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Tusk’s return could backfire on the EU Poland’s election will embolden the bloc’s critics

Tusk at a rally in Lodz, Poland (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Tusk at a rally in Lodz, Poland (Omar Marques/Getty Images)


October 17, 2023   6 mins

Was this the election that kickstarted the European Union’s renaissance? Seemingly against the odds, the liberal-centrist pro-EU coalition led by former European Union President Donald Tusk emerged victorious in Sunday’s elections in Poland, stopping the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party from securing a third term in power, and putting an end to its eight-year rule. Most EU leaders cheered the results: the return to power of the militant anti-Brexiteer brings Poland, the most powerful country of the Eastern flank, firmly back into the fold. “Welcome back, Donald”, crowed Politico, barely containing its glee.

It’s an outcome that will have momentous consequences — not just for Poland but for Europe as a whole. Since the PiS came to power in 2015, Poland’s relations with the EU have grown increasingly strained. Over the years, the European Commission has systematically charged Poland with failing to uphold the “rule of law”, as defined by Brussels — for threatening media freedom and judicial independence, not doing enough to tackle systemic corruption, violating LGBT and minority rights, and thwarting the bloc’s immigration policies.

The PiS government, on the other hand, has always contended that these were matters of national sovereignty over which the EU had no say, locking horns with Brussels over what is arguably its most important article of faith: the primacy of EU law over national law.

When Brussels claimed that a new judicial disciplinary body created in 2017 — composed of jurists appointed by Parliament to hear complaints against judges facing misconduct allegations — violated EU law and should be revoked, the Polish government refused to comply. It claimed the demand represented an unacceptable infringement on the country’s national sovereignty. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal upheld the Government’s decision, insisting that national law enjoyed primacy over EU law.

In the eyes of EU officials and pro-EU elites, this, even more than culture-war issues, is what made Poland, along with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, an existential threat. It was, after all, a serious blow to one of the crucial pillars of the bloc’s empire-building project: integration by law — the stealthy hollowing out of national constitutional and legal systems, through which the EU has slowly aligned policies across the bloc regardless of electoral outcomes. As Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, put it at the time: “If this principle is broken, Europe as we know it, as it has been built with the Rome treaties, will cease to exist.”

And this wasn’t all. The PiS also clashed with Brussels and other countries over its opposition to the extension of qualified majority voting, in place of unanimity, to new areas such as foreign policy — seen by integrationists as a way of overcoming the ability of individual countries to block EU initiatives, as well as a precondition for further enlargement.

Yet what made the PiS hated in Brussels is also what led it to become something of a role model in the eyes of other Eurosceptic and national-conservative parties across the continent. As Nicholas Lokker wrote in a recent article for Foreign Policy, “PiS has actively sought to lead a coalition of populist and far-right political parties across the bloc. Warsaw hosted a meeting of numerous leaders of such parties in 2021. This February, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni proclaimed their determination to push back against a ‘centralist vision’ of Europe.”

Amid such strong rhetoric, what went wrong? For a long time, the PiS’s grip on the country seemed unshakeable, with the party persistently enjoying strong support in the polls. The outbreak of the war in Ukraine seemed poised to strengthen the ruling party even further, not least because it dramatically shifted Europe’s geopolitical balance of power from the West to the East — first and foremost to Poland.

Almost overnight, the country, which has always been staunchly pro-US and pro-Nato, and which already had one of the most formidable armies in Europe before the conflict, went from being the EU’s bête noire to being the tip of its spear in Ukraine and Nato’s de facto logistical hub. “Poland has become our most important partner in continental Europe”, a senior US Army official in Europe claimed in November. All of a sudden, in the eyes of Brussels — and especially Washington — Poland was no longer a threat to democracy but, purportedly, a crucial ally in the struggle against autocracy.

These developments strongly emboldened the country’s geopolitical aspirations: as the biggest and richest nation in Central and Eastern Europe (and the sixth-largest economy in the EU), it has long aspired to a leading role in the central and north-eastern quadrant, capable of counterbalancing both Russia and the Franco-German axis. The conflict gave this project a huge impetus.

Indeed, it seemed inevitable that the PiS would benefit from this — but events took a different turn. The fortunes of the PiS were already waning before the war, due to criticisms over its handling of the pandemic, a hugely controversial ruling by Poland’s constitutional tribunal (stating that abortions as a result of foetal defects were unconstitutional), and rising tensions within the governing camp.

The war in Ukraine further complicated matters for the Government: not only did it lead to sky-high inflation, but as a result of the so-called “solidarity routes” set up by the EU, cheap Ukrainian grain flooded the local market, undercutting prices and angering farmers, among whom the PiS had traditionally enjoyed strong support. Confederation, a Right-wing party created in 2018, weaponised the growing frustration among sectors of Polish society with the country’s support for Ukraine, which included taking in at least 2 million refugees. The Government responded by introducing a unilateral ban on Ukrainian grain — and by dramatically withdrawing military support for Ukraine. But it did little to reverse the trend.

