After failing to prevent the reelection of European Council President Donald Tusk, Poland lashed out at the EU at a summit in Brussels Thursday only to find itself isolated, as leaders shrugged off Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s threats to block the Council’s formal summit conclusions in protest.
The reappointment of Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, was the first time that the EU, which often seems to prize consensus and collegiality above all, acted to name a senior leader over the bitter objections of the candidate’s home country. Previously, the Council president was always chosen by acclamation.
But far from seeming rattled by the discord, EU leaders expressed confidence that they had not let a petty Polish domestic political dispute take precedence over the Continent’s collective interests. In several cases, they even laughed at Poland’s expense, saying Warsaw’s efforts had only helped Tusk.
“I don’t have any intention of being impressed by Polish mood swings,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said at a news conference. “This was more like the translation, the export, to the European level of an internal national political question. Nobody was duped by that.”
With a smile, Michel added, “Maybe, in the end, Poland succeeded in doing a very good campaign in favor of Donald Tusk.”
While some officials, including Tusk, tried to extend an olive branch, there was also discussion about how Poland might pay a price for its actions, including stepped-up efforts in Brussels to hold Warsaw accountable for alleged rule-of-law violations, and potentially more rigorous scrutiny of its national finances.
European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis appeared to fire a warning shot Thursday evening when he tweeted: “Despite robust growth, #Poland’s budget deficit is projected at 3 percent of GDP in 2018, which is source of concern.”
At her own defiant news conference, Szydło denounced the Council’s vote for Tusk — 27 to 1 — over Poland’s objection, and insisted that Poland’s refusal to endorse the summit conclusions would render the meeting meaningless — a point that other leaders said was legally and politically false.
“It’s clearly written that summits end with conclusions,” Szydło said. “If one country doesn’t accept it, it means the summit is not relevant. If now there is a way to find a different solution, that only shows that there are no rules and Poland doesn’t agree with this. And I definitely won’t accept any document from this summit.”
However, speculation that Szydło would walk out of the meeting proved overblown. In fact, she took an active part in discussions later in the day, noting Poland’s strong economic performance and expressing satisfaction at economic growth across the EU, according to an official who was present.
Poland’s opposition to Tusk was hardly a surprise. The leader of the governing Law and Justice party in Warsaw, Jarosław Kaczyński, is Tusk’s longtime arch nemesis and holds Tusk personally responsible for the 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed a delegation of high-level Polish officials, including his twin brother, then-President Lech Kaczyński.
But in opposing Tusk for a second two-and-a-half-year term, Poland was abandoned even by its closest allies — Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — fellow members of the Visegrád Four.
Pressed by a reporter about Poland apparently having painted itself into a lonely corner, Szydło fired back: “I am not afraid of isolation.”
But it was clear that Warsaw had pushed itself to the edge, making even the U.K., which is ditching the EU, look collegial by comparison.
French President François Hollande said Poland’s effort to block the official conclusions would not make any difference, as the Council could find other ways to formalize its actions.
The EU treaties specify that the European Council president can be chosen by a qualified majority, and support for Tusk was overwhelming not only from his own center-right European People’s Party, but also from leaders in the center-left Socialists & Democrats and the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.
An effort by Poland to put forward a challenger to Tusk, long-serving Polish member of the European Parliament Jacek Saryusz-Wolksi, flopped.
“There couldn’t have been a replacement,” Hollande said. “It’s not in the spirit of the European Council. It’s quite simply not in the European spirit.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described Poland’s opposition as expected and regrettable but said the vote for Tusk was legitimate and that a desire for consensus should not be an excuse for paralysis.
“I think a search for consensus is important even with qualified majority voting,” Merkel said. “When you’re not dependent on getting unanimity and a qualified majority is possible, you should still try to find a consensus. But, of course, the search for a consensus must not be used as a blockade.”
