Open Europe Blog

Tusk and Merkel “discuss the World Cup” ahead of today’s
European Council summit (h/t Maciek Sokolowski)

Yesterday, we reported that Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini’s bid to become the next EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs has run into trouble due to her perceived lack of robustness vis-a-vis Russia and Putin, with around ten or eleven countries – mostly from central and eastern Europe – opposing her candidacy. We argued that one way to try to square the circle would be to appoint someone from that region as European Council president to replace Herman van Rompuy, with Polish PM Donald Tusk the most credible candidate.

Today’s Rzeczpospolita splashed the news that Merkel was urging Tusk to take the European Council President post and a few hours ahead of the European Council summit this scenario remains very much in play:

It is understandable why this ‘dream ticket’ could generate widespread support – it ticks a number of boxes; at least one top post goes to a woman, one to someone from central and eastern Europe, an experienced politician as European Council President and a relatively junior one as High Rep. It is clear why Merkel – who has good relations with Tusk – is pushing his candidacy.

So why is Tusk resisting? Well, the main reason – aside from his lack of language skills – is that he has no immediate successor as Polish Prime Minister (not least because he has culled any potential challengers) and Polish domestic politics are particularly precarious in the wake of the Wprost tapes scandal. Law and Justice are currently leading in the polls and it is not clear whether the government would be able to hang on without fresh elections in the event of a Tusk departure. Moreover, Tusk himself feels he still has unfinished business in Poland.

Nonetheless, Mutti can be very persuasive so it cannot be completely discounted, and van Rompuy’s successor does not take over until November, which leaves a bit of time for a transition. Given that the role will be very important in broking David Cameron’s potential renegotiation, what would it mean if Tusk got the job?

Well let’s start with the positives – like the UK, Poland is a non-euro country so shares concerns about eurozone integration potentially disadvantaging non-euro members. Poland is also economically liberal and backs further expansion of the single market and the EU-US free trade deal (TTIP). Poland and the UK have also been close allies on Energy issues and with Russia having emerged as a common concern, both recently worked together to push the EU to adopt a tougher position on Russia. Finally, if Tusk were to get the job, he would be keen to stay close to Merkel, something Cameron could use to his advantage.

However, on the whole, a Tusk Presidency would not be good for Cameron; the two have a strained relationship, exacerbated in recent times by the row over EU free movement and Cameron’s (ill-advised) comments about Poles claiming UK benefits (Tusk’s former spokesperson Pawel Gras claimed the Polish PM had a proper f****** go at Cameron over these). Moreover, while Cameron and Tusk may agree on specific issues, Tusk is dismissive of Cameron’s broader argument that the EU is need of fundamental reform and he is therefore unlikely to go out of his way to help him get significant concessions – Cameron would therefore need to ensure he has enough support among other national leaders to negate this factor.    

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