Tusk addresses Poles on Constitution Day

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks during the lecture 'Hope and responsibility. About the constitution, Europe and free elections' at University of Warsaw's Auditorium Maximum, in Warsaw, Poland, 3 May 2019. [Rafal Guz/EPA/EFE]

Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish Prime Minister who is at odds with the populist government of the Law and Order party (PiS), addressed a series of messages to his compatriots on 3 May, Constitution Day. Piotr Kaczyński (unrelated to the PiS leader) looks to the speech.

Piotr Kaczyński, formerly a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels in 2007-2012, runs a blog called 2019EUelectionsPoland.com.

On 3 May 1791, the first Constitution in Europe was adopted. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth adopts the most important act just a few months before France’s first Constitution, and three-and-a-half years after the US Constitution.

On 3 May 2019, it was national Constitution Day in Poland. Even if the current Constitution was adopted on 2 April 1997, it is the “3 May” which is the day of the most important legal document of the land.

On the same day the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, addressed a big crowd gathered in the Warsaw University main hall, and thousands of others watched him outside the building or on TV. The European Council President spoke for nearly one hour.

Tusk starts by saying he is not alone on the stage today. He is here “with the hero of the day, the Constitution”.

A footnote to take off: “Those who say that as the president of the European Council I shouldn’t advocate for one political party’s campaign are right”, but at the same time “it is my right and duty as the president of the European Council to support the Europeans in every country of the European Union, all those who are stubborn to unite people, not to divide them”, for their own nation state, and for Europe.

Tusk embraces the Macron initiative of “European universities” that the host, the Warsaw University (UW), is bidding in with partners from Copenhagen, Milan, Heidelberg and Paris. Tusk supports the UW’s bid and hopes “there will be plenty of the Warsaw University in Europe and of Europe in the UW”.

A minute of silence follows for the late Karol Modzelewski, who recently died at the age of 81. Mr Modzelewski was a well-known opposition activist during the communist Poland and a senator in the independent Poland. He advocated for the trade union to adopt its name, “Solidarność” or “Solidarity”, back in 1980.

Let the historians talk history

Tusk talks about the communist past, when the communist Poland banned two Polish “holly days”, 11 November (re-gained independence in 1918) and 3 May (1791 Constitution). As a young man, Tusk was exposed to the teachings of Lech Bądkowski, who taught his young adepts that a free Poland has to be acceptable for all. Tusk today says “Poland is one. Everybody who takes up the fight has to bear in mind how to turn a motherland into a home for everyone, not for selected few”.

“Why 3 May is important?” asks Tusk. As a young historian, Tusk back in 1980 thought of the Constitution as of a symbol of freedom and independence. As a historian, Tusk considers the 3 May 1791 Constitution not progressive enough by today’s standards.

“Compare it with the US Constitution, just a little bit older, which is binding – with a few changes adopted along the way – until today”, says Tusk. “Under the 3 May Constitution it would be difficult to imagine today’s governance system”.

Yet, Tusk defends the 18th century Constitution as giving Poles hope for a change of the status quo of the day. The status quo was hopelessness, chaos, divisions, a social injustice, lack of army and no foreign policy.

Against this picture, the 3 May 1791 act was an ambitious step “towards freedom, human and citizen rights, a modern governance system, […] towards the then-European norms”. Tusk quotes Edmund Burke and George Washington, who praised the 1791 document as “perfect”.

Why 3 May constitution is important? Tusk, the historian, says: “This is then when the Poles discovered they constitute a political community”.

Since then, Tusk says, Poles know how important the Constitution is and how evil is its violation. “The Constitution’s violation undermines the most basic element of the community”, says the European Council President.

“Targowica” is a label associated with betrayal in Poland. Back in 1791, the opposition to the 3 May Constitution was called the “Targowica Confederation”. They opposed the document, and were inspired and paid for by foreign powers.

With backing of Russia the Targowica Confederation started a war, and once the government was defeated, the second partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took place by 1792, and the final, third, by 1795. Independent Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist until 1918.

The essence of Targowica, according to Tusk: “it is a synonym of betrayal and lies”. Following 3 May, under the mottos of “pride” and “independence” the Targowica Confederation led back to chaos and enslavement of the peasants, dependency of Russia, war and state failure.

