Interview with EPP President Donald Tusk "What the Economy Needs Is a Blitzkrieg"

Donald Tusk, the head of the European People's Party and the former president of the European Council, says the coronavirus crisis could spell the end for the EU. He urges Germany to show more solidarity with weaker countries and hopes to prevent Hungary from becoming a dictatorship.
Interview Conducted by Peter Müller und Jan Puhl
EPP President Donald Tusk: "In politics, appearances are often more important than facts."

EPP President Donald Tusk: "In politics, appearances are often more important than facts."


Agencja Gazeta/ REUTERS

Donald Tusk believes that countries like Germany must do more to help with reconstruction after the coronavirus crisis. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he calls for a "blitzkrieg" to get the economy going again.

Tusk does not rule out the possibility of coronabonds, as the joint debt assurances among EU member states have become known, and he stresses that the European Union could fail due to the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic affects us all and knows no culprits, he says: That is the difference between the current crisis and the Greek debt crisis a few years ago. Tusk pleads for saving Italy and Spain as well as "the European project."

He also says he wants to try again this year to expel Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party from the European People's Party, the grouping of European conservatives in the European Parliament. Tusk says he isn't sure when the EPP's next executive meeting will take place. "But whenever it does happen, it'll be time to make a decision. No doubt about it." Until then, he wants to convince his colleagues in the EPP "that we don't have to choose between freedom and security, but that we can offer our citizens both."

Orbán is using fear of the virus to consolidate power, Tusk says. In his view, the fate of the EU will also decided to some extent by the way Orbán is handled.

Tusk strongly criticizes Poland's plan to still hold the upcoming presidential elections despite the coronavirus crisis. Law and Justice (PiS) party leader Jarosław Kaczyński is more dangerous than Orbán, he says.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Tusk, is the European Union in danger of failing amid the coronavirus crisis?

Tusk: This is not the first crisis in the history of the EU. I had some experience with crises as European Council president. Just think of Greece and the euro. I'm used to crises. Sometimes I have the feeling that the EU only exists to combat crises. It is true, however, that we've never had to face a challenge like the one we're facing now with the pandemic. The closest thing it reminds me of is the refugee crisis. Then, too, it was all about emotions, fears and uncertainties.

DER SPIEGEL: The situation today seems far more dramatic to us. Citizens in Italy and Spain are deeply disappointed in the EU and are turning away. In the capitals, politicians are spreading the impression that Brussels' reaction to the coronavirus was too slow and hesitant. Are they right?

Tusk: If we look at southern Europe, what we are talking about here is a catastrophe. What's important here is rapid assistance, but also compassion and solidarity. People aren't looking for a routine response in such a situation. They want to see movement. This was missing in the first days of the crisis. There were no transports with personal protective equipment. Even the words from the European Central Bank (ECB) sounded cold. As if it had overlooked all the people who were suffering.

DER SPIEGEL: ECB President Christine Lagarde gave the impression that Italy would have to deal with its problems alone. At the same time, countries like Russia and China were presenting themselves as saviors in a time of need: The autocrats are helping, while the EU member states are just standing there like heartless misers. This was a damning indictment of the EU.

Tusk: In politics, appearances are often more important than facts. I hope that we can still get our act together, but one thing's for sure: Europe's reputation has really been tarnished -- in Italy, in Spain, in Portugal, but also in neighboring regions like the western Balkans. And countries like China and Russia are shamelessly exploiting this. Compared to what EU member states are doing now, their assistance is at best symbolic. But their communication is full of compassion. And it's working.

DER SPIEGEL: Now, of all times, Europe is engaging in its next big dispute. The question is whether so-called coronabonds, or joint debt certificates, are the right way to cope with the economic consequences of the crisis. To that end, the heads of state and government will discuss a corresponding reconstruction fund at the upcoming video summit. What do you think should happen?

Tusk: This pandemic affects us all and there is no one to blame. That is the difference, for example, to the Greek crisis a few years ago. We have to save Italy and Spain and possibly the European project. This is not the time for bean counting. What the economy needs is a blitzkrieg. We can't afford to fumble or falter now, and we must not shy away from extraordinary measures.

DER SPIEGEL: Those are drastic words. But Germany and other countries are refusing to issue joint bonds. For that to happen, there would have to be a common tax and financial policy. Do you find this argument convincing?

Tusk: Those who have more, must give more. This is the principle of genuine solidarity. Germany is financially strong and can protect its industry and companies. Other EU countries don't have this possibility. Germany's competitive advantage over other EU countries will therefore be even greater after the crisis than before. Many in Europe feel this is unjust and a consequence of a lack of solidarity. This must not be allowed to be the result of this pandemic.



The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 17/2020 (April 18, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: In this crisis, it's not only about cushioning the economic consequences, but also looking at the question of how many restrictions on civil rights and freedoms a society can withstand. Will democracy be damaged?

Tusk: If anyone wants to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to gain more power over its citizens or secure benefits for its economy, this would be the end of the EU. That's why our first priority must be to coordinate better. If, one day, Germany and Austria lift their restrictions on movement while other countries leave theirs in place, how are we supposed to reopen our internal borders?

DER SPIEGEL: It's not just about border controls. Several countries are using the fight against the pandemic as a pretext for curtailing basic rights.

Tusk: Some heads of state and government, including some belonging to the European People's Party, are telling their citizens: You have to sacrifice your civil liberties, the rule of law and human rights in order to protect yourself from the virus. Freedom or security -- I'm sure that this diabolical alternative is wrong. It is possible to respond effectively to the pandemic and to maintain democracy.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: "Corrupted by power."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: "Corrupted by power."


