Poland’s Tusk as European Council President: A View from Warsaw
WARSAW—For Poland, the choice of Prime Minister Donald Tusk to be the next President of the European Council is undoubtedly good news. The symbolism of Tusk’s appointment cannot be overlooked. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is recognition of the successful transformation of Poland and much of Central Europe over the past quarter century and Poland’s political weight in a united Europe. In the first moments after his selection, Tusk said that his hopes were to bring new energy and a Central European perspective to his new role. For a Europe that finds itself still recovering from economic crisis and challenged by Russia, these qualities might be just what it needs. Tusk is an experienced politician. He was the first prime minister of Poland to win re-election and is one of the longest-serving leaders in Europe. Poland, under Tusk's leadership, was the only EU country that came through the economic crisis without dipping into recession.
Tusk will also likely bring a skilled team of advisers to Brussels with him. The current Deputy Foreign Minister Piotr Serfin, who spent years in Brussels in the cabinet of Financial Programming and Budget Commissioner Janusz Lewandowski, will probably remain at the core of Tusk's team. What kind of Council President is Tusk likely to be? Expect Tusk to act like a leader, not a technocrat. Even though he understands that his main job is to build a compromise among EU member states, he will come to it with his particular experience, sensitivities, and perspective. This could be especially true when it comes to the fate of Ukraine. The gravity of the conflict played a role in Tusk’s decision to accept the post in Brussels.
The potentially historical consequences of not opposing aggressive Russia are well understood in Warsaw, and ring particularly true on the 75th anniversary of the start of WWII. Even though he will have to act as an honest broker to find European consensus,Tusk will keep European leaders focused on recognizing the historical stakes in Ukraine. Tusk will also aim at maintaining unity and cohesion of the European Union. Great Britain will find a receptive listener in him. He will also aim to prevent development of greater divisions between Eurozone countries and those who are not use the common currency. With Tusk in Brussels, Poland is likely to accept even more responsibility for a common European interest.
This will be especially true if the parliamentary elections scheduled for next Fall are won by Platforma (PO), Tusk’s party. If Tusk archrival in Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczysnki of Law and Justice party (PiS), wins, Poland is less likely to maintain its pro-European course. These elections will also determine how soon Poland will seriously take up the issue of Euro membership. But even with Platforma’s victory, Tusk and his party would push the Euro issue only toward the end of Tusk’s tenure in Brussels. This will be the time when President Komorowski will be looking to cap his legacy, and Tusk’s candidacy for Poland’s President in 2020 will be on the horizon.
Tusk's personal connections with other leaders will come handy in building compromises on key European issues. His good working relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel is key. Tusk broadly shared Berlin's philosophy when it came to managing economic affairs, as he aimed to provide economic growth while maintaining fiscal discipline. Yet, in order to be effective in building a consensus on Europe’s economic future, Tusk will have to keep Germany on board while preserving a healthy distance between Brussels and Berlin. His appointment to the EU’s top job is not without its critics. They point to his limited linguistic skills – he speaks German, but no French, and currently only limited English.
These skills will be necessary to build coalitions, find delicate compromises, and orchestrate backroom deals that often require one-on-one communication. How effective he can be with this handicap remains a question. Tusk seems to understand it though, and in his first press conference, he promised tongue in cheek to "polish his English" by the time he starts in December. Beyond language, Poland’s position outside the euro zone could also prove slightly complicating. As the President of the EU Council, Tusk will chair meetings of the euro zone, and if the euro crisis comes back in full force, Tusk will have to assume a crucial crisis management role. Since Poland is not yet a member, Tusk will have to address concerns early on that he lacks the necessary familiarity with the particular challenges of the euro countries.
Tusk will also have to step out of his national perspective when it comes to foreign policy toward Russia. He has listed the crisis in Ukraine and the threat that it poses to Europe's security as one of the key challenges for the European Union. Tusk comes to this task with experience and an appreciation of the stakes that are at play. Starting with the February mission of Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski to Kiev that paved the way for the departure of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to Warsaw’s proposal for an EU energy union and push for economic sanctions against Russia, Tusk's government has played a significant role in Europe's response to Russia's aggression.
His election to the top European post is a guarantee that Ukraine will not be forgotten, and that the voice of Central Europe will not be marginalized. But building a Europe-wide consensus will require taking a position that is sometimes contrary even to the position of the Polish government. To be effective, Tusk will have to act as an honest broker, but he will do that with a background of a Central European. Besides pragmatism, Tusk, like many of his compatriots in Poland, is enough of a starry-eyed European to provide a sense of leadership and purpose even as the EU is challenged both internally and externally. His effectiveness at the European level will be tested and his linguistic skills must improve. But he might well be the leader that Europe needs to remind itself why the European Union is crucial for peace and stability.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.