Donald Tusk's appointment to preside over the Council of the European Union for the next five years is a major breakthrough for Poland, for the ”new” member states and for a solid stance on the part of the EU vis-à-vis Russian aggression.
For Poland, the appointment is a recognition of the refreshingly constructive role it has played, under Tusk's premiership, during the past seven years. Virtually untouched by the economic crisis, with a remarkable growth rate of 1.5 percent in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 when every other economy tanked, Poland has become a role model even among some of the old member states. In addition, it has sent excellent personnel to Brussels and, even as a nonmember of the eurozone, has actively pursued an institutionally stronger Union. Moreover, it has managed to leave its mark on EU foreign policy, with the Eastern Partnership initiative in 2007, the establishment of the European Endowment for Democracy in 2013 and – disappointments notwithstanding – a clear commitment to transatlantic relations as the core of the Union's global posture.
Tusk's appointment is also an overdue success for the entire group of the 10 formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007. Although this group of countries has gradually lost some of its coherence (also through very different trajectories in the economic crisis post-2008), it remained a recognizable group that was bound together by more than just its communist past. Already after the 2009 European Parliament elections, many had expected one of the top EU posts to be filled with someone from this group. The first half of the five-year term as president of the European Parliament for erstwhile Polish Premier Jerzy Buzek was not considered satisfactory, so for 2014, something more decisive was expected: one of the three truly top jobs – Commission President (coordinating the main administrative body), Council President (coordinating the governments) or High Representative for Foreign Policy.
Last but by no means least, Donald Tusk's appointment is a signal to Europe’s allies, to Russia and inside the EU itself that the Union does not intend to soften its position on Russia’s neo-imperial claims and aggression against Ukraine. Initially, Tusk had reached out to Russia after taking over the Polish government in 2007 from the nationalist Jarosław Kaczyński. But lacking an appropriate response, and with Russia’s increasing pressure on its neighbors, the Polish government’s resolve to counter the threat from the east hardened. Tusk and his foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, were among the first to warn about Russian aggression against Ukraine at the end of 2013. They also proposed an energy union to make the EU less dependent on Russian gas and were the driving force in the effort to toughen EU sanctions as a consequence of Russia’s war in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Now, Tusk knows very well that the Council president’s job is to encourage compromise between the member states, and also on Russia. So he will have to take into account the more cautious approach of some West European countries such as France, Italy and Germany, or the southern tier of the Visegrád Group with Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians, all of whom are keen to avoid confrontation with Russia. Nevertheless, Tusk’s appointment is seen as a boost for the determined approach to eastern affairs. Next to Russia, and equally important, that includes a firm commitment to supporting the rule of law, human rights and democracy among the countries of the Eastern Partnership. It also includes keeping the EU’s doors open to future accession by those countries when the conditions for membership are fulfilled.
Donald Tusk’s appointment would not have happened without a conscious decision – and some prodding – by Angela Merkel. One of Tusk’s historic achievements as Polish prime minister was to put a positive Polish-German relationship back on track after the devastating years under the Kaczynski brothers. He struck up a remarkably constructive and trustful relationship with Merkel. At the same time, and in tune with Sikorski, he distanced himself from the knee-jerk pro-British bias that Polish conservatives have had for a long time. The Eurosceptic drift of the Tories fits less and less with Poland’s European ambitions. Nevertheless, Cameron’s and Merkel’s wariness about the transfer of new competences from the member states to Brussels is inherently shared by Tusk. To keep Britain inside the EU will be one of his priorities in the next five years – but not at the price of the cohesion of the Union.
On transatlantic relations, Tusk has shown the same enlightened Atlanticism as Sikorski– that is, mindful of America’s indispensable role to safeguard security, but worried by the “pivot” and aware that not every U.S. government will see eye to eye even with its friends in Europe. Nevertheless, to create a maximum of consensus vis-à-vis the double threat of Russia and the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) will be of utmost importance to him. To promote the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will be another priority. The EU has made an excellent choice with his appointment. Expectations are high, and they are unlikely to be disappointed.