from splintering. Van Rompuy accomplished this by avoiding issues connected to Belgium’s interminable squabbling.

This experience informed his two terms as Council president as he kept the “show on the road” working behind the scenes to appease divided European leaders on difficult issues such as the eurozone crisis. Considering the breadth of that crisis and the once near-certainty of a “Grexit,” he deserves praise.

Yet, just as Belgium has not solved its long-term problems, the eurozone and greater EU still face a grave economic future for failing to remedy structural problems. From the eurozone crisis to the crisis in Ukraine, examples abound of the EU not taking unified action until it is too late.

Agenda-setting role?

Enter Donald Tusk, one of the longest serving heads of governments on the Council from one of the rising stars in Europe.

The press describes Tusk as a soft-spoken and humorous man with a shrewd ability to defeat rivals while achieving political success. He is the only founder of his ruling center-right Civic Platform (PO) party still in the party. Other party rivals who challenged him lost their positions in the party entirely. In fact, Tusk’s PO replacement and new Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz is a close ally widely expected to follow his policies.

With strong political acumen and experience leading a rising European power and strong relationships with key European leaders, one can envision Tusk developing the president’s role from Van Rompuy’s backdoor facilitator part into a more powerful agenda-setting role.

Unlike Federica Mogherini, Tusk was unanimously named to his position by his European counterparts. French concerns over Tusk coming from a non-euro country and British concerns over EU migration even faded away as a result of Tusk’s positive working relationships with Francois Hollande and David Cameron. Yet, the most vital relationship and Tusk’s closest is with Angela Merkel.

Extremely pragmatic, both leaders have been repeatedly described as allies and confidantes as their countries have grown stronger while becoming more interlinked in recent years. Merkel even urged Tusk to consider the office of president before he truly became a candidate. Thus, while Tusk’s appointment was a symbolic win for Poland and other new EU members, it was also a win for Germany.

From 'Merkozy' to 'Tuskel'

This matters immensely because Tusk’s ability to coalesce a strong negotiated position with the support of the indispensable Merkel would quickly and forcefully cement EU policies. While “Merkozy” talk once dominated the EU, decreasing French influence and uncertainty over the British role means a theoretical “Tuskel” could move Europe forward with policies aligned around a central European view.

For instance, Merkel, Tusk, and the new President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker have all acknowledged the importance of keeping the UK in the EU. Their appreciation of the UK’s role in Europe, which is not universally shared within Europe, greatly increases the likelihood of passing reforms amenable to British voters before a possible in/out referendum by 2017.

Admittedly, there is the risk that a more aggressive Council president could cause the type of havoc that Van Rompuy diligently avoided. Moreover, Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission looks to be far more assertive within the EU bureaucracy than the outgoing executive and that too must be effective for Europe to be successful.

Yet, just as Juncker has realigned the Commission’s organisation in an attempt for more efficiency, a more assertive European Council president closely aligned to the most powerful players in Europe could help build a stronger and more united Europe.

For the EU’s members and its allies, that is reason to be optimistic.

The writer is a programme assistant at the Atlantic Council.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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