Expanding the Legacy

Carrying the Hopes of a Country and a Union

Donald Tusk


Whilst president of the European Council, Donald Tusk frequently caused a stir with comments that lacked in finesse or diplomacy. After the 2016 Brexit vote that sealed the UK’s departure from the European Union, the former, and likely future, prime minister of Poland speculated that supporters of the plan were destined for a “special place in hell.” Not to be outdone, a Brexit spokesperson for the Democratic Unionist Party (of Northern Ireland) called Mr Tusk a “devilish, trident wielding, euro maniac.”

The council president proved, however, a skilful political operator and kept the remaining 27 member states in line throughout the often acerbic negotiations that followed the Brexit vote with a simple, yet effective, message: “United we stand, divided we fall.” He repeatedly warned of threats posed by the rise of anti-EU, nationalist, and xenophobic sentiments exploited by unscrupulous populists not least in his own home country.

In Brussels, council president Tusk faced formidable headwinds not only from the UK’s imminent departure but also from the openly hostile Trump Administration in Washington which seemed determined to undo seven decades of US foreign policy consensus by stoking discord amongst member states and encouraging more desertions from the EU.

In a Donald-on-Donald exchange, Mr Tusk chided The Donald on his US trade policy which included slapping tariffs on imports and heralded a return to mercantilism. In tandem with the equally outspoken (then-)European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Tusk rather bravely faced down the US president: “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

Beneath his suave outward appearance, Donald Tusk remains a tough and fearless street fighter who will don knuckledusters at the slightest provocation. His return to domestic politics, in 2021, rolling in like a battle tank, galvanised the opposition. The near-comatose Civic Platform, his party, gained as many as one million voters in less than a month, according to polls at the time.

In an all-or-nothing election campaign, he staked his future on ejecting the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party from power. He has managed to do so by adopting the pose of the elder statesman, admitting prior mistakes, praising and courting other opposition leaders, and patiently answering hostile questions from state-controlled media outlets.


Admittedly, Mr Tusk was helped by the remarkable ineptitude of the PiS administration which had overplayed its hand in an earlier episode that shocked many. Trying to pull the plug on TVN, the country’s only independent television network, and its TVN24 news channel, PiS leaders brazenly invited a clash with the US, arguably the country’s most stalwart supporter and greatest benefactor.

The offending Polish network is owned by Warner Bros, the US media conglomerate. An attempt by PiS to introduce a law that would bar entities from outside the European Economic Area from owning and operating media companies in Poland sparked both anger and concern over the erosion of press freedom.

A bipartisan group of US senators expressed their displeasure in a letter to the Polish government, noting that “steps recently taken” do not reflect the shared values that “underpin our bilateral relationship.” In case their message was not fully understood, the senators added that “any decision to implement these laws could have negative implications for defence, business, and trade relations.”

Not quite as brave as his combative prime minister, Polish president Andrzej Duda vetoed the so-called Lex TVN in late 2021. However, the apparent readiness of PiS politicians to cause a rift with Washington left a lasting impression on many voters.

The episode helped Poles forget, or at least overlook, Mr Tusk’s own perceived missteps such as his 2012 decision to raise the retirement age by seven years to 67. In one of its first acts on gaining power in 2015, PiS reversed this highly unpopular decision. In the run-up to the mid-October election, the party’s candidates insisted that the opposition Civi Platform would again raise the retirement age if it managed to snatch the reins of power from them.

The charge, vehemently denied by Mr Tusk, did resonate with voters fearful of a return to the liberal politics of yore. PiS spokesperson Piotr Müller, no stranger to drama, said that, should Mr Tusk return to power, he would post a big sign in front of the chancellery with the text ‘Poland for Sale.’

Courting Trouble

Donald Tusk is aware of these apprehensions and has sought to distance himself from his former economic advisor Bogusław Grabowski who repeatedly calls for longer working hours, more privatisations, and less restrictions on business. He also wants to see the zloty replaced by the euro. The liberal economist, a hawk by most standards, scares many Poles who fear their country may be crushed by market forces, likely equal in destructive force to invading armies.

Whilst the imminent return of Donald Tusk to power caused an elation bordering euphoria in Brussels, observers in Warsaw caution that his pro-EU charm may prove slightly misleading. As prime minister, Donald Tusk would certainly set out to mend relations with the EU. He plans to do so by reversing the controversial judicial reforms introduced by the PiS government in 2019.

As a first step in that direction, Mr Tusk promised to immediately sack the three judges of the Constitutional Tribunal whose nomination he deems illegal. Their dismissal needs parliamentary confirmation.

In its highly-anticipated final ruling, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) last year confirmed that the Polish judicial reforms infringe upon EU law because they undermine the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. “The value of the rule of law is an integral part of the very identity of the European Union as a common legal order and is given concrete expression in principles containing legally binding obligations for the member states,” wrote the court.

