Tusk appointment as European Council president shifts EU axis towards east
Polish prime minister’s appointment likely to be seen as turning point in EU history
Donald Tusk: Twenty-five years after the Berlin Wall’s fall and 10 years after Poland and a wave of former communist countries joined the EU, the union has appointed its first eastern European leader, one who speaks neither English nor French. Photograph:EPA
Following months of political wrangling and bitter recrimination over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission president, the 28 leaders of European Union countries on Saturday chose the individuals who will lead the EU over the next five years.
Barely two hours after the summit commenced, outgoing European Council president Herman Van Rompuy emerged from the meeting room in Brussels flanked by his newly designated successor, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, and by Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini. With Polish media already reporting Tusk’s victory, a hastily convened press conference was held to announce the candidates before the leaders returned to the room to rejoin the debate on Ukraine.
As with most decisions in the EU, a consensus had been emerging over the top candidates in the days preceding the summit. Mogherini’s name had been circulating for some months as a candidate for the EU’s top foreign policy job, with Italy making no secret of its ambitions to land one of the union’s most senior positions.
But Mogherini’s relative inexperience – she has been foreign minister for just six months – and her perceived pro-Russian sympathies stood against her as leaders failed to endorse her candidacy at the July summit. So what changed in the interim? Tusk’s emergence as a candidate for the other top job was a key factor. His hawkish stance on Russia appears to have assuaged concerns among the Baltic countries that Mogherini was too pro-Kremlin.
But Tusk’s accession also represents an undeniable tilt eastwards for the EU. The traditional Franco-German alliance that has been the fulcrum of the EU since its foundation may potentially give way to a new eastern-focused union clustered around Germany and Poland, particularly in light of France’s increasingly weak standing in the EU under François Hollande. The threat of a British exit over the next few years may also galvanise a sense that the union’s centre of gravity is moving east.
Tusk is a long-time ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the two countries are strong political and economic partners, though Warsaw has been suspicious of what it deemed to be Berlin’s over-conciliatory initial approach to Russia over Ukraine. But Poland is itself a formidable presence in the EU. A country of nearly 40 million people, it is the EU’s sixth largest country and a significant player in Brussels politics.
As council president, Tusk will be tasked with chairing European summits and finding consensus between member states on issues as diverse as energy, economic policy and foreign affairs. While Tusk stressed his intention to serve European and not national interests in his new role, many member states will be wary of Poland’s entrenched positions on issues such as energy and foreign policy. Its commitment to coal production and resistance to greater tobacco regulation are well known for example.
The fact that Poland is not a member of the currency union is also a source of concern. Because of the abatement of the euro-zone debt crisis – the defining feature of Van Rompuy’s tenure – economic crisis management is unlikely to dominate Tusk’s agenda, although the recent stalling of European economic growth, the risk of deflation and imminent European banking stress tests mean economics is likely to remain a central focus of EU policy over the next five years.
The other issue facing Tusk is a possible British referendum on EU membership. He highlighted the issue during his first press conference as council president-designate, promising to “take on the concerns” of the UK, and saying: “No reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK.” He also pledged to address the issue of freedom of movement of workers, a key British concern and highly sensitive for Poland, given the high levels of Polish migration to Britain.
Youth as asset
But detractors have criticised the decision to appoint a candidate with scant experience of foreign policy. Critics argue that as Mogherini is only the second person to occupy the role of high representative for foreign affairs, a job created under the Lisbon Treaty, her appointment confirms the perception of the job as a lightweight position, at a time when foreign policy has never been so crucial.
The fact that Tusk’s appointment assuaged the doubts of some member states about Mogherini’s appointment reveals, ironically, the belief that it is ultimately individual countries through the council, not the high representative for foreign affairs, that decides foreign policy. Despite the decision to set up a separate foreign policy wing under the Lisbon Treaty, it seems the commitment to a truly cohesive European foreign policy still remains a step too far for EU member states.