Meanwhile, the real beneficiary of the ruling party’s troubles was its arch-enemy: Donald Tusk. A pro-market, pro-EU liberal-centrist, he was the country’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, before going on to become the EU’s president and then the president of the centre-right European People’s Party until last year. Throughout his career, he has been a devout servant of the EU’s integrationist, supranationalist project: in 2015, when Greek Left-wing leader Alexis Tsipras clashed with the EU over austerity, Tusk played a crucial role in crushing the Greek government’s revolt and pressuring it to accept a new bailout conditional upon a new round of austerity measures. Then, in 2016, he bitterly opposed Brexit, saying that there was “a special place in hell” for Brexiteers.

It was unsurprising, then, that he became the sworn enemy of the PiS — which has always accused him of being responsible for the 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President and PiS co-founder Lech Kaczyński — and in particular of prime minister Morawiecki. In 2021, Tusk decided to make a political comeback with the launch of Civic Platform. Since then, he has skilfully exploited the ruling party’s growing problems, especially the massive backlash against the new abortion law, leading several mass demonstrations against the Government in June and then again two weeks ago.

His victory represents a seismic change in Poland’s political landscape. Tusk has pledged to resolve the country’s rule-of-law disputes with the EU — which essentially means bringing Poland back under the “soft tyranny” of the EU’s legislation, the so-called acquis communautaire, in exchange for which the EU has promised to unlock €35 billion in post-pandemic funds. He has also pledged to offer greater protection for LGBT and women’s rights, as well as renormalising relations with Ukraine. On the economic front, Tusk will likely pursue a pro-business agenda, probably reversing some of the PiS’s generous welfare policies, while on other issues, such as immigration, he will probably maintain the status quo, even though this is unlikely to defuse the country’s hyper-polarised political landscape.

But the ramifications of Tusk’s victory extend well beyond Poland. The most obvious winner is the EU. Not only will it weaken the Right-populist and Eurosceptic front, but it will also give new lifeblood to the EU’s integrationist project. Tusk’s Civic Coalition has, for instance, pledged to “return to the decision-making group in the EU institutions”, and he has often endorsed the use of qualified majority voting in the past. As Lokker put it: “A fresh approach to Poland’s EU partners by a Civic Coalition-led government would significantly widen the window for further EU integration.”

Yet there is also a less obvious winner of Sunday’s election: Germany. The PiS was viscerally anti-German. Last August, for example, Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau likened “Russian imperialism” to “imperial practices within the EU”, particularly in Germany; the Polish deputy PM had previously accused Germany of trying to turn the EU into a federal “German fourth Reich”.

Under Tusk, by contrast, Poland is less likely to compete with Germany for leadership of Nato, making it easier for Germany to enact its plan of “becoming the guarantor of European security” — in other words, managing Nato on behalf of Washington, in exchange for being allowed to re-establish a position of economic leadership within the EU. To further drive the message home, a member of the German parliament’s EU committee wrote on Sunday: “Within the Nato framework, the message should be: Germany feels responsible for Poland’s security!”

There is, however, just one problem for pro-EU elites in Germany and elsewhere: while the Right-populist threat might be declining in the East, as Poland’s election attests, it is growing in the West — especially in Germany — largely due to the EU’s prioritisation of US-driven foreign policy diktats over the economic interests of member states. Attempts to use the Polish results to justify a new integrationist power grab by the EU will only embolden anti-EU forces. Brussels might be celebrating for now — but after the party, comes the hangover.

An earlier version of this article did not properly attribute quotations to Nicholas Lokker. This has been corrected.


Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 months ago

I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on the finer points of Polish politics – but the reporting on Poland’s relationship with the rest of the bloc has always struck me as partisan and inaccurate. Did they really “pick fights” with the EU, as they were so often characterised, or simply stand their ground and refuse to be bullied into accepting EU edicts that had no popular support among Poles? If any of my reading is accurate then Poles from across the political spectrum are implacably opposed to mass immigration from outside Europe.
If Tusk is set on repairing relations with the EU, that will mean acquiescing on a variety of policies that PiS won a good deal of support resisting. If Tusk is determined to snaffle up Poland’s allocated Covid relief money then he may win short-term plaudits, but if that comes at the cost of accepting Poland’s allocated share of migrants then I don’t see his popularity lasting past the first busload appearing over the border.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

What will happen is that the quota of migrants will be accepted, but they’ll disappear to Germany or somewhere else further west within 2 weeks.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Yes I think ‘picking fights’ suggests needless confrontation for political gain and I don’t think the disputes with the EU were that. PiS genuinely had desires to change the way elements of the Polish media were controlled and owned and how judges were chosen. Both contrary to EU law, which Poland had signed up to. Hence a clash of sorts inevitable. Thus Article 7 was in danger of being triggered but the EU had been v cautious about this and was ‘soft-pedalling’.
As it appears from the election results the Poles didn’t particularly see these differences with the EU as that important.
The Author is probably correct though in implying opposition to the EU tends to be easier for those not in power and thus not facing the challenges of actual government which involves real trade offs. Once reality replaces rhetoric realpolitik comes to the fore.

