Insight Poland

Make Poland and Europe whole again: Donald Tusk’s legacy

When Donald Tusk leaves office on November 30, at the end of his term as the President of the European Council, he will have completed another successful term in a long and illustrious career as one of Poland’s and Europe’s most prominent politicians.

Unlike the man who shares his first name and initials but whose last days in office are still in the process of being determined, Donald Tusk’s legacy will be as a champion of unity and international cooperation.

The humble origins of Donald Tusk

Other than the fact that Polish politics is often reminiscent of a reality TV show, Donald Tusk’s background has little in common with his U.S. counterpart in Washington. Tusk is from the northern Polish port city of Gdańsk, which also gave rise to Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity movement. In a highly homogenous country, he grew up as a minority Kashubian, a small Western Slavic ethnic group.

He became interested in politics as a teenager after witnessing regular clashes between striking workers and riot police firsthand in the late 70’s. The year after he graduated from college in 1980, tanks rolled onto Polish city streets as the communist government temporarily implemented martial law. Once Poland started holding democratic elections in 1989, Tusk became one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny KLD) which picked up seats in Poland’s lower house, the Sejm, in 1991. He has held a political office almost continually since then.

Interestingly enough, Tusk’s increasingly centrist leanings seem to have been reflected in the names of the parties he has represented over time. The “Liberal” KLD he co-founded later merged with the “Democratic” Union (Unia Demokratyczna) before becoming the “Freedom” Union (Unia Wolnosci). Most recently, this place in the domestic political spectrum has been identified through the word “Civic”.

Polish President Andrzej Duda visits European council in Brussels
Donald Tusk is considered to be center-right in terms of his ideology. He will lead the center-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament after he ends his term in the European Council. Credit: Politico

Make Poland whole again

Tusk co-founded the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) in 2001 and performed well in Sejm elections, picking up several seats in the lower house. Thanks to this successful election as well as an unsuccessful, but impressive, run for President in 2005, Tusk became the deputy speaker in the Sejm as well as the de facto leader for one half of the Polish political spectrum for years to come.

The Civic Platform that Tusk helped found continues to this day without his direct involvement as part of a liberal coalition known as the Civic Coalition, or KO (Koalicja Obywatelska). Notably, the other half of the Polish political spectrum has also remained constant.

Despite the various minority parties and coalition groupings in Poland’s legislature, the Law and Justice party (Prawo I Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS), which successfully defeated Tusk to elect President Lech Kaczyński in 2005, is also Poland’s ruling party today. The party is led by Lech Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław, who served as his brother’s Prime Minister before the former died in a tragic plane crash which spawned numerous conspiracy theories, many of which involving Tusk himself.

The old rivalry between Kaczyński and Tusk continues to this day, even though Tusk has moved on to the European stage. A poignant example of this occurred when the Polish government under PiS voted to remove Donald Tusk as the President of the European Council – the only EU member country to do so.

Though Tusk, who famously called the current populist government “contemporary Bolsheviks” who threaten the nation’s independence, continues to be a frequent target of his domestic rivals and the State-run media, his service in Polish politics is undeniable for many of those without an agenda. Not only did Tusk help establish the modern Polish political scene, he was the first Prime Minister to be reelected after the fall of communism, having been elected Prime Minister in 2007 and again in 2011. Additionally, despite the accusations that were levied against him surrounding the death of Lech Kaczyński, no misconduct was ever found.

In fact, those without a bone to pick with Tusk might even say that he helped navigate his country away from tragedy and civil strife, and that accusations about foul play surrounding the Smolensk plane crash were Poland’s first fake news story.

Tusk was the first Prime Minister to be reelected after the fall of communism, having been elected Prime Minister in 2007 and again in 2011. Credit: Wikimedia

A legacy of fighting for European unity

The old rivalry between PiS and PO/Tusk has consistently led to brutal political attacks against Tusk and his family which is likely what caused the former Prime Minister to decide not run for President of Poland again in 2020. But that doesn’t mean that it has been easy for Donald Tusk to be President of the European Council either.

Imagine Donald Trump getting elected governor of New York and fighting for the right of the state to remove itself from the United States. That’s basically the kind of stuff that Donald Tusk has been dealing with recently while fighting for EU unity against UK Prime Minister. Boris Johnson, who is also frequently compared with Trump, not because of his name but because of his politics and brazen style, has been a thorn in Tusk’s side since even before he was chosen for the top job in UK politics in July as the person to guide the UK through Brexit.

Though the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU remains uncertain, and nobody has been more critical of the direction in which this dynamic is headed than Tusk himself, he has received praise for his attempts to maintain cohesion. In October, Tusk received the Globsec European Award for his attempts at preserving unity in Europe.

In October, Tusk received the Globsec European Award for his attempts at preserving unity in Europe. Credit: Twitter

A lifelong public servant

If Donald Trump decided to leave office before the end of his term, few would likely stand in his way, and this is perhaps the greatest distinction that Donald Tusk has with his counterpart in Washington. Whereas Trump’s Presidency has led him to being largely unwelcome in public office, to the point of ongoing attempts to remove him, Tusk will continue his service as the leader of the European People’s Party in December.

It’s not difficult to see why.

Whereas some politicians enter public service because they are bored with their private lives, Donald T. became a public servant after witnessing the injustices of an authoritarian system as a teenager. Whereas some politicians test their country’s willingness to adopt authoritarian tendencies while in office, Donald T. fought these tendencies. Whereas some politicians divide and conquer while in office, Donald T. has fought for political unity regardless of the office he holds.

Whereas some political lives are short-lived, scandalous, and unsustainable, Donald T. continues to leave a positive legacy across both domestic and international politics.

In short, we could use more Donald T.’s like him.

By Piotr Narel