The reforms included the creation of a supreme court disciplinary chamber with powers to sanction and punish judges if their verdicts deviate from the norm. The chamber has been criticised as a possible tool for the government to exert power over the courts and subject judges failing to toe the line to criminal proceedings and even arrest.

However, according to the Polish government, the reforms merely sought to silence the echoes of the country’s communist past, purge the judiciary of corruption, and strengthen the apolitical character of the courts.

To appease EU concerns, the disciplinary chamber has since been replaced by a ‘chamber of professional responsibility’ but not before the country accrued €534 million in fines for its initial refusal to comply with the ECJ ruling. The money was deducted from Poland’s EU budget allocation.

Though the fines stopped, the EU still withholds approximately €35 billion in payouts – Poland’s share of the Covid-19 recovery fund. Relations also failed to improve after Justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, one of the architects of the reforms, called the ECJ a “corrupt tribunal steered by politicians.”

Donald Tusk assured his followers that, upon taking office, he would travel to Brussels and get the monies released. He agrees with the assertion that the rollback of the reforms after the ECJ ruling were only cosmetic in nature and promises to fully restore judicial independence. EU Justice commissioner Didier Reynders said that Poland will only receive the frozen funds once the European Commission is satisfied that the rule of law has been reestablished and the primacy of EU law over domestic legislation reaffirmed. “Concrete steps are needed,” Mr Didier said.

Tusk 2.0

There is little doubt that a Tusk-government will act swiftly to deal with the judicial PiS legacy. However, on other topics Mr Tusk is expected to be less accommodating. He must be careful to avoid being branded an EU yes-man. This is precisely how PiS depicted the opposition leader during the election campaign: a lackey of Brussels, eager to impose a liberal agenda on his still conservative country.

On the stump, Mr Tusk repeatedly slammed the government for letting in thousands of migrants from ‘islamic countries’ all the while opposing the EU relocations scheme as an alleged ‘threat’ to Polish security. “Voters must oust the PiS government to deter the threat around the corner,” Mr Tusk said referring to muslim immigrants coming to Poland. The PiS was likewise unable to bring down immigration numbers.

Civic Platform leaders argue that welcoming more than 1.5 million Ukrainian war refugees shows that Poland has already met, and likely exceeded, any migrant quota the EU demands. Party spokesperson Jan Grabiec said that the platform would ‘most certainly’ not agree to any solution that assigns more immigrants to Poland. The country’s political scene holds a remarkably unified view on immigration with nearly all parties – from the ultra-conservative right to the dogmatic left – opposing relocations.

Told You So…

In a barely remembered episode, the EU’s well-known preference for convenience over pragmatism brought the Polish national-conservatives of the Law and Justice party (PiS) to power in 2015.

At the time, Germany was grappling with a huge influx of Syrian refugees. Then-chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to her European partners for help. She and the European Commission president at the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, hatched a plan to redistribute asylum seekers across member states with each one allocated a minimum number to accept.

Donald Tusk begged the commission to delay the implementation its scheme until after the Polish election (of 25 October, 2015). He argued that, on the campaign trail, PiS would milk the plan for all its worth to remind voters of the EU’s encroachment on Polish culture and the dangers of giving a free rein to the Brussels liberals.

However, the EU went ahead anyway and imposed a quota of nearly 7,000 refugees on Poland. Prime minister Ewa Kopacz and her Civic Platform were duly crucified by the opposition which won the election by a landslide, nearly doubling its seat count in parliament to 235, propelling PiS leader Beata Szydła into power and dispensing with the need for a coalition.

Another possible area of contention are the limits placed on Ukrainian grain imports which, though in clear violation of EU common trade policy, some of Mr Tusk’s allies want to maintain. During the election campaign, Mr Tusk joined forces with two smaller agrarian parties that insist on keeping cheap grain from Ukraine out.

It will be hard, and perhaps even awkward, for the new government to mend relations with both Brussels and Kyiv whilst maintaining the complex internal dynamics of its coalition in parliament. The same goes for abortion, a thorny issue that could upset Mr Tusk’s intended coalition partner Third Way – and in turn an alliance of smaller parties – which did well in the election and is not about to renounce it’s ‘pro-life’ stance – to use an Americanism.

Third Way is – in many ways…? – the polar opposite of the leftist Lewica party, another of Mr Tusk’s intended coalition partners. Lewica seeks a more secular Poland in which the influence of the church is curtailed. It also aims to strengthen the welfare state and expand social housing programmes, policies that are likely to offend Civic Platform’s more libertarian wing.

Another New Dawn

A Tusk-government is likely to oppose further privatisations and other EU-mandated market liberalisations affecting strategic sectors such as energy and rail transport. Even supported by a parliamentary majority, Mr Tusk will soon bump into the limits of his power. In Poland, the president wields significant power and can veto legislation. President Duda, a PiS ally, will want to defend the legacy of the Law and Justice party. Still, Poland is not a nation that is easily swayed by the official parole. Whilst conservative as a society, the country is quite progressive in politics.

