Europe letter: Why Donald Tusk’s appointment is an important moment

Can the former prime minister of Poland rise to the European Council challenge?

 

The cold winds of the east blew into Brussels this week as the new head of the European Council arrived in the EU capital and an icy fog descended on Brussels, heralding the arrival of winter.

On December 1st, Donald Tusk was appointed European Council president, assuming the mantle from Herman Van Rompuy at a ceremony in Brussels. Tusk is only the second person to hold the post, which was created in the Treaty of Lisbon.

For those who missed the handover ceremony, the former Polish prime minister had announced his arrival the previous evening in a 15-minute video released by the European Council. Billed as a biography “in his own words”, the slick, promotional-style video featured a relaxed Tusk smiling into the camera as he recounted his life story. But rather than a piece of schmaltzy political spin, the interview turned out to be a fascinating glimpse of a life lived at the heart of eastern Europe’s journey from communism to democracy.

In surprisingly good English, Tusk recalled his upbringing in Gdansk on the Baltic coast, describing how he gained his first taste of politics after witnessing riots over food prices. “I saw policemen shooting at workers. Dozens were killed . . . Even though I was a teenager, it was clear to me who was on the right side and who was on the wrong side.”

Solidarity journalist

In 2007 he was elected prime minister, a post he held until August, when he was chosen by fellow EU leaders to lead the European Council, the body which represents EU governments.

Tusk’s personal story is likely to recede from view as he immerses himself in the day-to-day challenges of running the council. But his personal history, and the broader history of eastern Europe he symbolises, is significant.

The election of the first eastern European leader to a senior EU job is an important moment in European history. It is also timely, given the EU’s expansion eastwards over the past decade. At the same time, the prospect of the EU’s centre of gravity shifting eastwards has unsettled many older member states, particularly in light of a possible British exit from the EU.

So will the election of Tusk have an impact on the EU’s political direction?

Much depends on how Van Rompuy’s successor interprets his role. The Treaty of Lisbon states that the council president “chairs” and “drives forward” the work of the European Council and endeavours to “facilitate cohesion and consensus” within it.

Though it is widely accepted that Van Rompuy performed well as council president, particularly in his handling of the euro-zone crisis, the former Belgian prime minister certainly interpreted his role as one of consensus-building and facilitation rather than anything more political. Indeed, many commentators would argue that the decision not to appoint a big-name candidate, such as Tony Blair, in 2009 meant that the opportunity to create a kind of “president” of Europe – championed by many at the time – was missed.

More power for Tusk

Most obviously, this may be the case in relation to the Ukraine crisis. In a thinly- disguised reference to Russia in his inaugural speech this week, Tusk said that “Europe has to secure its borders and support those in the neighbourhood who share our values”.

As with his ally, Angela Merkel, Tusk’s eastern European roots have galvanised a passionate pro-Europeanism, with the result that he is unlikely to be tolerant of British requests for changes to EU rules. Having publicly differed with David Cameron on free movement, how Tusk handles the British question will be a key challenge of his presidency.

His relationship with his counterpart at the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, will also be an important aspect of his tenure.

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Over the next few years we will see if Tusk can rise to that challenge and become the man who represents the EU to the outside world.

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