BRUSSELS: Poland threatened on Thursday to derail an EU summit on the bloc’s post-Brexit future if leaders re-elect Donald Tusk as president despite Warsaw’s opposition.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly hit back at efforts to block Polish ex-premier Tusk, saying that giving him a second term would be a “sign of stability”.
The right-wing Polish government’s efforts to block Tusk, its long-term domestic political foe, threatens to open up a major east-west split in the European Union just as it tries to focus on unity ahead of its 60th birthday.
“We will inform our (EU) partners that the entire summit is at risk if they force the vote (on Tusk) today,” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told local television.
“We’ll do everything we can to ensure that the vote won’t take place today,” Waszczykowski said.
Poland could either insist on unanimity among the 28 EU national leaders for a second Tusk term — a vote Tusk must leave the room for — or veto the conclusions of the summit, thus torpedoing his re-election for now, he said.
But European diplomats insist that Tusk can be re-elected by a qualified majority, and say they do not want to be strong-armed by a Polish domestic wrangle.
The row is overshadowing talks on the economy, defence, and unrest in the Balkans on Thursday, and then on Friday, without British Prime Minister Theresa May, on preparations for a summit in Rome on March 25th to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty.
Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, called for the re-election of Tusk, who has steered Europe through tensions with Russia, the Greek debt crisis and Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.
“I see his re-election as a sign of stability for all of Europe, and I am happy to continue working with him,” Merkel told the German parliament before heading to the summit in Brussels.
Leaders had hoped to rubber stamp Tusk’s new term, which would run from May until November 2019, but Poland put forward a surprise rival candidate, euro-MP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.
Tusk has been a long-term foe of the head of the governing Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who has accused the centrist former premier among other things of “moral responsibility” for his twin brother’s death in a plane crash in Russia in 2010.
The Polish government has also repeatedly clashed with Brussels in recent months over the rule of law, but leaders are ultimately keen to keep the EU’s biggest post-communist state on side.
Tusk said on Wednesday he was “ready for this judgement” by the 28 leaders but rejected criticism by Poland’s prime minister Beata Szydlo that he had “brutally violated” his job’s supposed political neutrality.
“I am, and I should be also in the future, impartial and politically neutral,” he said.
The Tusk issue nevertheless highlights a growing split between the older, western EU nations led by Germany and France and the poorer, newer countries in the east freed from the Soviet yoke.
Divisions have also emerged over whether plans for a major declaration on the bloc’s next 10 years, to be made at the Rome summit, should include a mention of plans for a so-called “multi-speed Europe.”
The leaders of the EU’s post-Brexit “big four” — Germany, France, Italy and Spain — used a summit in Versailles on Monday to back plans for countries to choose at which speed they integrate on key issues.
But eastern countries in particular fear this will lead to a virtual apartheid system where they are left behind on issues like the euro currency, the economy and defence while the major powers push ahead.
There are also divisions over migration, with the eastern bloc fearing their attempts to offer to pay instead of sharing the burden of Europe’s migrant crisis could be used to cut the substantial funds they get from Brussels.
Leaders fear the split could distract from attempts to use Rome to give birth to a new Europe after Brexit, in the face of growing populism, uncertainty over US President Donald Trump and an aggressive Russia.