For European Council President Donald Tusk, the EU’s Poland problem is not just another crisis.
The former Polish prime minister can’t just treat the fight over Warsaw’s proposed judicial changes, which the European Commission has condemned as undermining democracy and rule-of-law, as a straightforward policy challenge like the Greek financial meltdown or the migration crisis.
To Tusk, it’s a source of deep personal distress, even embarrassment, according to friends, colleagues and observers.
“He is in an uncomfortable situation; this is hard on him,” said Roland Freudenstein, policy director of the Wilfried Martens Centre, a Brussels think tank affiliated with the European People’s Party.
“He believes he is speaking for the central values of the European Union, that he is keeping the Union together,” said Freudenstein, who served as director of the Warsaw office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation from 1995 to 2001 and has closely followed Tusk’s career. “But he doesn’t want to look like he is escalating the conflict with the Polish government.”
The Commission on Wednesday fired another warning shot in its running battle with Warsaw, preemptively authorizing the initiation of a disciplinary procedure that could ultimately result in a suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights, if the government continues its efforts to seize control of the judiciary.
It’s the EU’s latest and boldest salvo in a fight that has left Tusk walking a political high-wire, criticizing the Polish government as he deems necessary to defend EU standards, while trying to avoid being portrayed as a traitor by opponents back home — or being viewed on the European stage as getting drawn too deeply into a domestic dispute.
At the same time, Tusk is seeking to keep his future political options open: His term as Council president ends in 2019, just in time for him to return to Poland and compete in presidential elections in 2020. It is not clear he would fare well in a bid to relaunch his national career, or even how receptive his own Party Civic Platform would be to the idea. Political analysts in Poland say they believe such a decision is still a long way off.
In the meantime, Tusk has sought to stay focused on his day job, even as events in Warsaw captivate his attention and that of much of his Cabinet on the 11th floor of the Council’s Europa building. That was certainly the case on Monday when aides were consumed by speculation about what prompted Polish President Andrzej Duda to break with the ruling Law and Justice party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński, declaring that he would veto two controversial laws that would have put the country’s judiciary under the government’s control.
The previous Thursday, Tusk had sought an emergency meeting with Duda about the proposed legislation. His request was rebuffed, but two of their senior aides spoke. Duda also received a phone call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and on Friday, with protesters on the streets of Warsaw, the U.S. State Department issued a warning that the legislation appeared “to undermine judicial independence and weaken the rule of law.”
Tusk’s own statement, describing his request for meeting, conveyed his own deep concern. “It is my belief that [the ruling party’s] most recent actions go against European values and standards and risk damaging our reputation,” he said. “They transport us — in the political sense — in time and space: backwards and eastwards.”
From Gdansk to Brussels
Democracy in Poland has been Tusk’s life mission. A 60-year-old native of Gdańsk, he grew up behind the Iron Curtain and was active in the anti-Communist Students’ Solidarity Committee in the late 1970s before going on to become one of his country’s most successful post-communist politicians.
A day after the death, in May, of the Polish-American statesman and scholar Zbigniew Brzezinski, Tusk took to his private Twitter feed — the one in Polish that he manages mostly himself and where he occasionally posts unplugged reflections — to quote the one-time U.S. national security adviser: “Brzezinski, a year ago: ‘Mr. Donald, Poland’s place is in Europe. Please keep an eye on it.’ So be it, Professor.”
At news conferences, Tusk often talks about living under communist rule. And when he recently quoted John Lennon — “You may say that I’m a dreamer” — to say there was still a chance the U.K. might not leave the EU, it was clear that the band held the same special place in his imagination that it did for millions of others during the Cold War who viewed rock ’n’ roll as synonymous with democracy and freedom.
Associates of Tusk said he is cautious in commenting about Poland in Brussels. The country’s voters have made clear that they don’t appreciate its internal feuds being aired in public.
When the Polish government opposed Tusk’s reelection to a second term as Council president in March and instead put forward a veteran MEP as a challenger, the move backfired, giving the opposition its biggest lift in years.
Last month, when Tusk chastised Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło for comments she made in a speech at the Auschwitz concentration camp, he did so in Polish, from his personal Twitter account. And when he comments on the situation in Poland, he tends to do so in Polish to Polish media, as he has in recent interviews on Polish television about the controversial legislation.
Tusk’s sensitivity to any perception of Brussels as anti-Poland was clear in one interview he gave last week on Polish television. Asked if Poland’s EU membership might be in jeopardy, Tusk replied: “I would like to say this very clearly. Here in Brussels no one wants to lash out at Poland.”
“In Brussels, and in all of Europe, people ask me how to persuade our Polish partners not to do bad things,” Tusk said.
“When it comes to EU membership,” he added, “There is no threat coming from Europe — today that threat is lurking in Poland. If anyone today is working towards stripping Poland of the benefits of EU membership, it is not people in Brussels, Paris, Madrid or Berlin. They are people I meet in Warsaw these days — not on the streets, but in officials’ private offices.”
Click Here: Putters
European Commission officials leading the discussions with the Polish government, including First Vice President Frans Timmermans, declined to comment on Tusk. Privately, officials insist that the Council president has not complicated the situation, particularly because his views are closely aligned with other leaders in Brussels and the official Commission position.
But when concerns first surfaced more than a year ago, some associates said Tusk was reluctant to get involved and his first instinct, in response to statements by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others, was to prevent punitive action.
“I think he was very unhappy by the first movement by Timmermans and Juncker in early 2016 against Kaczyński,” one associate said. “At that time, he still believed talking will help.” The associate said Tusk opposed opening a formal process.
Any such resistance evaporated late last year when it became clear that the government in Warsaw was intent on eliminating the independence of the judiciary and sharply tightening executive control.
The tension between Tusk and Law and Justice has also taken a sharp personal turn. He has been accused of treason and threatened with prosecution for murder by Kaczyński, who holds Tusk responsible for the death of his brother, Lech Kaczyński, in a 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia.
The government has also sought to link him to other scandals. In April, Tusk endured more than eight hours of questioning by Polish prosecutors examining alleged illegal contacts between Polish and Russian intelligence officials during Tusk’s time as prime minister. He was identified as a witness, not a suspect, in that inquiry.
Tusk, who has branded that case political, arrived in Warsaw for his interrogation by train, and was greeted by a large throng of supporters and critics. Afterward, he told reporters: “the whole case has a highly political character.”
A senior Polish diplomat who has known Tusk for years said the rule of law dispute has been a burden, “a headache for the whole EU and for Tusk especially.” But the diplomat said that for Tusk there was clearly also an emotional component. “He has a lot of bitterness seeing the reputation of Poland being damaged,” the diplomat said.
Maïa de La Baume and Michał Broniatowski contributed reporting.