“The act of Targowica Confederation was a spectacular manifestation of cynicism and propaganda. It appealed to national emotions but was contrary to national interests. This lesson is relevant today, as it carries an universal message: how easy it is to flatter national emotions, acting de facto in contradiction with national interests”.

Soberly, Tusk remarks: “Constitution is not sacred”. It can be changed and improved. What is “sacred” is to respect its provisions “by all the citizens, especially the authorities”. This is a clear reference to the accusations by the Polish opposition against the Law and Justice (PiS) government and president Andrzej Duda that they have violated the current Constitution many times.

“It cannot be that the authorities celebrate the Constitution Day once a year but the Constitution is evaded on a daily basis”, Tusk said. The sentence contains an untranslatable game of words: “obchodzi” has two meanings, “to celebrate” and “to evade”.

Let the Europeans talk Europe

Every constitution allows for an inclusive political construction that can accommodate different people. “United with the respect for one another and for law, but not unified. Equally understanding their obligations to their own country, to their own community, to the freedom of other people, but how different in their views, customs and behaviours”, says the president of the European Council.

More on the definition of freedom by the former Polish premier: “Respect for people who think differently and understand their freedom in a way that least reduces the freedom of other people.” Tusk embraces the EU’s motto: United in diversity. In varietate concordia.

This is also the message for Poland: diversity, not uniformity. Tusk puts the “constitution” and the European Union as equal values, for they have a lot in common. Tusk: “they are to protect citizens from the stronger and more powerful people”.

World is full of stories of politicians, nations and places that aspired to be “the centres of the world”. Tusk mentions the Venetians, Egyptians, Indians and the Ganges, Greece, Mecca, and the Middle Kingdom, China. “The trouble is that this perspective, in a sense natural and understandable, usually translates into a pretence to hegemony, superiority, domination”.

Against those hegemonic tendencies Tusk raises defences. “The national constitution and Europe in the international dimension, is the denial of this logic, the denial of this need, this temptation, this danger of hegemony and domination”.

The philosopher lands home with a joke: Tusk talks about “Poland at the heart of Europe”, the PiS motto in the European elections. He says anatomical references are confusing: if Poland was the heart, then Sweden should be the head, but Hungary – “Viktor Orbán can feel slightly embarrassed”. The joke is warmly received. The head of the Hungarian government should smile, too.

The most important dilemma of the day in Europe is the following: “to avoid the alternative between domination, hegemony and decay and entropy”. Those two tendencies, on the one hand, the nationalism that ends with an attempt to dominate, and on the other hand, the decay, the implosion. “This alternative is deadly”, warns Tusk.

This alternative requires change. It needs to be replaced “by the type of political construction which requires a wise and respected national constitution, and in the international dimension an internationally respected and strengthened European Union”, advocates the head of the European Council.

Earlier in the day Donald Tusk met president Andrzej Duda, who supports the idea of mentioning the Polish membership in the EU and NATO in the Polish constitution. Tusk says: “This statement is worth as much, it would truly strengthen our presence in the EU as much, as it would be met with the determination to observe the Constitution”. And then he continues to ask “why change or improve Constitution if it is disrespected?”.

Let the Poles talk Poland

“Europe, as an idea in which human freedom, human rights, a balance between values, a Europe that has not always managed to defend those values, needs a global partnership”, and according to Tusk this global partnership needs to be trans-Atlantic “at any cost”.

Tusk repeats that in today’s world all European nations are small and the world outside of the EU is brutal. “Geopolitics, demography, statistics are merciless”. If the EU can be successful the only way to achieve this is unity, and the trans-Atlantic community needs fostering.

Tusk then turns to soft criticism of the Polish government. He argues for the inclusive policies, not exclusive ones. Tusk agrees with the pro-American policy of the Polish government, but implies it should not be a choice “US or EU”. Tusk ponders on “and/or” between “us or them” v “us and them”, “an individual or a community” v “an individual and a community”, “security or freedom” v “security and freedom”. This is Tusk’s political grammar. He clearly prefers inclusiveness, “and” wins over “or”.

“You can win or lose, but we both will continue to live in the same country”, says Tusk. He disagrees with the approach “I won the elections, Poland is mine, not yours, you are excluded”. It is applicable in Poland and in Europe, says EUCO President and calls on those who listen to “stop this spiral of reluctance, hostility, and hate”.

“Poland is not the sick man of Europe”, claims Tusk. Poland is much stronger than 228 years ago. Today Poland has “prescriptions” for a good political health, but they can be empty without the respect of the Constitution.

