The real Donald Tusk

A former Polish premier describes a former Polish premier. Democratic, liberal, fan.

As the first summit of the European Council led by Donald Tusk came to a close in Brussels on 19 December, some diplomats and journalists were struggling to find the words to describe the style of the new president of the council.

Some said that the old school of Van Rompuy has been replaced by the business school style of the former Polish prime minister. But Tusk is more of a political bruiser than an economist. Many praised the efficient organisation of the summit (including Angela Merkel, despite Tusk starting the summit without her as the leaders of Germany and France kept the other participants waiting), although that was never considered to be one of his strengths. They said that Van Rompuy’s self-effacing style was gone. Why should that be the case?

One reason is that despite Poland’s many successes – particularly under the government of Donald Tusk – Eastern Europe is still a mystery for much of the West. Many of my Western colleagues still ask me, genuinely perplexed, about the roots of Poland’s success since the fall of communism. I am always surprised at their surprise. It is as if they supposed that the Iron Curtain prevented talented people from developing and thriving in the region. But thrive they did, and Tusk is a prime example of that. 

What is more, if you add strong values to that  talent, you get a really hefty political figure. Donald  Tusk spent his formative years in Gdansk, a  place steeped in Hanseatic tradition, inclined towards  freedom and open to trade. He became  conscious of these values at the tender age of 13  when mass demonstrations by shipyard workers  in his home city were brutally crushed by the  communist government in December 1970. It was  a deeply significant time in his life – as for many  other Poles – when the struggle between good  and bad, freedom and dictatorship became  painfully clear. 

By the 1980s, Tusk was a mature and conscious  activist. He co-founded Przegląd Polityczny  (Political Review), an illegal liberal periodical. He  was an active supporter of the trade union Solidarity,  bringing food and supplies to the striking  shipyard workers. He was jailed in 1984 for his  political activities. But he was lucky – General Jaruzelski, the then leader of communist Poland,  announced an amnesty for political prisoners just  three days after Tusk’s arrest. 

All this required courage and an aptitude for  clandestine activities. If caught, Tusk and others  like him faced many years in jail. Perhaps that  is why he wrote under two pseudonyms – one  of them the female name of Anna Barycz. In  fact, this led to some confusion when one day I  made an appointment to meet the editor-in-chief  of Przegląd Polityczny. I was surprised when  confronted by the boyish – and undeniably male  – face of Donald Tusk at the designated meeting  place. 

Donald Tusk also brought his skills to the  football fields of Gdansk. The beautiful game  held a special significance for all of us members  of the opposition. In the tense and dangerous  political environment, it was a way to let off  steam, to feel free and forget about the world.  Later, as Poland’s prime minister, together with  other politicians, Tusk played in matches  against journalists – this time in a proper stadium,  Legia Warszawa’s Pepsi Arena. 

Tusk’s transition from opposition politician to  premier minister was by no means a given. As  should be the case in any democratic country, he  won and lost elections in post-communist Poland.  But by 2005, he was a presidential candidate. In  2007, as head of the centre-right party Civic Platform,  he was elected prime minister. This is when  Poles discovered that Tusk is more than just a  free-marketeer. He is also a democrat, who has  learned to listen to the voice of the people. 

In his first term, Donald Tusk steered Poland  through the global economic crisis (during which  it became known as the ‘green island’ of growth  in recession-struck Europe). He made political  history by being the first head of government to  be re-elected for a second term in free Poland.  This he cut short in September when he became  the first politician from Central Europe to be nominated  for the post of EU council president. 

Donald Tusk’s new role is important for  Poland and good for Europe. The arrival in Brussels  of a leader whose appointment is based on  his country’s success, on strong moral values and  a fierce commitment to Europe (his onetime political  slogan was “Neither left nor right, just  straight to Europe”) and the transatlantic relationship  can only benefit the EU. Tusk developed  those characteristics as a boy in the political hub  that was Gdansk and harnessed them as a young  man involved in dissident activities. He then applied  them in free Poland. People ask what to expect  from the new president of the council. As  someone who knows him well, I can say with confidence  – more of the same.  

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