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A view from Central Europe: Donald Tusk

Vít Dostál Vít Dostál / Ed. 28. 12. 2015

Donald Tusk replaced Herman van Rompuy as the President of the EU Council at a time when Europe is confronted with a revisionist Russia bringing the most serious crisis since the end of Cold War to EU's doorstep, while standing on the brink of a new recession, and atop of that facing Britain's contemplations on how much to be involved with the future EU.

n the latest instalment of the ‘A View from Central Europe’ series, CEPI asked three regional experts to explain, what does Tusk becoming a EU Council President mean for Central Europe and for the whole EU, what are his main assets in this new function, and what will be his key challenges in 2015.

Paweł Świeboda, President of demosEUROPA – Centre for European Strategy, Warsaw, Poland

Donald Tusk’s ascent to the post of the European Council President is a huge victory for Poland and Central Europe. It reflects how well Europe has been stitched together over the past decade, in spite of the crisis. The East-West divide is now a thing of the past. Russia gets a clear signal that there is more harmony in Europe than meets the eye. Even though Tusk has a strong personal relationship with Angela Merkel and his political style close matches hers, he is no subscriber to what Merkel once called the “union method” in European politics, with governments pulling all the strings. In Tusk’s vision of Europe, it is the institutions that must ensure a level-playing field and enforce the rules of the game. This promises to translate into a good working relationship with the European Commission and European Parliament, perhaps sometimes at the risk of being at odds with some capitals.

In his previous career, he has stood up for two issues with particular strength. One has to do with preventing a split between Eurozone and non-Eurozone members, the other with Europe becoming a geopolitical actor. He was an early crusader for the EU to treat the Russian challenge as a major turning point in international relations. At the beginning of 2014, he toured European capitals raising awareness about the stakes involved and building support for Ukraine. Although realist about the nature of the Putin regime, he has never been a hawk towards Moscow and in 2009 engineered Poland’s rapprochement with Russia. He has strong credentials in economic policy, having steered Poland successfully through the crisis. He has been a strong proponent of reform and worked hard on advancing the EU single market, especially in the course of the 2011 Polish EU presidency. Most recently, he has floated the idea of the EU energy union, putting forward an ambitious set of ideas on market integration and infrastructural revamp.

As President of the European Council, he will need to show much political skill in putting together the new growth strategy and shaping the EU’s response to the turmoil in many parts of the world. He will need to accommodate Britain’s request for renegotiation of its terms of membership and build support for a deal with the United States on trade and investment. One of the more tricky issues he will need to tackle is agreement on climate issues, ahead of the Paris international conference in 2015. Poland has over the years blocked the more ambitious emission reduction targets in the EU, arguing that it would hurt Europe’s competitiveness if other nations do not follow suit. In the “Nixon goes to China” style, he would now have to negotiate an agreement where his own country will need to make concessions.

Vít Dostál, Director of the Research Center, AMO, Prague, Czech Republic

Firstly, Donald Tusk was an enormously successful party leader. He always knocked out in-house opposition. Though substantial discussions on the party programme were scarce and the Civic Platform ideology developed a lot, he has won all elections since 2006. He is the man who navigated Poland from the age of post-communism to the new epoch, where his country has its say on the regional, European and international levels. Apropos, he is aware of that. Moreover, his country did not fall into recession, which was not primarily his achievement, yet it helps him to maintain his image.

With that experience, Tusk is a completely different politician than his predecessor. Van Rompuy came from Belgian politics, which is slow, consensual and institutionally developed. Tusk wittily noted in his introductory video this week that he was a football hooligan as a teenager. To use a hyperbole, such was also Polish politics in 90’s, when his political skills were shaped: one big scrimmage. Donald Tusk plays hard, is ready to get rid of colleagues rather than to give them substantial concessions, and is able to deliver. An open question remains: is Europe ready to substitute “Herman, the negotiator” for “Donald, the leader”?

His role in the EU institutional setting will be formed by deeds. He has to deal with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, future shape of Eurozone and the British issue, starting with all of them from the very beginning. His Central European origin will definitely influence him. He will never abandon Ukraine, support new divisions in the EU and let the UK go without trying to keep it in. We shall remember that it was Merkel, who installed Tusk into the position of the European Council President; yet, his election was supported by all V4 countries. He understands the needs and problems of the region. The latter is as important as the former. He will be able to feel the Polish and Baltic fear of Russia as well as internal problems in Hungary.

Last but not least, no one can longer sigh, that the member states of the 2004 enlargement are neglected in EU politics. Tusk’s success is proof that Central and Eastern Europe can assert itself on the EU level. Next step: a representative of the Central Europe among the Spitzenkandidaten for the EP elections in 2019.

Jozef Bátora, Associate Professor and Director, Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia

The fact that this is the European Council’s first President from Central Europe is itself significant. It highlights the importance of Central European countries, and above all Poland, to EU politics. Donald Tusk, as a strong pro-European politician, has always been trying to build consensus for EU policies. We can expect him to continue to do so. While Poland is not in the Eurozone yet, it is an important part in the economic policies of the Union. Mr. Tusk will have an important role to play in building bridges between those member countries that are in the eurozone and those that are not. For Slovakia, the only V4 country using the Euro, a widening gap between the two groups would be bad news, as it could deepen the distance to its natural regional partners Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Until the Crimean crisis and the subsequent Ukraine war, Mr. Tusk was able to maintain constructive relations with Russia. That has changed, of course, and he has been taking more critical positions, though he is still not hawkish. At the same time, he proved to be very successful in guiding Poland through the financial crisis and he was able to anchor Poland in the EU mainstream.

He will have to face the challenge of generating consensus for policies boosting economic growth in the EU, an objective not sufficiently addressed so far. Lastly, he should strive to improve the democratic nature of the EU.

Since the Council suffers from a democratic deficit by meeting mostly behind closed doors, he should seek ways to bring it closer to the public. If he does not address this disconnect, he may risk further alienating citizens and possibly their loss to the rising populist anti EU parties. The Council also plays a key role in maintaining the EU as a community of liberal democracies. In this sense, it will be of interest to follow how Mr. Tusk, at the helm of the Council, handles the situation in connection with some of the illiberal tendencies in Hungary and possibly other EU member states in the future.

Europe 665
European Union 380
Poland 248
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