“This has been the best 30 years in the history of Poland”, Tusk is fully convinced of that. He shares the conviction with the Polish president Andrzej Duda. Yet, as Tusk asks, “do we really have to be wise again after the damage? Do we really have to give up what has become the foundation of Poland’s unprecedented success just because today the logic of dislike, hatred and aggression is winning?”

Tusk is on fire: “Why should we forget this lesson? […] Without respect for the law, without respecting people of different views, without respect for ourselves and strangers, without understanding that Europe is more than a few treaties and boundaries, why should we lose it somewhere in this fight?”

A Game of Thrones viewer, Tusk says: “politics is a competition, but not a fight to death” like the Winterfell battle. “I do not want for all of us to lose this fight”.

Let the global leaders talk global challenges

Poland and whole of Europe face major challenges that can be overwhelming if approached individually by each of the nations alone. “The 21st century problems need to be solved together, because we do not have the chance to face them if we fight with each other to death”.

Environment. Climate change. Air quality in Poland. Tusk quotes Yuval Harari “nationalists are unable to find an answer to the challenges such as climate change. Therefore the only way for them is to deny that such a problem exists in the first place”.

Tusk dwells on the poor air quality in Poland. Most of the country has the worst quality of air in Europe. Tusk: 50 thousand people die every year in Poland due to air pollution. “Would you take a decision to give your child, your grandchild, a package of cigarettes to smoke every day?” he asks rhetorically.

Tusk’s answer to climate change: cooperation at every level, of all with everybody. Example: the plastic. “It is difficult to believe in the effectiveness of our fight against the excess of plastic if other countries are throwing tons of plastic every hour into the sea. This is one of the proofs that we will not be able to deal with the problem alone, without full and harmonious cooperation”, says the European Council head.

Artificial intelligence is another challenge. Tusk talks about the Chinese social credit system and presents it as a system in which a totalitarian government controls every action of a 1.3 billion persons, its nation. It requires a great capacity of analysis of big data. And Tusk says: “This is no science fiction. This is not futurology. This is not my fear when I look at my grand children. This is happening today, now, in this world, in the largest country on the planet, in the country best prepared to de facto control not only behaviour, but also needs, dreams, values of each and every one of the Chinese”.

Tusk is relieved, briefly: “we think we are safe in the West as we are beneficiaries and victims of the same technological revolution, but there is no temptation in us to use this technology to obtain a full state control over the individual”. But, are we? Tusk talks GAFA – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple.

“Are we Internet-junkies?” asks the historian-turned politician.

Tusks warns of the future industries, in which there is no work, but not because of unemployment, but because of technological revolution. He mentions the “value engineers” and other challenges for the civilisation and for the political world.

Let the doubters doubt

“We dream of the rule of the Constitution, yet instead we see those who seek power reach only fiction, and those who seek truth about the world have to compromise even dreaming about power”, says Tusk and soberly notes, “Man by nature prefers power, not truth”.

The issue should be dealt with by education and healthcare. “We need a revolution in thinking about education”, says Tusk. “Young people need vaccines against a dangerous world of fiction and being dependent on others’ values.”

Those and other challenges and our responses to them will determine the future of Poles and of other Europeans. It is important to ask questions, says Donald Tusk: “this is the essence of political freedom, we are to disturb and not support, we have to seek, we have to question”.

Cogito ergo sum of Descartes, “I doubt hence I am” is quoted, as is Ortega y Gasset: “the essence of Europe and its great cultural and civilisational advantages was precisely that its people thought, doubted, were in constant motion”. Be in motion, asks president Tusk.

Tusks follows the Ortega y Gasset quote: “European civilisation has deep doubts about itself” and adds “I hope it truly does”. The Spaniard is quoted: “I do not recall that any civilisation ever would die of doubt attacks. I remember, however, they usually die because of the petrification of their traditional faith and sclerosis of beliefs”.

Tusk adds: “Let us defend Poland, Europe and ourselves against the sclerosis of beliefs”.

Let the dreamers dream

The president of the European Council quotes a long passage from the Polish 1997 Constitution. It is its preamble, as proposed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Polish statesman and prime minister 1989-1990.

Tusks wants to be proud of Poland again. He dreams it is possible, as it once was. “I have been many times in my life witness to the admiration the world and Europe looked at Poland. And so it can be again”.

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