The incumbent seemed a certainty for re-election, until the ruling party of his own country, Poland, turned against him, writes Slawomir Sierakowski.

European Union leaders are to announce their choice for president of the European Council this week.

The re-election of the incumbent, former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, had seemed certain. Preliminary polling showed that the outgoing French president, François Hollande, former Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, and German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, had no chance.

But then, on February 27, the Financial Times reported that the Polish government was presenting an alternative candidate, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, an MEP from Civic Platform, the party Tusk founded.

In the European Parliament, Saryusz-Wolski is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), which he served as vice-chair until November 2016. On March 4, the FT’s report was borne out.

The leadership of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party instructed prime minister, Beata Szydlo’s government to withhold support for Tusk’s re-election.

The same day, the foreign ministry issued a diplomatic note, proposing Saryusz-Wolski. A half-hour later, Saryusz-Wolski confirmed it on Twitter. He was immediately expelled from Civic Platform, and the EEP’s chairman, Joseph Daul, reaffirmed his party’s full support for Tusk.

With all EU members except Poland supporting Tusk, denying him a second term would require an extraordinary justification. The PiS has not provided one. Indeed, until now, the PiS had failed to formulate any clear position regarding Tusk’s candidacy. So why has it suddenly blocked him?

All we have to go on is a public statement by PiS chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynksi. “Donald Tusk is violating the elementary principles of the European Union,” he said.

Offering no evidence whatsoever, Kaczynksi accuses Tusk of breaching “the principle of neutrality by openly supporting the opposition, which calls itself absolute and seeks to overthrow the government through extra-parliamentary means.”

Kaczynski alleges much worse. He believes that Tusk conspired with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to bomb the Polish presidential plane in April, 2010, as it carried dignitaries to Smolensk to participate in a commemoration of the Katyn massacre (the execution, on Stalin’s orders, of 20,000 Polish officers, police, and intelligentsia in 1940).

Where Kaczynksi sees a ‘coup,’ the rest of the world (including all professional Polish and international institutions that investigate aviation disasters) sees a tragic accident that killed Kaczynksi’s twin brother, then-president, Lech Kaczynski, and 95 senior government officials.

Tusk, who has defeated the PiS in eight consecutive elections in his career, was prime minister at the time.

Prior to the government’s recent move, the entire Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) officially supported Tusk, and its leaders are embarrassed by Kaczynksi’s effort to replace him.

Karel Schwarzenberg, the chairman of the Czech parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Gazeta Wyborcza that Tusk was “a very good leader.”

His Slovak counterpart, František Šebej, put it bluntly: “I do not understand the objections to Tusk. I am satisfied with him.” Even Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, with whom Kaczynski has been pursuing an illiberal counter-revolution within the EU, is not hiding his support for Tusk.

Saryusz-Wolski is hardly unknown. An expert of European integration since the 1970s, he has served in many government posts and has been a (very conservative) MEP since 2004. He has never been a prime minister, president, or even a European commissioner.

With these credentials, one would expect Saryusz-Wolski to head a European parliamentary committee (as he did in 2007), or to serve as vice-president of a parliamentary grouping (as he did for half a term in 2004-2007).

But no-one would expect him to become president of the European Council — perhaps least of all.

And, indeed, Saryusz-Wolski — who, ironically, told an interviewer in 2008: “I note, with horror, that in EU institutions, Poles would sooner harm than help fellow Poles” — stands no chance.

He is merely Kaczynski’s ‘useful idiot’ to score a political victory over a man who represents the greatest threat the PiS faces. The most the PiS can hope for is that some coalition of countries (for example, those ruled by Social Democrats) will propose another alternative to Tusk, whom EU member states will elect to avoid escalating the conflict with Poland.

In that case, Tusk would return to domestic politics, where a ninth victory against the PiS would be the punishment Kaczynski deserves.

The PiS, a party that claims to place national solidarity above all else — even above the constitution — has brought about a situation in which Poland is standing against a Pole. It has caused an unseemly commotion at a time when the EU must respond to the loss of the United Kingdom and the degradation of the transatlantic alliance.

On March 9, Europe should robustly reject Kaczynski’s paranoid fantasies by returning Tusk to the presidency of the European Council.

  • Slawomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.


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