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Adam Holesch

January 12th, 2024

What impact will Donald Tusk’s return have on European integration?

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Adam Holesch

January 12th, 2024

What impact will Donald Tusk’s return have on European integration?

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Donald Tusk was officially appointed as Poland’s new Prime Minister in December. Adam Holesch assesses whether Tusk’s return to power will signify a strengthening of EU integration or whether it could instead foster a diverging approach to the EU in Central and Eastern Europe.

With the election of Donald Tusk as Prime Minister on 11 December last year, Poland marked the end of the Law and Justice (PiS) party’s eight-year period of populist governance. The newly formed coalition government, led by Tusk’s Civic Platform (PO) and supported by the Third Way and the Left party coalitions, is pioneering in the sense that it will be the first tasked with reversing democratic backsliding in the EU.

The decline of the PiS government in Poland was influenced by multiple factors. A 2020 ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal to tighten abortion laws sparked protests mobilising millions of women and young people. These two demographics played a decisive role in the October 2023 elections. Additionally, conflicts with the European Union over rule of law issues, leading to withheld EU funds since 2022, also became a significant concern for Polish voters. This was acknowledged by PiS politicians, including Marek Suski, who openly admitted that the loss of these funds factored into their electoral defeat.

Changes ahead

The new government under Donald Tusk is set to implement significant changes, particularly in Poland’s approach to EU politics. Since Tusk’s initial tenure as Poland’s Prime Minister from 2007 to 2014, the political landscape has evolved considerably.

First, Tusk himself has grown into a seasoned figure in EU politics, gaining extensive experience from his roles as President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019 and as President of the European People’s Party (EPP) from 2019 to 2022. His political maturation and experience have made him a formidable figure in European politics, comparable to Jean-Claude Juncker, who is renowned for his deep commitment to Europe.

Second, Poland has witnessed substantial economic progress, earning it the moniker of the European Union’s “growth champion”. By 2021, Poland’s GDP per capita surpassed that of Portugal and is projected to exceed Spain’s by 2025. Attracted by Poland’s remarkably low unemployment rate – the second lowest in the EU at 2.8% as of October 2023 – young Europeans from countries grappling with high youth unemployment rates, such as Spain (28%) and Italy (24.7%), are increasingly relocating northward.

Given Tusk’s in-depth understanding of EU institutional mechanisms, his influential position within the European People’s Party and the burgeoning economic confidence of Poland, Tusk is well-positioned to emerge as a central figure in EU policymaking.

The end of democratic backsliding?

The new government has inherited numerous challenges from the previous administration, including an ongoing conflict over the rule of law. This contains an open Article 7(1) and two infringement procedures. Furthermore, significant EU funds are currently inaccessible to Poland, notably those from the Resilience and Recovery Facility and the Partnership Agreements/Common Provision Regulation. In 2023, approximately €35 billion in post-pandemic recovery funds were withheld by Brussels due to concerns over the independence of the judiciary.

A key promise of the opposition parties during their electoral campaign was the swift release of withheld EU funds, with Tusk confidently asserting his ability to secure their disbursement. However, the new government’s capacity to reverse the judicial reforms introduced by the previous administration, particularly in the area of the disciplinary regime for judges, remains uncertain.

President Andrzej Duda, who is aligned with the Law and Justice party, retains the power to veto judicial matters until 2025. While Tusk’s personal rapport with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen could be beneficial, it is still unclear whether the Commission will lift financial restrictions amidst these unresolved issues. Poland’s credibility on the EU stage could significantly improve if the new government joins the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO), which addresses crimes against the EU’s financial interests.

Pro-European, yet cautiously sovereign

While leading a nation known for its strong pro-EU sentiment, evidenced by decades of surveys indicating around 90% of Poles hold a favourable view of the EU, Tusk remains keenly aware of the diverse opinions among Poles regarding national sovereignty and their mixed attitudes toward Muslim migration.

Furthermore, Tusk has learned valuable lessons from his previous term in office. Unpopular decisions and reforms he implemented, such as increasing the retirement age threshold, ended up alienating some of his supporters, inadvertently pushing them towards the populist appeal of the Law and Justice party.

Recognising these complexities, Tusk has clearly stated that he will not push for sweeping changes to the EU Treaties. With the nearing completion of the EU’s asylum policy reform – a move previously opposed by the PiS government – Tusk’s approach is not expected to significantly diverge from that of his predecessors. He has consistently opposed compulsory immigrant relocation, a position he upheld during the 2015 migration crisis while leading the European Council.

On climate policy, Tusk is unlikely to take a radical position. Poland’s reliance on CO2-intensive industries presents a challenge. While PiS was known for its resistance to EU climate initiatives, Tusk, aligned with the EPP group, may not obstruct such policies outright but could advocate for a more gradual implementation of new environmental regulations.

Strengthening the Weimar Triangle

Under Tusk’s leadership, a rejuvenation of the “Weimar Triangle” – the tripartite platform for dialogue and cooperation between Poland, Germany, and France established in 1991 – is anticipated. Tusk is expected to make a concerted effort to balance and enhance these relationships. While this cooperation has previously been hindered by Poland’s asymmetrical position, recent shifts, including Poland’s increased economic prominence, could facilitate a more balanced engagement.

In the broader context of Central and Eastern Europe, Poland is poised to emerge as a strong pro-EU advocate, contrasting with the stagnating agenda of the Visegrád Group (V4). Initially founded to promote European integration and counterbalance western Europe’s influence, the V4’s effectiveness has diminished over time. Their collective resistance to migration quotas during the 2015 crisis was a notable instance of active, albeit anti-EU, cooperation.

Post-election, the V4 nations exhibit divergent stances towards the EU. Poland is increasingly pro-EU, while the Czech Republic, led by Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s mildly Eurosceptic Civic Democratic Party, and Slovakia, under Prime Minister Robert Fico’s leftist-populist Direction-Social Democracy, display varying levels of Euroscepticism. Hungary, under Viktor Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party, stands as a distinct outlier, often challenging the fundamental principles of the European Union.

A stand-off between Tusk and Orbán over Ukraine?

Previously, Tusk and Orbán not only shared a liberal political background but also enjoyed a personal camaraderie, united by their mutual love for football. In 2012, Tusk even defended Hungary’s stance in the EU, advocating for the fair treatment of newer member states by Brussels.

However, this friendship began to wane as Orbán was drawn closer to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who had visions of replicating Orbán’s success in Poland and establishing a “Budapest in Warsaw”. Following victory for PiS in the 2015 Polish elections, a stable alliance formed between Fidesz and PiS, with both countries shielding each other in the EU Council against potential Article 7 procedures.

This solidarity faced a significant test with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Orbán’s subsequent alignment with Putin and obstructionist tactics within the EU, often seen as supportive of Russia’s interests, have strained the traditional Polish-Hungarian rapport. Poland, particularly vocal in its support for Ukraine within the EU, has been pushing for a stronger stance against Russia, even influencing Germany’s position.

However, in a controversial move before the 2023 elections, PiS took steps that undermined Poland’s relationship with Ukraine, targeting the Ukrainian-sceptic electorate. In Brussels, there was a sense of having lost a partner in Warsaw to address Ukrainian issues. The incoming coalition under Tusk is expected to vigorously renew support for Ukraine. This could set the stage for a pivotal confrontation between former friends Tusk and Orbán over the issue, with each on opposite extremes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Union

About the author

Adam Holesch

Adam Holesch is an Adjunct Professor at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF).

Posted In: EU Politics | Politics

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