Ignoring decades of communist propaganda and braving a repressive state apparatus, Polish voters in June 1989 grabbed the first and only chance they ever received to unceremoniously eject their oppressors from power – the first country to do so in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. Two months after the electoral earthquake, former dissidents took over government and started to roll back the centralised state and built a democracy.

The autocratic Law and Justice party woke up to a similar surprise when voters blocked its path to power notwithstanding the incessant propaganda broadcasted on state-controlled radio and television. The army too refused to sanction a PiS power grab with two top military commanders – the chief of general staff and the commander of operations – resigning days before the October 15 election in a move that represented the army’s muted vote of no-confidence in the country’s political leadership and the creeping politicisation of the military.

No Country for Old Men

Whilst the 2023 election outcome may seem less dramatic than the 1989 vote that heralded the demise of communism, it still represents an important shift away from the trend towards national-conservatism. In Hungary, Slovakia, and Turkey, liberal democratic forces failed to loosen the grip on power of authoritarian leaders. However, Poland proves their is a way back from the dictatorial brink. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of autocracy.

Paradoxically, eight years of PiS agitation against liberalism have only resulted in the rejection of the political straightjacket – and the liberalisation of Polish society. Whereas Mr Tusk proposed to build a free and modern (and, yes, liberal) country, his opponent Jarosław Kaczyński pined nostalgically for a return to his idealised pre-war Poland – a place of unquestioned certainties and static social stratification.

Put in stark strategic and geopolitical terms: Mr Kaczyński bravely but foolishly pitted Poland against both its behemoth neighbours – Russia and Germany – whilst Mr Tusk considered only expansive Russia the enemy and rejected (and ridiculed) claims by PiS leaders who see the EU as little more than the ultimate expression of the Fourth Reich – a way for Germany to claim by stealth a victory it was denied twice on the battlefield.

By targeting young voters, Donald Tusk successfully tapped into the concerns of a generation that grew up in freedom and is unwilling to accept diktats from up high. Moreover, Mr Tusk also tapped into the rising anger of a nation frustrated by a string of corruption scandals featuring PiS politicians. Remarkably, Polish voters seem to have understood that infusing the court system with politicised judges and prosecutors inevitably begets abuses of power.

Mr Tusk also managed to refrain from using the language of angry nationalism employed by PiS candidates. He deftly stuck to his message of civic patriotism and reminded voters that Poland only fares well when embedded deeply in the European Union as a constructive partner rather than a recalcitrant and reluctant member filling a reservoir of ill will in Brussels.

An Orbit of One

Curiously the biggest loser in the Polish election was not PiS, but Viktor Orbán, the combative prime minister of Hungary and known as ‘China’s last man’ in the EU for his close connections to Beijing and his love of everything and everybody sporting an authoritarian streak.

The ‘bad boys’ twin of the EU has been halved to a lone rebel who may be freely ignored for being inconsequential. In Brussels, diplomats expect prime minister Orbán to turn down the rhetoric as he can no longer hide behind a member state too large to snub.

In the past, as president of the European Council, Donald Tusk had frequent run-ins with the Hungarian prime minister and even tried to get his Civic Alliance (Fidesz) expelled from the transnational European People’s Party (EPP). In 2021, Fidesz left that party moments before it was to be ejected.

Pundits in Brussels and Budapest agree that the best prime minister Orbán can now hope for is a return of Donald Trump to the White House.

Meanwhile, Donald Tusk made good on his promise to visit Brussels immediately after his coalition’s election victory and meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. He vowed to bring Poland back to the “European stage” and unlock the frozen recovery funds.

“I am really proud of my compatriots. They have proved that the anti-democratic and anti-European mood doesn’t have to be a trend and that it’s just seasonal turbulence,” he said. Mrs Von der Leyen added that there was a “lot of common ground”  and praised Polish voters for their “strong attachment” to democracy. Mr Tusk also said that he’ll take “non-standard” measures to guarantee the release of the EU funds.

It is rare for a politician to be celebrated as much as Donald Tusk has been after a win. The man has become the embodiment of the European Union’s future and the bloc’s aspirations. Amidst the festivities it is, perhaps, wise to remember that Mr Tusk’a Civic Platform reclaimed only 20 parliamentary seats of the 36 it lost in the 2019 vote. Poland averted an ‘Orbán Moment’ by a small margin.

The national-conservatives have not suffered a knockout punch and will likely prove formidable in opposition. If liberal democracy is to (again) take hold in the country, Donald Tusk must act decisively yet carefully. As an EU commissioner noted, re-reforming the judiciary is great but whilst doing so, Mr Tusk must involve civil society lest he commits the same mistakes as the original reformers.”

© 2014 Photo by European Council President

© 2024 CFI Press. All rights reserved.