Donald Tusk, the newly elected President of the European Council, is hardly a surprising nomination. His candidacy had been considered in the bidding process for several months, although he kept distancing himself from the recurring rumours about his plan to move to a new job in Brussels. But who is he? A moderate, compromise-seeking leader with strong political talents, or a waving flag, conforming to where the wind blows from?
The path to power
Born in 1957, he was an active member of the democratic opposition in the 1980s, and one of the most active politicians of the early 90’s, initially as a radical economic liberal. His evolution led across a number of political parties to the year 2001, when he became part of a trio of the ‘founding fathers’ of his current party, the Civic Platform.
The poor economic performance of the then social-democratic government elevated the liberal and pro-market Civic Platform to lead in the opinion polls, and rendered Tusk the leading presidential candidate in the 2005 ‘double’ elections. However, the close race with the runner-up Law and Justice twisted dramatically after a series of personal attics on Tusk and eventually, the conservative, anti-EU Kaczyński brothers secured both the majority in the parliament and the presidential seat.
The turbulent two years of the right-wing government of the Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice were evidently not a time wasted for the leader of the Civic Platform. Battle-scarred, Tusk took revenge on the then-prime minister by literally smashing him in a TV debate in late 2007, which is probably the most memorable duel in Polish history. In a confident manner, he proved his strong persuasive skills and his ability to relate to the middle-class electorate that led his party to a confident victory later that year.
The seven years of his leadership stand in stark contrast to the earlier years, marred with perpetual turbulence and economic troubles. At the end of 2012, the gross domestic product of Poland was 18.2% higher compared to 2007, which is a result unrivalled by any other EU member state, with Slovakia in the second place with almost half as much. Also, the Tusk of today differs from the Tusk of the past – long gone are the days he campaigned for a single tax rate and other tricks to benefit the wealthy few. The 24/7 fighting with the real-world troubles made him shift to more realistic social-democratic positions.
The ‘wait and see’ tactics
However, the good record in economics would not allow him to stay in the office for more than any other PM in the Polish history, if it didn’t go along with his distinctive political skill he shares with the German chancellor Angela Merkel, which he demonstrates in his strategy to ‘wait and see’. Closely acquainted with the Bundeskanzlerin, he has successfully put to use her flagship method of abstaining from any premature movements. Instead of that, he always takes time to probe the popular sentiments, and if there happens to be some dominant way of seeing some issue, his responds as if it was exactly his point of view from the very start.
Tusk can easily be called the master in maneuvering between fractions and balancing the contrasting points of view. The prime example is that when he was composing his second government after winning the general elections in 2011, he chose to take on board people of all different sides of the political spectrum. Among the nominated ministers was the now-MEP Agnieszka Kozłowska-Rajewicz who, appointed to the office of Equal Rights, was quite active in promoting such ‘radically-left’ ideas as gender equality and anti-discrimination. But at the same time, the Ministry of Justice was thrown on the mercy of the almost absurdly conservative Jarosław Gowin, now long gone from the party and allied with Kaczyński, the Tusk’s rival No. 1.
Views on European issues
One result of his tactics to abide by popular demand is that no one, both in the party and among the citizens, can ever be fully satisfied, but at the same time, nobody has enough reasons to stand up and actively rise against the leadership. This strategy seems to be the essence of political efficacy, but its other effect is that he can be called anything but a visionare. It’s almost impossible to tell what side Tusk is actually on, in almost any issue – ranging from the climate change, gender equality to the EU enlargement and the membership of Poland in the Eurozone.
The nomination of Tusk was clearly a choice made to keep the equilibrium in the EU executive: the newly elected Perm Rep, Federica Mogherini is a social democrat from the ‘old’ EU, she’s female, and her approach to Russia is, at best, conciliatory. Tusk, along with the Italian, makes up for a balanced tandem as a male from the center-right, representing both the new EU members and the states with a bold stance on Russia.
Of his reactions to the Russian aggression, he is best known as the initiator of the project of the European energy union, which he campaigned for in the European capitals in the past months. The Tusk’s commitment to giving a strong response to Russia has likely been the main obstacle on his way to the EUCO presidency, as he never made many bold statements on the other hot EU themes.
His consistent support for strong and immediate sanctions led to an argument with the French president Francois Hollande on the French contracts for weapon deliveries to Russia, but also failed to gain him united support among the ‘new’ EU members with the more pro-Russian governments in Hungary and Slovakia.
Nevertheless, he managed to break the resistance of the president of France, and more than that; the UK’s David Cameron made his bid on the Polish candidate despite the reported indignant reaction of Tusk to the Cameron’s campaign against the Polish migrants to the UK. The backing that Tusk got from the German chancellor is the least of a surprise owing to their long-time alliance and firm personal fellowship.
What’s left behind and what’s in the prospect?
The nomination of Tusk in Brussels was preceded by long speculations on if he will actually accept the offer. Paradoxically, taking this high-profile job can be a risky decision on the national field, at least in the short-term.
One of the reasons of Tusk’s success was the ease he had to eliminate the growing opponents. As a result, there is nobody around him, who is charismatic enough to successfully replace him in the prime minister’s seat.
The lack of a legitimate heir was believed to deter Tusk from accepting the nomination, along with the dwindling approval rates of his party. The close victory in the EP elections in May has failed to bring confidence to the Civic Platform, as the polls turned in favour of the right-wing opposition. Party members fear that the ongoing series of elections will cost them their seats in the parliament and in the local governments, and many of them could become precious for the right-wing Law and Justice to secure a long-awaited electoral victory.
What seems a tough decision in the short term, is in fact a fairly obvious choice – if Tusk approves the nomination, he escapes the blame for the expected loss of his party next autumn. His second term as the EUCO president would end in 2019, which combines perfectly with the electoral calendar in Poland and clears the path for a successful presidential bid in 2020.