Why Poland was Right Not to Want Donald Tusk as President of the European Council and Why it’s Wrong to Make a Huge Deal Out of it

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By Olivier Bault.

Poland – Alone against all, or against Tusk — that is how one could describe the situation of Poland in the European Council of Brussels on Thursday, March 9. Even if the Polish Government did not believe in having Polish MEP Saryusz-Wolski chosen for the place of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, it hoped for at least support or abstention from Budapest and even from London. It was not the case. Viktor Orbán reiterated Hungary’s unconditional support for Poland in the possible case of a sanction procedure, as the first Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans wished, but he did not want to disassociate himself from the Fidesz group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Donald Tusk was the candidate. It is also likely that, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which had made it clear to Poland before the European summit, that Hungary prefers to have Donald Tusk at the head of the European Council because he is more sensitive to the problems which interest the countries of Central Europe than a politician from another part of the continent would be. Saryusz Wolski was ejected from the Polish liberal party Civic Platform (PO), which he had already been criticizing for attempts to obtain European sanctions against his own country, and was also ejected from the EPP in which he occupied the Vice-Chair.

If the Polish Government opposed the re-appointment of Donald Tusk for a second term as President of the European Council, it was mainly because of his repeated interference in Poland’s internal policy, and in particular his declared support for those who had blocked the parliament on the night of 16 to 17 December 2016. This blockage had been a reaction to PiS’s desire to regulate more restrictively — on the model of what is done elsewhere in Europe — the access of journalists to the parliament. Donald Tusk, who was present on December 17 in Wrocław as President of the Council for the closure of the European Capital of Culture in Wrocław 2016, modified his speech at the last minute and referred to the events as the so-called “total opposition”, and he had still occupied the plenary chamber of the Diet.

He said, among other things: “After the events of yesterday at the Diet and in the streets of Warsaw, and bearing in mind the significance of the month of December in our history, I appeal to those who actually exercise power in our country to respect people, constitutional principles and values, procedures and good practices. And I would like to warmly thank and express my highest consideration to all those who wish to show for many months that they will continue to respect European democratic standards. You are today the best guardians of the reputation of Poland in Europe.”

It was a criticism clearly addressed to the government and the parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party of Law and Justice (PiS), and thanks to the “total” opposition and protesters of the KOD who had sought to block the exit of deputies of PiS in the night. Still, the President of the European Council again accused: “Those who challenge this European model today by violating the constitution and good practices, all expose us to a strategic risk. Rejecting the spirit of freedom and community, they write a new act of the drama of Polish isolation. (The full text of Donald Tusk’s statement in Polish here).

Donald Tusk therefore clearly violated himself on the day of his mandate as President of the European Council, as well as proper procedures and practices, which would have imposed neutrality and non-interference in the internal affairs of the Member States, and it was logical for the Polish Government not to support his candidacy. It would also have been logical for the other members of the European Council to look for another president. During her visit to Warsaw in February, Angela Merkel took note of the Polish opposition, but she campaigned for the re-appointment of her protégé. The same is true for France with President François Hollande who had given clear support to Donald Tusk. After the decision taken by the European Council in Brussels at 27/1, the French president threatened a very irritated Beata Szydło, who had intended to not sign the conclusions of the European Council, saying: “You Have principles, and we have the European funds. ” Asked by journalists about this sentence on her return to Warsaw, the Polish Prime Minister said she did not want to consider the European funds blackmailing of a French president on the exit which only receives support of “4%” of the voters of his country. Increasing the verbal escalation, the Polish Foreign Minister said on Monday in an interview that Poland would now have a more rigid and negative attitude towards the European Union, while Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel had described the refusal by his Polish counterpart to sign the conclusions of the summit as “cynical” and “infantile”. For the leader of the PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, Donald Tusk had clearly been the candidate of Germany, an accusation refuted by Angela Merkel.

A petition was even launched Monday for President Andrzej Duda for a Polexit, but despite the differences between Poland and its partners and despite the interference of the European Parliament, the European Commission and the President of the European Council in its Internal affairs, it is clear that the PiS, which shares the European vision of Viktor Orbán, does not and has never intended to pull Poland out of the EU. The Poles and Hungarians are among the peoples who mostly support their membership of the European Union, partly perhaps because of European subsidies, but mainly because of their difficult history, which makes them consider the existence of a continent-wide Union as vital to their national interests. But this does not mean that these countries are ready to give up their freedom, sovereignty and fair treatment for all the members of this Union, and for this reason they call for an EU reform that would take into account the lessons of the Brexit.

Under these conditions, Prime Minister Beata Szydło and his minister Witold Waszczykowski had to face many criticisms in Poland, including from the conservative media in their country. Although they supported their opposition to the reappointment of Donald Tusk, some of them believe the government made a serious mistake in failing to accept its defeat at the European Council and unnecessarily inflating the polemic regarding a quiet secondary decision, regardless of the attitude of Donald Tusk and whatever the investigations in progress concerning him in Poland. The most important subject of this council sitting of March 9 and 10 in Brussels was not who would occupy the post of President of the European Council when the holder of the Council has no power, but the question of the European project launched on March 5 in Versailles by François Hollande, Angela Merkel, Paolo Gentiloni and Mariano Rajoy. It’s a project for a multi-speed Europe which Poland does not want and on this topic is not isolated!