Warsaw has been locked in bitter confrontations with Brussels for months over steps by the Law and Justice government that EU officials say have eroded democracy and rule of law, including a reshaping of the Constitutional Court.
In addition to the long-running political blood feud, Kaczyński must be calculating that Tusk could return home after the end of his second term in 2019 and run for president.
The reaction to Tusk’s re-election in Poland was fierce on all sides.
Law and Justice leaders have accused Tusk of using his position in Brussels to undermine their government and party leader Kaczyński was furious. “What happened is very bad,” he said. “A politician was chosen who broke all of the rules that used to bind the EU, more specifically rules regarding neutrality. He didn’t maintain this neutrality and one can say he did it in a radical way.”
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski also denounced Tusk’s reappointed. “We know that now this is a Union controlled by Berlin,” he said.
Political opposition leaders in Poland were gleeful.
“Poland won, Law and Justice lost,” said Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of Tusk’s Civic Platform party. “Poland won and Europe won.”
MEP Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister also from Civic Platform, declared, “It’s a good finale for Poland and all of Europe.”
Tusk himself held out olive branches. First, in response to his re-election, he tweeted in Polish: “Thanks for crossing your fingers and for your sincere support. It helped.”
Later at a news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Tusk said: “I want to cooperate with every member of the European Council and I will do everything I can to protect the Polish government against political isolation here.”
When a reporter asked how he would communicate with Warsaw given the government’s reluctance to work with him, Tusk said: “I will communicate with the Polish government in Polish.” Juncker, drawing laughter, chimed in: “Hopefully this is a language the Polish government will understand.”
A senior Central European official with close knowledge of European Council discussions, said the atmosphere in meetings was peaceful, despite Poland’s dissatisfaction. “It made everybody united and wanting to move forward,” the official said.
Still, some officials said Poland’s antagonism of Brussels could prompt a push for formal discussions of the alleged rule-of-law violations. Many officials view the triggering of Article 7, a treaty provision allowing the suspension of an EU nation’s voting rights, as a “nuclear” option, unlikely to be used. But calling a formal meeting on Poland’s alleged violations in the EU General Affairs Council could substantially amp up pressure.
Szydło suggested that Poland’s protest could continue during a discussion Friday among EU leaders, minus U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, about a scheduled celebration next month of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Leaders are working toward a joint declaration about their vision of Europe’s future.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni urged Poland not to make the celebration a target of its anger. “I cannot see a link with the 60th anniversary of the European Union and its next ten years,” he said.
Back to business
At their news conference, Tusk and Juncker sought to stay focused on other important business, including sending a pointed message to the Trump administration and others about the EU’s continued commitment to free trade. They said the EU would press ahead with efforts to conclude a new free trade agreement with Japan and that they would meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later this month in Brussels.
Tusk and Juncker also expressed satisfaction with recent economic data showing growth in all EU countries. “Growth has picked up,” Juncker said. “This is not dazzling growth. It’s not breathtaking, but at least we can see things are improving.”
Other leaders also tried to stay focused on broader issues. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said that Europe was at a crossroads and that a rigorous debate was needed to put out a strong statement in Rome about the bloc’s future.
“My strong belief is that they should strengthen the democratic character of the European institutions and the fact that we should be focusing on preventing populists and demagogues in getting more support across the European continent, because this is key,” Plenković said. “I think this is a make it or break it situation for the European Union.”
Szydło said Tusk’s election indicated problems in the EU that could overshadow the Rome celebration.
“If in Rome there will be an attempt to say that everything is good, that we’re going in the right direction, and only small cosmetic changes are needed, but otherwise we are happy with ourselves, then the EU will enter a crisis,” she said. “We need deep reforms.”
“I’m sad to say,” the Polish prime minister added, returning to the issue of Tusk, “This reflects that something bad is happening in the EU.”
Jacopo Barigazzi, Maïa de la Baume, Florian Eder, Andrew Gray, Florian Müller and Carmen Paun contributed reporting.