How will Donald Tusk’s re-appointment as European Council President affect Polish politics?

Poland’s right-wing government suffered its most high profile defeat to date when it failed to prevent the re-appointment of Donald Tusk, whom it accused of interfering in Polish domestic politics, as European Council President, raising concerns that the country was becoming isolated on the EU’s periphery. Opinion polls show a slump in the ruling party’s lead and boost for the main opposition grouping but it is unclear whether this is a political turning point or short-term blip.

Concerns over Mr Tusk’s impartiality

Mr Tusk was co-founder and one time leader of the centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s main governing party between 2007-15 and currently the largest opposition grouping, and served as prime minister until November 2014. His first term as European Council President ends in May and, shortly before the March EU summit that voted on his re-appointment, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party put forward Civic Platform MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski as an alternative candidate for the post. Mr Saryusz-Wolski is a highly competent politician who helped to negotiate Poland’s EU accession and since 2004 held senior positions in the European Parliament (EP) but has been in conflict with the Civic Platform leadership for a number of years and tried to build links with Law and Justice after it came to office in autumn 2015.

Law and Justice accused Mr Tusk of violating the principle that EU officials should refrain from becoming involved in the political affairs of member states and using his position to undermine the government by unconstitutional means. Last December, he appeared to support opposition attempts to block the work of the Polish parliament during a tense stand-off over proposed parliamentary media access reforms and a disputed vote on the budget. It argued that it would be difficult for Mr Tusk to secure consensus among EU leaders without a minimum of trust from all member states, and that extending the mandate of a senior EU official despite strong objections from their home country’s government set a dangerous precedent.

Law and Justice also warned that Mr Tusk faces several investigations relating to actions taken when he was prime minister. These include his alleged responsibility for the 2010 Smolensk air crash that killed 96 people – including the then-President Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński – and subsequent mis-handling of the crash investigation. A special parliamentary commission investigating the 2012 Amber Gold pyramid scheme scandal, as a result of which thousands of Poles lost their savings, is also trying to establish whether Mr Tusk had prior knowledge of the company’s problems which he shared with this son, who was employed by one of its subsidiaries, and then tried to cover up.

Mr Tusk could be the most serious challenger to Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda in Poland’s next presidential election which is scheduled for summer 2020 (Mr Tusk’s second term as Council President ends in November 2019). For sure, Mr Tusk saw his popularity slump during the last two years of his premiership and it is unclear if he is even interested in returning to the front-line Polish politics. Nonetheless, he remains a charismatic political figure and – as the case of Jerzy Buzek, who was one of Poland’s most unpopular prime ministers in 1997-2001 but re-invented himself as a high profile Civic Platform MEP and EP President, shows – it is possible for a Polish politician to re-establish themselves on the national political scene through a high profile EU position. Law and Justice is trying to chip away at Mr Tusk’s credibility by reminding voters of the shortcomings and pathologies of the previous Civic Platform administration. It also hopes that by opposing his re-appointment as Council President the government can distance itself from any perceived shortcomings in the way that he handles the difficult issues that the EU faces over the next couple of years.

In the event, in spite of its intense, last-minute diplomatic efforts Law and Justice could not even secure the backing of Hungary and the UK, its closest European allies, and only the Polish government opposed Mr Tusk’s re-appointment. Prime minister Beata Szydło refused to sign the summit’s final communique in protest against how the election was handled – rather than putting the matter to a vote, the Maltese chair simply asked member state governments to register their opposition – although this turned out not to have any legal significance as its decisions were adopted anyway.

Isolated or empowered?

Poland’s main opposition parties, Civic Platform and the smaller liberal ‘Modern’ (Nowoczesna) grouping, argued that even if Mr Tusk was not personally sympathetic to the Law and Justice government it should not undermine the first Pole to reach the pinnacle of the EU institutions. They accused Law and Justice of bringing Polish internal political conflicts into the EU arena, claiming that Mr Tusk had simply called upon the government to respect the country’s Constitution, and said that Mr Kaczyński (who holds no state offices but many commentators consider Poland’s most powerful politician) was pursuing a personal vendetta against him.

They also argued that Law and Justice’s isolation exemplified the broader failure of its EU diplomacy. The current government has moved away from the strategy pursued by its Civic Platform-led predecessor of trying to locate Poland within the so-called ‘mainstream’ and prioritising the development of close relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice, on the other hand, argues that Poland needs to be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests and form its ‘own stream’ within the EU by, for example, building alliances with central and East European post-communist states to counter-balance the influence of the Franco-German axis. However, the opposition point out that the major EU powers have signalled that they favour the development of a ‘multi-speed’ Europe and there is a real danger that Poland will end up marginalised on the Union’s periphery unless it re-joins European mainstream politics. They also warn that the failed attempt to unseat Mr Tusk could be a precursor to eventual ‘Polexit’: Law and Justice taking Poland out of the EU.

