WARSAW – Donald Tusk relied on a mix of charm and pragmatism to rise to the top of Polish politics and stay in power longer than anyone since the Cold War. Being the European Union’s president will test the extent of those talents.
Emerging from a bitter contest as the 28-nation group’s first leader from the former communist east, the 57-year-old will arrive in December after seven years as his country’s prime minister. He’ll inherit a union fraught with discord over issues from the conflict in Ukraine to a sluggish economy at home.
Tusk has spent more than two decades navigating Poland’s often acrimonious post-communist politics. Ruthless at times, ditching allies when needed, his supreme talent is his charm, according to Pawel Piskorski, who co-founded the Civic Platform party with Tusk in 2001 before being forced out in 2006. Tusk is a master at “seducing” allies over red wine, cigars and discussions of his favorites from ancient Greece and Rome, according to Piskorski’s 2014 memoir, “Between Us Liberals.”
“He’s great at smiling and doing the meets-and-greets,” Piskorski said. “If being premier was mostly about meeting people, that would be his natural role. Anything to do with administration is a chore for him.”
In his first appearance after receiving the nomination, Tusk focused on the deal-making that’s the hallmark of the EU presidency, pledging to strive for “intelligent compromise” on the array of crises confronting the EU.
While the EU president has limited authority, he can play a role in shaping consensus at summits of the national leaders who wield real power in the bloc. Herman Van Rompuy made his mark as the first full-time president by brokering compromises between Germany and deficit-scarred states during the debt crisis.
Tusk’s charm and pragmatism may help him forge consensus on matters such as sanctions on Russia and dealing with the escalating military confrontation on the bloc’s eastern flank.
His selection at the same time as that of Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini as chief diplomat reflected the EU’s divisions over handling its relationship with Russia. Mogherini, 41, faced criticism in Eastern Europe for seeking an accommodation with the Kremlin.
Tusk has emerged as a forceful advocate of the Ukrainian issue in an alliance that lacks “political courage and a willingness to make decisions,” according to Bartlomiej Biskup, a political scientist at Warsaw University. “Most Western politicians have no idea what’s going on.”
Poland’s front-line status in the Ukraine crisis this year helped propel Tusk into the limelight. Poland has been involved in the turmoil across its eastern border from early on, with Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski joining his French and German counterparts to broker a deal with protesters and Ukraine’s then-president, Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych.
Since Yanukovych’s ouster in February and the Russian seizure of Crimea the following month, Tusk has sought to keep the EU united in support of a Ukrainian government that is fighting pro-Russian insurgents. He warned in March that Ukraine may turn into “a black hole across our eastern border” dominated by Russian intelligence services and organized crime.
That’s not to say that Tusk is viewed as an anti-Russian hardliner by the standards of politics in Poland, where centuries of conflict and subjugation have fueled suspicion of the larger power to the east.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the former prime minister defeated by Tusk in 2007 elections, said in May that his successor’s declared policy of standing up to Russia has “zero credibility” because he’s “all hard talk and practically no action.”
Tusk told the Polish parliament on Aug. 27 that “we should try to influence policy community-wide, rather than get into a saber-rattling contest” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and stressed the need to enlist U.S. support.
As a facilitator, Tusk will be able to lean on a bond he forged with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two leaders are pragmatists and share a commitment to fiscal prudence as an economic priority.
In addition to their common experience of growing up under communism, Merkel and Tusk bonded last year over the Polish heritage of one of her grandfathers.
“Poland can serve as an example” to Europe for the way it overhauled its post-communist economy in the 1990s, Merkel said in a speech honoring Tusk in Berlin in May 2013, in which she referred to him as “dear Donald.”
The bond has been made easier by Tusk’s roots in Kashubia, a region in northwest Poland where German has traditionally been spoken along with a local dialect. The prime minister still spends weekends with his wife there at a 60-sq.-meter apartment in the Baltic resort of Sopot, where they raised two children.
The personal relationship helps keep Polish-German relations smooth, Tusk said in April 2013.
“I think we’ve both made our modest contribution, not least through our personal backgrounds,” he said. “I thought to myself: she’s the granddaughter of a high-school principal in Gdansk and I’m the grandson of a railroad worker from Gdansk — so before the war, they were neighbors.”
Tusk’s German is good enough to use with Merkel, and with Putin, an expert speaker who learned the language as a KGB officer in east Germany, when the two met in September 2009.
The Polish prime minister also has a working knowledge of English that he uses with EU colleagues, though he prefers Polish for public addresses and news conferences and acknowledged after receiving the nomination that he needs to work on the EU’s lingua franca.
Hailing from outside the EU’s traditional power centers and a country that hasn’t yet adopted the euro, Tusk first received wider attention for his stewardship of the economy, the bloc’s only one to avoid a recession in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Tusk became Poland’s first two-term prime minister since the fall of communism in 1989 when his Civic Platform party won parliamentary elections in 2011. He jettisoned an earlier pledge to bring Poland into the euro area by 2011, allowing the free-floating zloty to act as a shock absorber and Polish exporters to stay competitive.
His skill at handling the potentially deadly grind of politics was on display this year, when leaked tapes of conversations between leading Polish policy makers rocked the nation, threatening to capsize Tusk’s ruling coalition and unseat the central bank governor. On the recordings, Marek Belka, the head of the monetary authority, was heard discussing possible support for the government before next year’s election.
Tusk pounced, framing the discussions as serious men talking about “ways to help Poland.” He won a vote of confidence engineered to hold the ruling alliance together and rallied support by calling the scandal the work of a “criminal group” intent on destabilizing the country. He lived to fight another day, even if his party fell behind in the polls.
A soccer enthusiast who has taken to running, Tusk told Spiegel magazine in an April 2011 interview that he prefers “pragmatism to great visionary designs” as that is “how most normal people think.”
Tusk is unlikely to start his new role with a blueprint for large-scale overhaul, according to Pawel Swieboda, head of the Warsaw-based Center for European Strategy.
“It’s hard to recall any speech where he’d present a coherent grand vision for the bloc,” he said. “He’s got his feet firmly on the ground.”