DER SPIEGEL: You're referring to Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Now that the Hungarian parliament has approved sweeping emergency powers for him, he can now govern by decree. Is Hungary still a democracy?

Tusk: Orbán has been ruling Hungary with emergency measures since the refugee crisis. He uses the fear of migration and now of the virus to consolidate power. Some of his measures are probably justifiable. His actions may not even be objectionable from a purely legal perspective. However, they no longer have anything to do with the spirit of democracy. How often in our history have we seen politicians use laws that have been properly enacted to increase their power? You know this, being from Germany. I'm sure that Carl Schmitt ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... the constitutional law expert who during the Nazi era justified the regime...

Tusk: ...Carl Schmitt would be very proud of Viktor Orbán.

DER SPIEGEL: In February, you failed to find a majority to exclude Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary, from the EPP. Now, more than a dozen member parties are again demanding the party be expelled. Could Orbán's path to autocratic rule have been slowed if the EPP had managed to cry foul in time?

Tusk: Viktor Orbán is of the opinion that whoever has a majority can do what they want. He wants to transform the EPP, or at least parts of it, into an alliance that follows a national conservative, authoritarian model. And it's not as if the EPP would be a hundred to one against Orbán. We live in the age of Trump and Brexit. The fight for democracy is global. We must all be careful.

DER SPIEGEL: You said during a party conference speech back in 2018: "If you are against the rule of law and independent judiciary, you are not a Christian Democrat. If you don’t like the free press and NGOs … you are not a Christian Democrat." If you apply these standards, there is no place for Orbán in the EPP.

Tusk: Now is not the time for radical decisions. During this pandemic, we must maintain unity. But there are limits. I don't know when our next executive meeting can take place, whether in June as planned or not until September. But whenever it does happen, it'll be time to make a decision. No doubt about it. Until then, I want to convince my colleagues in the EPP that we don't have to choose between freedom and security, but that we can offer our citizens both. An illiberal form of democracy is not the ideal choice for a majority of our members, and it's certainly not what I would choose.

DER SPIEGEL: Orbán, like you, grew up as a politician who resisted the regime in the Soviet era and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, he made a career as a liberal politician. How do you explain his transformation?

Tusk: When I was prime minister in Poland, I defended Viktor Orbán again and again. We were even friends. Why has he changed? I'm afraid it's the familiar story. Many young freedom fighters were corrupted by power.

Law and Justice party head Jarosław Kaczyński: "More dangerous than Viktor Orbán."

Law and Justice party head Jarosław Kaczyński: "More dangerous than Viktor Orbán."


DER SPIEGEL: In your country, Poland, the government is also using the pandemic to undermine democracy. Where do you see similarities with the situation in Hungary?

Tusk: The situation in Poland is different. On the one hand, we have a strong opposition and strong non-governmental organizations. Even though Mr. Kaczyński and the Law and Justice (PiS) party control the state media, there is enough private, free media. On the other hand, we have politicians who are determined to seize all power. I think Jarosław Kaczyński is more dangerous than Viktor Orbán. Orbán can be cynical, but he is also pragmatic. Kaczyński, on the other hand, is hell-bent on gaining as much power as possible.

DER SPIEGEL: The presidential election in Poland is to be held on May 10 despite the coronavirus crisis in order to give an advantage to the incumbent and PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda. The whole country is now supposed to vote by mail. Is a fair election at all possible?

Tusk: I find this unacceptable. Our constitution forbids changing electoral law less than six months before an election. Yet this is exactly what is happening now. What's more, it simply won't be logistically possible to have 30 million Poles vote by mail. Democratic standards cannot be maintained this way.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany is now pushing for a simple rule in the negotiations on the EU's long-term budget: Those who don't adhere to the principles of the rule of law don't get any money. How do you feel about this idea?

Tusk: Given the situation in which the EU currently finds itself, I am emotionally unable to think about sanctions. Europe now needs a huge effort to ensure that our economies, and the EU itself, survive. The long-term budget must focus on reconstruction after the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, the citizens are not to blame for the anti-democratic activity in their capitals. We shouldn't punish them.

DER SPIEGEL: Can you understand that critics conclude that, 16 years after the EU's enlargement, Eastern Europe only joined because of the money?

Tusk: Here I must protest. By claiming that the EU is divided between east and west, you aren't describing the danger to the community with sufficient precision. There are also encouraging developments in the east, for example in Slovakia, more recently in Romania, and also in the Baltic countries. And we have a strong pro-European movement in Poland. On the other hand, we can see that radical parties are part of the Spanish government. And in Italy the situation is volatile. What matters now is what the situation will be after the pandemic in southern Europe. We must repair Europe's reputation in these countries.

DER SPIEGEL: Is the question of how we will get out of this crisis also a competition between democracies, dictatorships like China and countries that are authoritarian ruled, such as Russia and Brazil?

Tusk: Once this pandemic is over, Europe will likely have been one of the worst-affected areas in the world. This must be an impetus for us to work together to find vaccines and give the EU more opportunities to protect health care. And even though it may be difficult at the moment, and many citizens may not want to hear it: More Europe and less nationalism is the solution. We do not need German or Italian solutions, but European ones. If we allow ourselves to drift further apart in this crisis, we will not survive politically. The migration crisis was the first warning shot. The pandemic is the second. It could be the last warning shot for Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Tusk, we thank you for this interview.

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