The government’s supporters respond that Law and Justice remains strongly committed to EU membership but wants a fundamental re-think of the trajectory of the European project. They argue that last June’s Brexit vote in the UK was a vindication of its critique of the EU political elite who precipitated mounting Euroscepticm by over-centralising and trying to force their vision of deeper European integration against the popular will. Law and Justice wants to bring the EU back to its original role as a looser alliance of economically co-operating sovereign nation-states with a more consensual decision making process that reduces the dominant role of the Franco-German axis.

By opposing the re-appointment of Mr Tusk, whom Law and Justice dubbed the ‘German candidate’, Poland, they argue, exposed the lack of transparency in the EU’s procedures and that far-reaching reforms were required to re-connect the Union with ordinary citizens. Mr Tusk was only re-elected due to pressure from Berlin who wanted a Council President who would have no qualms about implementing policies favoured by the main EU powers. The fact that Poland was prepared to defend its position on a matter of principle even when it was in a minority of one showed that the country had asserted itself as a sovereign state, regaining the empowerment (‘podmiotowość’, literally ‘subjectivity’) that it had lost under the previous Civic Platform-led administration.

Opposition on the offensive

The idea of Polish EU membership as a natural and obvious historical-civilisational choice has come under strain in recent years and public support is driven increasingly by the tangible material benefits that the Union is felt to deliver. Moreover, survey evidence shows many Poles share Law and Justice’s concerns about the trajectory of the European project and are critical of attempts to deepen integration. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority still support EU membership; a March survey by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that they did so by a margin of 78% to 12%. The government’s opponents may have raised genuine concerns among a section of Poles that Law and Justice was becoming increasingly anti-EU and statements by some party spokesmen in the wake of the EU summit, whatever their actual intentions, appeared to confirm the opposition’s narrative. However, most Poles accepted the government’s argument that it had no intention of promoting ‘Polexit’.

The greater concern was that the government’s actions may have weakened Poland’s position within the EU’s decision-making structures. Polish-EU relations and foreign affairs more generally are rather abstract questions for most Poles that rarely determine their political preferences. But they start to become salient if Poles feel that the country’s potential isolation threatens their tangible, day-to-day concerns. Poland is currently the largest beneficiary of EU regional aid, which many commentators see as crucial to the country’s economic modernisation but the opposition argue could be placed in jeopardy; during the March EU summit French President Francois Holland remarked menacingly that Poland ‘may have principles, but we have the structural funds’.

Moreover, because the dispute over Mr Tusk’s re-appointment focused on a very well-known individual, Poles were able to identify with it much more easily than most foreign policy debates. Most were unconvinced by Law and Justice’s argument that he represented the interests of foreign powers and felt it was in the national interest to have a Pole holding a senior EU post, however symbolic. A poll conducted by the Kantar Millward Brown agency for the ‘300polityka’ website, found that, by margin of 60% to 25%, Poles were pleased that Mr Tusk had been re-elected, and only 12% felt that he was a ‘German candidate’ while 49% said that he represented the interests of the EU as a whole.

The government’s failed attempt to block Mr Tusk’s re-appointment gave the opposition its best opportunity in the current parliament to go on the political offensive. Four opinion polls conducted since the summit showed Law and Justice’s lead reduced from double figures to less than 5%, while Civic Platform saw a substantial increase in its support. However, this was due largely to the consolidation of the opposition as a result of the ongoing decline of ‘Modern’ and the fact that many Poles still identify Civic Platform with Mr Tusk, with only a relatively small drop in support for the ruling party.

Turning point or blip?

Law and Justice has tried to challenge the notion that the government is ineffectual and isolated within the EU. It attempted to present itself as an effective defender of a united and solidarisitc EU through its (the opposition argues, rather theatrical) opposition to any references to a ‘multi-speed’ EU in the declaration mapping out a post-Brexit vision of the Union’s future issued at the end of March by the Rome summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the European communities.

At the same time, Civic Platform has a real sense that it has finally put Law and Justice on the defensive, and filed a motion of no-confidence in the government which is likely to be debated in April. Although it has no chance of passing, given that the ruling party has an outright parliamentary majority, the accompanying debate will keep the topic of Mr Tusk’s re-appointment, which will form the core of Civic Platform’s case against the government, high up on the political agenda. Law and Justice, in turn, will be keen to re-focus debate back on to domestic socio-economic issues where it is more in tune with public opinion than the opposition parties. The key question now is: will the government’s EU summit defeat mark a political turning point or will any ‘Tusk effect’ fade and the balance of forces snap back quickly to where it was before the re-appointment row?