Paul Curtin
Paul Curtin
6 months ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Quite right Paddy.
Tusk will rush through an EU sell-out as quickly as possible whilst still in the honeymoon phase before the voters realise what they voted in.
He’s an EU stooge who has firmly signed up for the undermining of any nation based loyalties. Poland will now fall in line with the private agenda of the EU bureaucrats and that’s the end of any national interest there.
PiS kept the EU, rightly, at arms length for their people and culture but liked the ££££ from the EU so didn’t go the whole nine yards like the UK.
Every government runs out of steam.
They probably voted for a change but may not of realised what that change will be. Watch this space.
Another win for the elite who don’t wish to be upfront with the troublesome electorate about what the end goals are. Sad.

Lukasz Gregorczyk
LG
Lukasz Gregorczyk
6 months ago

Law and Justice gathered most votes, albeit unable to form a coalition government because it alienated the other parties, however to think that the views of 35% of the population can be ignored is a mistake. If Tusk, with his less than 30%, goes hard on the pro-EU agenda with supporting migration from Middle East and endorsing “greater protection” for LGBTQ+ the result will be more fractions and subsequent herder shift to the right. These elections were mainly against Law and Justice rather than pro Tusk! At this is how it looks like from where I am sitting.

Last edited 6 months ago by Lukasz Gregorczyk
UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Agreed, Tusk’s agenda is and will be way more divisive internally. It’s not a win for Poland.

Thomas Bengtsson
Thomas Bengtsson
6 months ago

Point. I think people miss the fact that there are 12! partiets in the so-called coalitions that will eventually try to form the government. 13 with the president. Yes, everyone read this right 13! (thirteen). Most of them ranging from nationalists, social-conservative, centre-right to pure Catholic moms all the way to pro LGBT etc. Many cannibalise on PiS itself except that they will be heard but won’t change the course set by PiS.

It’s going to be really interesting to watch extremely nationalist farmers and Catholic fragments trying to agree and form any sort of alliance when actually the majority are as conservative as PiS. A supranationalist farmer sitting at the same table with a gender confused man/woman and together set a political course.

In Sweden, there’s a bit derogatory saying “polsk riksdag.” Meaning “Polish Government” in a sense that they will never agree on anything and it’s chaos. We use this term very often when our own government can’t make choices. I’m afraid it will be resultat of this election. I will give the honeymoon a few months, if it realises. But unfortunately the old quote from von Bismarck may come true once again.

“You can’t destroy the polish national-consciousness or Poles on the battlefield, but if you give them power, they will destroy themselves.”
Cheers

Granville Stout
Granville Stout
6 months ago

Love the gender confused 🙂 One look tells you, no confusion then

James Watson
James Watson
6 months ago

The equivalent saying in Britain, which I haven’t heard for many decades and don’t miss, was ‘an Irish parliament’.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago

Farewell, Poland. It was looking good for you, but you decided things were just too good. Enjoy the violent invaders and cultural destruction that will result.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago

Poland can expect more Simon Mols in their future.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

First of all, there’s nothing liberal in Tusk’s party political program. Secondly, while the PiS government was moderately to acutely bad for Polish economy, I don’t see how the coalition of a centrist (KO), green (Lewica) and PSL whose origins are in the “peasant” movement can work in any areas. Their political agenda is mutually exclusive: it’s not any sort of win for anyone. Besides the fact that Tusk’s reputation among vast swathes of Polish people is extremely low. This isn’t a gevernment for the times of crisis that we experience now.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

The election result seems to potentially replace PiS with an likely unstable coalition of parties whose principal common agenda is opposition to PiS.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

People vote for parties and against others; there is attraction and repulsion.

