European Union leaders are set to announce their choice for President of the European Council at a summit on March 9. Until very recently, the reelection of the incumbent, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, seemed certain: the outgoing French president, François Hollande, former Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel tested the waters, but preliminary polling showed none of them standing a chance.
But then, on February 27, the Financial Times reported that the Polish government was sounding out the possibility of presenting an alternative candidate, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, an MEP from Civic Platform, the party Tusk founded. In the European Parliament, Saryusz-Wolski is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP), which he served as Vice Chair until November 2016.
Less than a week later, on March 4, the FT’s report was borne out. The leadership of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party instructed Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s government to withhold support for Tusk’s reelection. The same day, the foreign ministry issued a diplomatic note proposing Saryusz-Wolski. A half-hour later, Saryusz-Wolski confirmed it on Twitter. He was immediately expelled from Civic Platform, and the EEP’s chairman, Joseph Daul, reaffirmed his party’s full support for Tusk.
With all EU members except Poland supporting Tusk, denying him a second term would require an extraordinary justification. The PiS has not provided one. Indeed, until now, the PiS had failed to formulate any clear position regarding Tusk’s candidacy. So why has it suddenly become such a high priority to block him?
All we have to go on is a public statement by PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyńksi. “Donald Tusk is violating the elementary principles of the European Union,” he said. Offering no evidence whatsoever, Kaczyńksi accuses Tusk of breaching “the principle of neutrality by openly supporting the opposition, which calls itself absolute and seeks to overthrow the government through extra-parliamentary means.”
In fact, Kaczyński alleges much worse. He believes that Tusk conspired with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bomb the Polish presidential plane in April 2010 as it carried a delegation of dignitaries to Smolensk to participate in a commemoration of the Katyn massacre (the execution, on Stalin’s orders, of more than 20,000 Polish officers, police, and intelligentsia in 1940). Where Kaczyńksi sees a “coup,” however, the rest of the world (including all professional Polish and international institutions that investigate aviation disasters) sees a tragic accident that claimed the lives of Kaczyńksi’s twin brother, then-President Lech Kaczyński, and 95 senior government officials. Tusk, who defeated the PiS in eight consecutive elections over the course of his career, was Prime Minister at the time.
Prior to the government’s recent move, the entire Visegrad Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) officially supported Tusk, and its leaders are reacting with embarrassment to Kaczyńksi’s effort to replace him. Karel Schwarzenberg, the chairman of the Czech parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Gazeta Wyborcza that Tusk was “a very good leader.” His Slovak counterpart František Šebej put it bluntly: “I do not understand the objections to Tusk. I am satisfied with him.” Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, with whom Kaczyński has been pursuing an illiberal counterrevolution within the EU, is not hiding his support for Tusk.
Saryusz-Wolski is hardly unknown. An expert of European integration since the 1970s, he has served in many government posts and has been a (very conservative) MEP since 2004. He has never been Prime Minister, President, or even a European Commissioner.
With these credentials, one would expect Saryusz-Wolski to head a European parliamentary committee (as he did in 2007), or to serve as vice president of a parliamentary grouping (as he did for half a term in 2004-2007). But no one would expect him to become President of the European Council — perhaps least of all.
And, indeed, Saryusz-Wolski — who, ironically, told an interviewer in 2008, “I note with horror that in EU institutions, Poles would sooner harm than help fellow Poles” — stands no chance. He is merely Kaczyński’s “useful idiot” in an effort to score a political victory over a man who represents the greatest threat the PiS faces. The most Saryusz-Wolski can realistically hope for is some government position in Poland. Perhaps he will replace the widely criticized foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski.
The most the PiS, for its part, can hope for is that some coalition of countries (for example, those ruled by Social Democrats) will propose another alternative to Tusk, whom EU member states will elect in order to avoid escalating the conflict with Poland. In that case, Tusk would most likely return to domestic politics, where a ninth victory against the PiS would be the punishment Kaczyński deserves. Perhaps only a Pole can save Poland from its most ardent patriots.
Indeed, the PiS, a party that claims to place national solidarity above all else — even the constitution — has brought about a situation in which only Poland is standing against a Pole. And it has caused an unseemly commotion at a time when the EU must respond to the loss of the United Kingdom and the degradation of the transatlantic alliance.
Instead of focusing on how best to position itself in this shifting landscape, Poland — and Europe — is consumed with one politician’s delusional obsession. On March 9, Europe should robustly reject Kaczyński’s paranoid fantasies by returning Tusk to the presidency of the European Council.
This post was originally posted by Project Syndicate.