Donald Tusk's daunting agenda as Poland's new prime minister

By Isaac M December 12, 2023

The return of Donald Tusk won’t just create ripples in Poland, but all over Europe. There aren’t many European politicians with a truly pan-continental standing – but he is one of them.

Before returning to Polish politics, where had previously spent seven years as prime minister, Tusk had been president of the European Council.

It is not an easy job because it involves trying to corral the leaders of all the members of the European Union into agreeing on a common position, which is rather like herding particularly skittish cats.

Tusk’s reputation was high when he left the job, and it has steadily grown thanks to the underwhelming performance of his successor, Charles Michel, an amiable politician who has struggled to impose himself on the global stage.

Tusk’s expected return to Brussels later this week, as a member of the council rather than its president, will present a fascinating contrast between the two.

By that point, Tusk will already have had to set his domestic agenda in train. His first task will be to try to unwind some of the actions of his predecessor, Mateusz Morawiecki, who introduced laws restraining the freedom of the courts.

Those, in turn, led to concerns over the so-called “rule of law” and that has led to tens of billions of euros of EU funding being held up.

Tusk needs to find a way through that, despite the antipathy, and more likely opposition, of the country’s President Andrzej Duda.

Duda, whose presidential term runs until 2025, can exercise a veto over parliamentary decisions and has already made clear that he is in no hurry to let Tusk roll back Morawiecki’s work.

On the contrary, by giving Morawiecki first go at forming a majority government – which was always going to be an impossible task – he simply allowed the outgoing prime minister to make last-minute changes and appointments that will hinder the new government.

All this will make Tusk’s leadership an even tougher juggling act, particularly because he is only prime minister due to a coalition of parties largely united by the single factor that they wanted to get rid of Morawiecki.

That held them together during the election, but things will become different now.

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From October: Election divides Poland

Tusk will also want to push through a budget, loosen the shackles imposed by Morawiecki over the Polish media and reinforce a relationship with neighbouring Ukraine that, while strong, has shown signs of strain over the past year.

It is a daunting agenda, but Tusk has been through the mill.

While Morawiecki’s PiS remains the biggest party in the parliament by seats, few doubt that Tusk has both momentum and motivation driving him on.

His supporters were so excited about his accession to power that they crowded into cinemas to watch live coverage of parliamentary proceedings.

Poles gather in cinema for a screening of Polish Parliament session in Warsaw, Poland, December 11, 2023. REUTERS/Kuba Stezycki
Poles gather in the cinema for a screening of the Polish parliament session in Warsaw

On a wider scale, there is another important element to Tusk’s triumph. European politics has recently been a tale of electoral victories for candidates who were either nationalist, populist or, often, both. Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. The Sweden Democrats and the Finns.

All have positioned themselves as being strong leaders who are the alternative to mainstream politicians.

Tusk has bucked the trend, a highly experienced politician who has won from the centre-right against an opponent who combined streaks of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism.

The coming weeks and months won’t be easy for him or his government – not least when prime minister and president clash – but Poland is about to enter a new phase.


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