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Poland’s PM Tusk Becomes EU President

By on September 6, 2014

TuskforwebWARSAW–Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, 57, has been appointed chairman of the European Council, the equivalent of European Union president. That is the highest post in the 28-nation bloc ever achieved by a Pole or any other Eastern European.

In his first address to the Council, Tusk said: “I know we are faced with a great deal of work. I offer goodwill, a pinch of imagination, interesting East European experience and great faith that Europe makes sense.” Less than fully fluent in English, the Polish prime minister apologized for speaking in his native tongue, which required simultaneous translation, but promised he would address the Council in English after he takes over its presidency on December 1st.

Tusk has been active in EU affairs, most recently campaigning for a European Energy Union which would make the bloc less dependent on Russian fuels. He is also credited with leading the EU’s only country that did not slip into recession during the global economic crisis. But the Ukrainian crisis east of Poland’s border was also instrumental in his appointment.

Not long ago, Poland was widely seen in liberal European circles as being incorrigibly Russophobic for its strong support of sanctions against Moscow. But Russia’s proliferating aggression against its Ukrainian neighbor has convinced many that Warsaw’s suspicion of the Kremlin’s intentions and tough line on Putin’s belligerence were justified after all.

A friend and ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he is able to converse in German, Tusk was also backed for the job by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The remaining EU countries followed suit in the vote which requires the consensus of all 28 countries, although Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė nearly upset the applecart. Presidential candidate Tusk, a male, conservative northerner, was balanced off against female, southern, leftist, Italian Federica Mogherini for the bloc’s foreign affairs chief. Ultimately Grybauskaitė decided not to veto the “soft on Putin” Italian and simply abstained from voting.

While majoring in history at Gdańsk University, Tusk had been an anti-communist student activist during the heady days of the peaceful Solidarity revolution. He became prime minister in 2007 after his center-right pro-market Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) party won that year’s parliamentary elections and is the only prime minister since the 1989 fall of communism to serve a second term. Tusk’s ancestry is rooted in the Kashubian community, an ethnic sub-group inhabiting Poland’s Baltic coast.

Despite his impish smile, the trim, youthful-looking Tusk is nevertheless a tough political player who has successfully guided Poland through the economic crisis and weathered various scandals threatening his Civic Platform party. He therefore appears aptly suited to work out the behind-the-scenes compromises that are part and parcel of the European Council’s operations. The Council has no formal legislative power but is a strategic, crisis-solving body that provides the EU with general political guidance and priorities.

His leadership may be help hammer out a common European stand on the Ukrainian crisis, Europe’s biggest security threat since the Cold War. Tusk pledged as much in his initial remarks stressing that only a united EU could successfully face up to the challenges posed by Ukraine, Libya and other trouble spots.

Tusk’s appointment has also provided a major boost to the international prestige and stature of our ancestral homeland which the continent’s powers-that-be had thus far largely regarded as a peripheral nation on the fringes of Europe. Tusk is now taking a crash course in English, the EU’s primary vehicle of mutual communication. The effectiveness of his leadership as EU president will largely depend on his successful mastery of the language.

 By Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent