Polish official: Tusk is seriously considering top EU post

  
Donald Tusk at a 2011 press conference with his potential predecessor Herman Van Rompuy. [EU Council/Flickr]

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is seriously considering a proposal that he take the post of president of the European Council, a Warsaw government spokeswoman said yesterday (28 August), linking his decision to the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine.

Earlier several sources familiar with the selection process said Tusk, a centre-right pro-European, is clear favourite for the top job when European Union leaders meet for a special summit on Saturday.

"European leaders are increasingly strongly persuading Donald Tusk to assume the post of president of the European Council," Polish government spokeswoman Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska told Reuters. "The prime minister is treating this proposal very seriously, analysing its consequences for Poland, its security, especially in light of the Ukraine crisis."

If confirmed, his appointment to chair and steer policymaking meetings of EU leaders would be a victory for the ten ex-communist central and eastern European countries that joined the EU a decade ago. They have demanded that one of the top jobs go to a candidate from their region. It would also cement Poland's rise as a major player in the 28-nation bloc alongside EU founders France and Germany.

Tusk's government has been among the most hawkish in Europe over Ukraine, pressing for tougher sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and involvement in an uprising by pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the former Soviet republic.

The Kremlin's retaliatory measures have hurt Polish food exporters but Warsaw has demanded that NATO beef up its military presence in Europe in the face of resistance from other European allies.

Two Brussels sources said current council president Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs and prepares EU summits, is consulting fellow leaders on a package deal in a round of telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.

"Van Rompuy is to call EU leaders today and if no one is opposed to Tusk there is a deal," a person involved in the process said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the consultations.

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini, a centre-left socialist, would become EU foreign policy chief and Spanish Economy Minister Luis De Guindos would succeed Jeroen Dijsselbloem as chairman of eurozone finance ministers when the Dutchman's term expires, the sources said.

Whoever wins the post of European Council president is expected to chair eurozone summits, even if he or she comes from a non-euro zone country such as Poland, a third source said. "France accepted that in July," the person said.

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski said yesterday he was "almost in no danger" of being appointed as the EU foreign policy chief. He is Poland's candidate for the post and it would be unlikely for Warsaw to get two of the senior jobs.

Britain, Germany, France on board

Britain was first to endorse Tusk publicly as a candidate on Tuesday, hoping to balance out former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker, a veteran advocate of deeper EU integration, who was chosen in June to head the executive European Commission against fierce British objections.

Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman said Tusk shared Britain's desire to reform the EU.

Diplomatic sources said German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried for months to persuade Tusk, 57, to take one of the top EU jobs but he initially rebuffed her, saying he wanted to lead his party to an unprecedented third term in power next year.

An economic liberal and advocate of free trade, Tusk's weak point is that he speaks little English and no French, making it harder for him to communicate to a wide audience.

As well as the Ukraine crisis, the new leadership team will have to shape Europe's response to issues including an economic slowdown in the eurozone and Britain's uncertain future in the bloc.

In what one official described as "a subtle game where no candidates campaign", Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a reformist social democrat, was the initial front-runner for the presidency at an inconclusive 16 July summit.

>> Read: Eastern European states block EU top job nominations

But she said on Thursday she was not putting herself forwards as a candidate.

Diplomats said eastern objections to Mogherini, who has been accused of being too "soft" on Moscow over Ukraine, would subside if Tusk got the senior job.

The sense of broad support for a Tusk-Mogherini ticket is based on telephone conversations between officials in Brussels and EU leaders, potentially allowing Van Rompuy to propose the pair on Saturday, officials and diplomats said.

Gender balance

Getting a balance of representation among the 28 EU countries, between male and female and among political groups is a delicate business that proved too much for leaders in July.

>> Read: Juncker's Commission looking politically conservative, gender imbalanced

Another failure would delay allocating top posts in the European Commission, the EU executive, and send a bad signal at a time when the eurozone is facing economic stagnation and the crisis in Ukraine has severely strained relations with Russia, the EU's main energy supplier.

A source familiar with French government thinking said President François Hollande had dropped objections to giving the council presidency to a candidate from a country that is not a member of the eurozone.

Having Tusk at the helm could hasten Poland's entry into the currency area, especially if he also chairs eurozone summits that must be convened at least twice a year under EU rules.

"France will not block Tusk," the source said. "Hollande has build good relations with him and they have done several deals together."

Opponents of the 41-year-old Mogherini have not found a consensus figure to challenge her as the front-runner, while as a woman, she also helps meet European Parliament demands that more senior posts in EU institutions go to female candidates.

Juncker, who won parliamentary endorsement in July to head the Commission that proposes and enforces laws for 500 million Europeans, is expected to announce his full team next week from candidates put forward by governments.

Juncker is frustrated that so many capitals have nominated men for Commission jobs. He said this week that a Commission without sufficient women would be "less legitimate and hardly representative" and that he would have to compensate by giving women more important posts.

The European Parliament, which must approve the choices for the top jobs, also wants to see more women in EU jobs and its president, Martin Schulz, warned in July that the EU legislature "will not accept a gentlemen's club." 

Timeline: 
  • 30 Aug.: Extraordinary EU summit;
  • First and second week of September: Juncker tables list of Commissioners, of attributions;
  • October: European Parliament votes to approve or reject new Commission College as a whole
  • 1 Nov.: Target date for the new Commission to take office
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