European Union plans to present a united front in the face of Brexit were thrown into disarray tonight (9 March), after Poland was overruled in its opposition to the reappointment of Donald Tusk as European Council president.
Isolated Poland had put forward a rival candidate to former Polish Prime Minister Tusk, the little-known MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, but was outvoted 27-1 by other member states at tonight’s EU summit in Brussels.
Even Hungary, thought to be Warsaw’s only ally, and Poland’s other Visegrad group partners abandoned Poland.
That drew a furious response from current Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło. She confirmed that she would veto the conclusions of the meeting of EU leaders.
“This is a very dangerous precedent,” she told reporters. “The EU faces a crisis of principles if we don’t rebuild mutual respect and trust.”
“Tusk was not a candidate proposed by his country of origin,” Szydło said, “He is not a good president of the European Council.”
Szydło said that Tusk, who belongs to a rival centre-right party, was unable to be neutral and impartial in his role as European Council President when it came to Poland.
Jarosław Aleksander Kaczyński, the leader of Szydło’s ultra-conservative PiS party and another former prime minister, holds Tusk responsible for the death of his twin brother in a 2010 plane crash. Tusk has been exonerated of any responsibility.
The breakdown in talks comes at a particularly sensitive time. Tomorrow, leaders of the EU-27, except Britain, are due to meet in Brussels to discuss plans for the 25 March celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
The celebrations are intended to point to the EU’s future path without the UK. Tomorrow’s EU-27 summit was meant to send a strong signal of unity.
But Szydło, who will still attend the meeting, torpedoed that image with a blistering press conference. She vowed to raise the issue again tomorrow and accused the Council of a lack of democracy for refusing to meet her candidate.
“If the EU is to be reformed and we are to have unity, we should closely reflect on this decision,” she said. “The migration crisis, the financial crisis and Brexit did not happen without reason.”
She added, “If in Rome, people say everything is great and we are going in the right direction and all we need is cosmetic changes, this will result in another crisis.”
“The reform of the EU is a fundamental matter for Poland,” she said, “but the EU’s future lies in unity.”
At time of writing, Council officials were considering a way of bypassing the Polish blocking manoeuvre.
Summit conclusions are traditionally made on the basis of consensus among all member states, but in exceptional circumstances the president of the Council, Donald Tusk, can issue his own conclusions.
Szydło said that that “fundamental matters” such as the appointment of top jobs needed to be made on the “basis of consensus, be agreed by everybody and acceptable to the country of origin.”
“If the EU is to survive and develop […] it needs to change,” she said. “We need to respect each other, […] this is the biggest problem in the EU.
“Otherwise,” she warned, “the EU will continue to divide rather than being more unified”.
Tusk hits back
After his reelection for a second two-and-a-half-year term, Tusk told EU leaders, “It may sound like a paradox because of the context, but anyway your decision is an expression of our unity today.
“I will work with all of you without any exemption, because I’m truly devoted to a united Europe.”
Asked at a press conference how he would prevent Polish isolation in Europe and rebuild the relationship, he said, “I will do everything I can to protect the Polish government against political isolation, for obvious reasons.”
He added, “I will communicate with the Polish government in Polish.”
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was sharing a podium with Tusk, joked, “Hopefully this is a language the Polish government will understand.”
But Tusk also had words of warning for his compatriots.
“Be careful of the bridges you burn because once they are gone you cannot ever cross them again,” he said.
“Today what we need is a very responsible and reasonable political attitude especially when it comes to discussion on the future of Europe. I hope it is also clear to my Polish colleagues.”
Support for Tusk
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat chaired the Council election of Tusk, whom he called “a strong man with strong European convictions”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande both backed Tusk before today’s vote.
Despite reports that Britain was torn over whether to support Poland, Prime Minister Theresa May voted for Tusk.
Merkel said, “We 27 member states agreed that Donald Tusk is the right president.
“I think also with qualified majority that it’s important to seek consensus,” she said, “But the attempt to find consensus cannot be used as a blockade.”
“When there explicitly is an instrument of qualified majority then you can and must work with that. We made our decision today in that spirit,” she added.
The conclusions are expected to cover Tusk’s reappointment, migration policy and expressions of “unequivocal support” for a “European perspective” in the Western Balkans.
Tusk is a member of the European People’s Party, which, in a break with tradition, currently holds all the presidencies of the European Council, Commission and Parliament.