Rob N
RN
Rob N
6 months ago

Can someone explain how Tusk won the election when his party got far fewer MPs than the PiS and will require Third Way to form any Government.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  Rob N

From what I know the Third Way is not a fan of the PiS so will probably form a coalition with Tusk and Leftists.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
6 months ago

de Gaulle said ” Europe is France and Germany, the rest are the trimmings. ” The EEC is an attempt to recreate the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, the only time when France and Germany were united.Every ideal, nation, peoples, law, custom, tradition , etc is subordinate to the aim of creating a Charlemagne Empire where France is the jockey, riding the German horse and everybody else is a serfs. Tusk is just a serf of Charlemagne.
Lt Colonel Peter Walter MC and Bar, a Squadron Sergeant Major later Major of the SAS and The Parachute Regiment said ” Any fool can run like a rabbit under fire. It is whether a a soldier can march long distances carrying all his kit , across all terrains in all weathers and still be fit to fight. That is mark of good soldier. ” It was said of Walter he was hard man who trained hard men for war. What percentage of the EU/NATO soldiers,can achieve Walter’s description of a good soldier, 1 % ? Is the EU army nothing more than aggressive camping ?
Is the EU Army in fact a method of dissolving national armies and creating a gendarmerie to supress internal revolt? Soldiers tend to be unwilling to kill their own people. However, a gendarmerie with a few armoured cars chosen so as not to include people from a country/region in revolt may be willing to kill. The CRS, Civil Guard, etc were created as paramilitary forces to suppress revolt. Orwell points out Britain was one of the few countries not to have a paramilitary unit where mmbers are housed barracks distant from their homes.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago

The PiS were cowards that refused to leave the EU and instead tried to have their cake and eat it too. They weren’t a patch on Hungary in terms of protecting the nation against foreign made law and the pro-EU camp which the PiS never bothered to try and dig out of their entrenched positions in industry, media and culture. They had 8 years to do so.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Hungary is just as guilty as PiS in that regards. For all Orbans bluster he still stands there with his hand out at every opportunity and would never dream of holding a referendum on EU membership

Martin Butler
MB
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

They are simply not as stupid as the UK. We now have more immigration from cultures quite at odds with our own culture as skills is all that matters- not a common European heritage.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Perhaps they have realised that coming out of the EU not only means more immigration, but more multi-culturalism, since once outside the EU migrants tend to be assessed on skills only which means more non-Europeans who share little of our common European culture. This of course is exactly what is happening in Brexit Britain.

Last edited 6 months ago by Martin Butler
Andrew F
Andrew F
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

There is very strong support in Poland for EU membership, so idea that PiS wanted Polexit is just Tusk propaganda.
Question of judicial reforms was rightly prerogative of national governments and not part of EU treaties.
The conflict was around judicial activism of EU which Lord Sumption wrote about.
Trying to extend jurisdiction of EU into more areas via various judgments of EU courts instead of trying to amend relevant EU treaties.
Tusk was before and will be again nothing more than Germany agent in Poland.
People who claim that PiS administration was corrupt clearly did not experience mismanagement of Tusk administration.
His appeasement of Putin yo comply with wishes of Merkel was clearly against Polish national interests.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Let’s not forget that there was a referendum alongside the election and the so-called opposition kept calling, for weeks on end, not to vote in it – and their voters listened to them. So, the opposition, by calling for demos (people) to ignore one of the most basic instrument of their direct power (kratos), simply mocked the cornerstone of democratic processes. Now, with the referendum not meeting the necessary quorum – they can do whatever they want on the issues of immigration, border safety etc. This is appalling – and soon enough, those who were opening their bottles of champagne on Sunday, will realise how grim reality it really is. But then – it will be too late.

John Lammi
JL
John Lammi
3 months ago

There is no LGBT. The ‘T’ is the opposite of respect for gay folks. The ‘T’ movement supports castrating gay boys to ‘trans’ the gay away. Please stop putting this primarily male, heterosexual autogynephilic movement with references to gay people

Elena R.
Elena R.
6 months ago

I beg you pardon, Mr Fazi, but what about the Polish voters?
Has it escaped from you that the voter turnout stood at a record 74.16 % ? According to you, was it Brussels, Germany, or NATO that nudged them towards voting against PiS’ rule ?
What made them so numerous to rush to the polling stations – in a predominantly Catholic country, with a large rural population, and despite the current Gvt’s ban on the Ukraine’s grain import, etc ?
What about the history of Poland’s occupation and the Communist rule? about its people apprehending the threat on its Eastern flanc?
Finally, if standing for ‘media freedom and judicial independence’, tackling ‘systemic corruption’, or protecting ‘minority rights’ – is the ”rule of law”, as defined by Brussels” — what, in your view, would be its definition by the Polish voters ?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Elena R.

Can you explain what freedom of media Tusk actually stands for? Is it not merely freedom to pander to his claims and to debase any opinion contrary to them? Explain to me as well how Tusk’s government tackled systemic corruption, because what I saw back then is what I see now: nepotism and corruption on an unimaginable scale. By judicial independence you mean of course the Constitutional Teibunal that was in full control of his government back then? And which “minority” rights do you mean? Sober up and look around and start thinking for yourself. And, if your first thought is that I’m a supporter of the current government – rest assured, I’m very far from it.