There won't be any lack of problems in 2016 to test European Council President Donald Tusk's talent as a crisis manager. The refugee crisis is far from having been solved and continues to strain European solidarity almost daily. On top of that comes the planned referendum in Britain to determine whether the country will remain a member of the European Union.
But no crisis has caused as many headaches for Tusk, who heads the powerful EU institution representing the leaders of the 28 member states, as the situation back in his home country of Poland. The newly elected government in Warsaw has been busy stripping away constitutional structures, the power of the constitutional court threatens to be hollowed out and the government now has the final say in senior posts at the country's public radio and television broadcasters.
Every sentence uttered on the issue by Tusk is a delicate one. Behind closed doors, though, he makes no secret about where he stands. Which brings us to Tuesday evening, when Tusk was a guest at a meeting of the Green Party parliamentary group in European Parliament and one of the Socialist parliamentary group. The appointments had been made long ago, but they came just as Poland has emerged as one of the most controversial current topics in the EU. And on Tuesday, it was all people wanted to talk about.
Following harsh criticism by leading EU politicians against the new Polish government, Tusk called for restraint. "Of course, personally, I am very critical of many actions taken by the new authorities in my country," he told his audience at one of the meetings, according to participants. "Exaggerated opinions and sometimes also brutal epithets regardless of the goodwill of the authors, my friends here in Brussels, can be counter-effective."
Tusk's reference was to statements made by European Parliament President Martin Schulz, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), and German EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger, of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Last weekend, Schulz likened the Polish government's actions to Putin's style of rule in Russia. Oettinger, for his part, demanded that Poland be placed under "supervision."
A 'Legal and Moral Responsibility' to Probe Poland
On Wednesday, the European Commission, the EU's executive, opened the so-called "rule of law mechanism" for the first time in its history against Poland in order to review its adherence to the rule of law and to the values of the European Union. On Monday, Tusk is expected to discuss the issue with Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will be visiting the European capital. One day later, the European Parliament is to discuss developments at a session in Strasbourg with new Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo.
Tusk, who served as Polish prime minister from 2007 until 2014, has said he could also see the European Council taking up the issue of Poland, the body that would be responsible for any possible sanctions. "I have no doubts that, also for the European Council, the Polish problem is interesting enough to discuss," he said at one of the Tuesday night meetings. He added that the European institutions and he himself had the "moral but also legal obligation" to engage in an "open dialogue" with a member state where the rule of law and norms of democracy are at risk of being violated.
The Polish European Council president had been German Chancellor Angela Merkel's favored candidate, but his first year in office was anything but easy. Given that Poland isn't a member of the common currency zone, he had a handicap in the debate over whether Greece should be allowed to remain in the euro zone. And in terms of the refugee crisis, at least in the beginning, he gave what many felt to be too much consideration for the Polish government's position and elections there in October, and was slow in acting.
Still, Tusk has been a productive participant in the refugee debate. He proved to be correct, for example, in his skepticism of an obligatory redistribution mechanism for refugees in the EU that Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had pushed for. He repeatedly warned it was more important to take steps to secure the EU's external borders, a policy Merkel has since adopted as a priority.
During his meeting with the Greens, Tusk made no secret of the fact that he doesn't expect to be treated particularly well by the new government in Warsaw. To put it mildly, his relationship with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of the nationalist-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, the man pulling the strings in the new government, is tense. "To most politicians representing the new power in Poland, I am Public Enemy Number One," Tusk told the Greens, "for many reasons -- but also because I am here in Brussels as the president of the European Council."