Donald Tusk must put Europe before his old friend Viktor Orbán
Back in 2014, Donald Tusk was on his way to Brussels to become president of the European council. At Warsaw airport he bumped into Lech Wałęsa, Nobel peace laureate and veteran leader of Solidarity, the Gdańsk-based trade union movement which played such a crucial role in the end of communism in 1989. “Be careful out there,” Wałęsa warned Tusk. “I worry that the EU will break up, and they chose a Pole so that they have someone to blame.”
Tusk was heading to Brussels as a passionate European, a staunch defender of what he called “fundamental” European values: solidarity, freedom and unity in the face of threats from inside and out. But Wałęsa’s words may have been prophetic. Tusk’s two-term stint, which has just ended, coincided with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the euro crisis in Greece, devastating terrorist attacks in cities across Europe, the 2015 refugee crisis which fuelled the rise of populism, and of course Brexit. If that wasn’t enough, the US elected Donald Trump, who launched a series of trade wars.
Now Tusk has published the diary he kept during his time running the EU. The book, which he calls Szczerze (Frankly), is out in Polish (not yet translated into English), and in it Tusk takes us behind the scenes to show how these tumultuous events were handled in Brussels. That Brexit dominates this political memoir perhaps isn’t surprising, but the extent to which it is such a romantic topic for Tusk is. Even Brexiteers are sick of Brexit, but Tusk’s faith that Britain’s exit might be stopped was unfailing right to the end of the withdrawal negotiations. A master of hopeless situations, Tusk’s skill is to reduce them to simple rules and apply cold pragmatism. Confronted with the global financial crisis just a year after becoming Polish prime minister in 2007, he managed to keep Poland out of recession, the only country in Europe to do so.
And when it came to Brexit it was as if Tusk thought the UK, the home of pragmatism and rational thinking, had gone crazy and had to be ministered to by an outsider. Doggedly he sought a compromise to allow an orderly UK exit, even if, as his diary shows, he dreamed of a second referendum. On 13 July 2016 he wrote: “In the evening I sent my congratulations to the newly nominated prime minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May. In the coming months I will probably spend more time with her than with my own family.” In the following months and years, Tusk strove to protect May and her beleagured beleaguered ministers from their increasingly impatient opponents within the EU.
This was a difficult balancing act because as an EU leader he was obligated to represent its interests. In the most divisive crisis the EU has faced, Tusk appears to have fought for both sides: the UK’s interests in Brussels and EU (especially Ireland’s) interests in the UK. Sometimes he had to stiffen Angela Merkel’s resolve and oppose Emmanuel Macron’s anger. Often he used his brand of humour to break down the EU’s dismal newspeak: “A journalist suggests that the EU wants to punish the UK for Brexit. I answer that Brexit itself is punishment enough.” Throughout, he maintained a strong affection for the British, for whom he sees a special place in heaven.
On some of Europe’s big challenges, it’s hard not to conclude that Tusk displayed better instincts than other EU leaders. Take the refugee crisis. Merkel’s open border policy was clear from a moral standpoint, but it proved politically counterproductive. Moral victories that lead to political disaster are something Poland is familiar with. What is the benefit of admitting one or two million refugees if that leads to populist victories and inspires millions more to cross the Mediterranean to face populists who have no interest in helping them? Going against what is right to ensure that a worse evil does not win is a difficult choice for any politician. Tusk’s priorities were the inverse of those of most western leaders: first strengthen the borders, then relocate and assist the refugees. Today, most European leaders – including Merkel – see things this way.
It also meant a lot that when he visited the capitals of new member states or eastern European allies, he spoke in their languages: Ukrainian, Croatian, Bulgarian and even Montenegrin. Dignity meant more than money. Many Polish liberals placed their hopes for a defeat of Jarosław Kaczyński’s populist Law and Justice (PiS) party in Tusk’s return to Polish politics. After all, Tusk defeated Kaczyński eight times between 2006 and 2014. But after polling showed that he stood no chance of winning against incumbent Andrzej Duda in the upcoming presidential election, he opted out. Memories remain strong of unpopular policies his government introduced in 2007-2014, including raising the retirement age. The pro-government Polish media’s attempts to undermine Tusk also counted against him.
Tusk had no desire to retire from politics and watch events unfolding on TV. The truth is, however, that he would have had a greater chance of resurrecting his political career in any EU country but today’s Poland. Instead he has become head of the centre-right EPP group in the European parliament. In this role he faces a challenge to his beloved European project which is existentially bigger even than Brexit. He must resolve the problem that no one in the EU has so far been able to: the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orbán. Fidesz, Orbán’s populist party, is now destroying liberal democracy, whipping up antisemitism and turning Hungary into a state where politics is run like the mafia. Orbán conspires with Poland’s Kaczyński to block EU efforts to restore the rule of law in both countries.
Fidesz should of course be expelled from the EPP, but its spineless leaders have so far failed to do so, allowing the biggest democratically elected political grouping in Europe to be held hostage. Tragically for Tusk, there’s a personal conflict: he and Orbán share a genuine friendship, something Tusk has never hidden. Orbán supported Tusk’s re-election to the EU job in 2017, betraying Kaczyński in the process. Now Tusk, the passionate European, who strained every sinew to keep Britain in the EU club, must choose between the democratic values he rightly espouses as the bedrock of the EU’s existence, and loyalty to an undeserving friend. He risks, as Wałęsa prophetically warned, being blamed if the EU fractures further. But on fundamental values, there can be no compromise.
This text was first published in The Guardian on January 7.