In the wake of Brexit, all eyes are on the President of the European Council. There is speculation that he – rather than European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – will be the one to lead negotiations in Britain’s “divorce” with the EU. He would be a trusted ally for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose weariness of hasty steps toward further European integration he shares.
Known for his pragmatism, Donald Tusk nevertheless responded to the result of the British referendum with emotion. “The day after Brexit, I felt as if someone very close to me had left our home, and in the same second I felt also how dear and precious this home was to me,” the president of the European Council, the group of the EU’s heads of state or government, told reporters in Brussels, pointing out that the decision involved feelings – not just procedures. His language echoes the idea of Poland’s EU membership as a “return to Europe,” or homecoming from behind the Iron Curtain.
Still, in the run-up to the referendum, Tusk’s view was more sober than that of others in Brussels. Speaking almost a month before the vote, he criticized EU leaders for their “utopian” illusions of a united Europe. “Obsessed with the idea of instant and total integration, we failed to notice that ordinary people, the citizens of Europe, do not share our euro-enthusiasm,” he said.
Tusk’s pro-European pragmatism has its roots in his career in Polish politics, which reaches back to the fall of communism in 1989 and beyond. He was born in Gdansk, on Poland’s Baltic coast, in 1957. While studying history at the university there, he become involved in the Solidarity movement. After a decade of political activity in the 1990s, he co-founded the center-right, pro-European Civic Platform (PO) party in 2001. In 2007 PO won the parliamentary elections, forming a coalition with the agrarian People’s Party (PSL) that would govern for eight years. This win marked the start of a string of electoral victories for PO, brought to an end by the election of Andrzej Duda of the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS) as president in May 2015.
“Warm Water in the Tap”
As prime minister from 2007 to 2014, Tusk became known for his practical approach to governing, embodied in what he called the policy of “warm water in the tap.” This involved focusing on gradually raising living standards for Poles, with the help of EU funds, rather than pursuing grand ideological projects. After two years of unpredictable rule by PiS in 2005-07, Tusk’s party offered the promise of stability. In foreign policy, this involved pursuing a more pragmatic, less confrontational policy towards Berlin and Moscow, led by Radosław Sikorski, Tusk’s foreign minister.
The appeal of “warm water in the tap” had its limits, though. The PO-led coalition was re-elected in 2011, with Tusk staying on as prime minister. Yet as the years went by, critics accused PO of increasingly scaring voters with the prospect of PiS’s return, rather than attracting them on its own merits. PO’s vagueness, originally an asset, came to be seen by observers as more of a weakness. Its ratings slid, and in October 2015 the party, led by Tusk’s successor Ewa Kopacz, was ousted by PiS, which won enough seats to become the first party in Poland since 1989 to govern alone.
By then, Tusk was in Brussels, where he moved in late 2014 to take up his current job as president of the European Council, tasked with forging consensus between the leaders of the 28 member states. The second person to hold the job, he succeeded former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy. The race narrowed down to Tusk and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the center-left prime minister of Denmark at the time. Though Thorning-Schmidt was viewed favorably by both British Prime Minister David Cameron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor ended up voicing her support for Tusk, with whom she had developed a good relationship during his years as prime minister.
Steep Learning Curve
In Brussels, Tusk was something of a novelty: an outsider from beyond the EU bubble, from a country that had joined the EU in 2004 and was not a member of the eurozone. It was a steep learning curve, with his first year on the job dominated by crises, in particular Greek debt and migration. Amid these challenges, Tusk has shown himself to be a pro-European realist. This can be seen in a speech he gave at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels a year ago, when he said that “we should defend Europe here and now, the Europe that exists in reality, and not as an ideal appearing in the dreams and visions of ultra-European ideologists.” European leaders should improve the system that exists, rather than fall back on “revolutionary thinking and sudden system changes,” he explained.
This year Tusk has also faced the dispute between Poland and the European Commission, which in January launched a formal review into whether PiS’s changes to the Constitutional Tribunal violate the rule of law. Tusk has kept his distance, warning early on that a heavy-handed response by Brussels could further damage relations with Poland’s right-wing government. Meanwhile, Warsaw is speculating about Tusk’s political future, namely whether PiS will back Tusk for a second term starting in mid-2017. The dilemma boils down to whether it is better for PiS to sabotage Tusk’s career in Brussels or have him conveniently out of Poland until after the next parliamentary elections, due in October 2019. A second term would still give him time to run for president of Poland in 2020 – as some in his old party, PO, hope he will.
For PiS, Brexit has been the latest opportunity to lash out against Tusk, whom its leadership also blames for the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, which killed then-president Lech Kaczyński and 95 others. The party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński (Lech’s twin brother) has said that Tusk is “directly responsible” for the result and ought to “disappear from European politics.” While Kaczyński affirmed that Poland’s place is in the EU, he added that the referendum shows the need for deep reform of the EU, perhaps including a new treaty.
Looking Ahead to Brexit
The result of the British referendum is a regrettable setback for Tusk – for whom keeping Britain in the EU was a priority when taking over as president of the European Council. Yet his reaction has been marked by humility and a willingness to learn. For the EU, this should be an occasion to reflect on its future, he has said. Meanwhile, he has not adopted the abrasive approach of some European leaders, aware that – like in the conflict between the Polish government and Brussels – that could be counterproductive. In this way, his approach is closer to Merkel’s, who warned that the EU should not rush to conclusions from the British referendum that could deepen divisions.
Choppy waters are ahead. It is still unclear when Britain will invoke Article 50 to leave the EU. In the intervening months, Tusk will continue to play the role of crisis manager, dealing with both London and the 27 other member states. In the face of these daunting challenges, he has put on a stoic face. “I always remember what my father used to tell me: what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” he said as the results came in on the morning of June 24. And in these times of unprecedented uncertainty for the EU, Tusk’s old policy of “warm water in the tap” may yet hold considerable appeal.
Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – July/August 2016 issue.