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The European quandary of Tusk’s re-election

On March 9th, Donald Tusk was re-elected as the President of the European Council for the second time despite the opposition of his home country, Poland. His candidacy and eventual reappointment for a second term has been challenged by the Polish government led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło. He will hold the position until the end of 2019.

March 21, 2017 - Antonio Scancariello - Articles and Commentary


Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister from the Civic Platform party (2007-2014), now in opposition to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS), was re-elected with 27 votes; Poland was the only country that voted against him.  His bid for a second term was obstructed by Szydło on the grounds of domestic policy interference and impartiality. After the election, the prime minister stated that “he does not have the support of his home country – that’s sufficient reason for him not to be appointed”.

During a news conference in Warsaw, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, said: “Donald Tusk is a politician who breaks the elementary rules of the European Union.  Someone who breaks such rules simply cannot be the European Council’s president and cannot under any circumstances count on our support – or a lack of our objection.”

The government proposed a new candidate, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

The Kaczyński-Tusk political rivalry has dominated Polish domestic affairs for the last ten years, and it is likely to have been one of the main reasons behind Poland’s opposition to the former prime minister’s European candidacy.

The PiS leader’s hostility toward Tusk grew stronger in 2010 when his twin brother Lech, who was Poland’s president at the time, died in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, along with 95 other high-ranking officials. Ever since, PiS has considered Tusk “morally responsible” for the tragedy.

As Dariusz Kalan, a political correspondent and analyst, told New Eastern Europe: “The issue is domestically, rather than internationally, oriented. I see nothing but personal revenge, which was – quite clumsily – presented as a courageous, yet a lost, fight for Polish interests. The only goal was to satisfy Jarosław Kaczyński, whose hatred for Tusk, his political and personal nemesis, is well known.”

The clash, therefore, would more likely be one between the two politicians, rather than one between Poland and the EU.

If this were not the case, the submission of the alternative candidate, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, would have come earlier, and not close to the voting date. Moreover, the current conflict between Kaczyński and Tusk is likely to continue until the presidential election in 2020, in which Tusk is expected to take part, Kalan added.

The EU’s recent criticism of the state of Polish rule of law and the reform of the Constitutional Tribunal could be interpreted as interference in domestic affairs, and labelled as a “Tusk’s revenge”. The Polish government could use it to its own advantage, presenting every mishap of the EU as a catastrophic failure.

Such behaviour could lead to isolation of Poland within the EU and other regional structures such as the V4.

Brexit, considering the high number of Polish citizens living in the UK, is likely to affect Poland’s European diplomacy too. Tusk’s second term coincides with the expected two-year Brexit talks on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as the BBC noted.

But the country’s opposition to Tusk could also affect its relationship with the rest of the Visegrad Group. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia had positive opinions about the former Polish prime minister’s second term.

“Viktor Orban had no interest in not supporting Tusk,” Kalan said. “PiS could have won a lot if they offered Orban some concrete benefits for supporting Saryusz-Wolski, or if they submitted his candidature earlier.

“Orban thinks, like his counterparts in Slovakia or the Czech Republic, that Tusk is a much better option for his country, and the whole [Visegrad] region too,” he added, while also stressing the Hungarian prime minister will “play his double game, trying to satisfy Brussels, and making its obscure economic deals in the East at the same time.”

Slovakia, the only country of the V4 that is part of the Eurozone, could still prefer a German-oriented approach. And when it comes to the Czech Republic, Kalan noted: “especially if the forthcoming elections would be won, likely, by Babis, whose scepticism towards the V4 is well-known – it’s also much more natural to orient toward the West”. As for Poland, there is only “its pride and their sense of revenge, which would influence any sort of strategy, if there was any”. The four Visegrad Group countries found common interests only in opposing the “two-speed” Europe.

The European Council brings together the heads of state of the 28 EU members, and deals with delicate issues such as the Eurozone and migrant crisis. EU leaders praised Tusk’s first term and the way he addressed those issues.

“Everybody is… scratching their heads in disbelief (over Warsaw’s stance). It just shows that Poland and its leader Kaczyński are completely out of touch with European politics,” a spokesman for the Maltese presidency of the EU said.

In such circumstances Poland’s disagreements seemed to reflect its own internal struggles rather than seeking a constructive approach toward the EU challenges and problems.

Antonio Scancariello holds an MA in journalism from De Montfort University, UK.

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