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Donald Tusk is back: Finally a new era in Polish-EU relations?

Teona Lavrelashvili , Tomasz Bielecki

Date: 19/10/0023
In the high-stakes elections held last Sunday (15 October), Poland’s opposition parties secured enough seats to wrestle power away from the Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has governed the country since 2015.

Although the PiS party clinched the most votes in Sunday’s election with a 35.38% share, it fell short of reaching a position to form a majority coalition (albeit Poland’s President Duda might first offer the chance to PiS to form a government). Donald Tusk’s centre-right party Civic Coalition, the centrist coalition Third Way, and the New Left successfully secured 53.71% of the vote. In comparison, the extreme-right Confederation Party, a potential ally of the PiS, received around 7.15% of the vote. This election was also a victory for democracy, with voter turnout exceeding previous records at 74.25%—the highest since the country’s first free elections after the fall of Communism in 1989 when turnout was 62.7% and topped 61.7% in 2019.

All eyes are now on opposition leader Donald Tusk, who is poised to assume the role of Poland’s next prime minister. There are hopes that Tusk will bring Poland back on the EU track.

Undoubtedly, Tusk’s administration will prioritise resetting relations with Brussels and key member states. However, a constructive approach to the EU will not mean a lack of assertiveness. On the contrary, Tusk will use his experience in Brussels to partially reduce the asymmetry in relations with Berlin and Paris. The Tusk government will actively seek to translate the visibility and prominence gained by Poland due to the war in Ukraine into real influence on EU decisions.

Poland will remain a strong advocate of an accession process for Ukraine. Still, the starting point will be Tusk's reluctance to make significant systemic reforms in the EU, including the extension of qualified majority voting tailored to future enlargement. Some of his coalition partners may be closer to Franco-German initiatives on this issue, but expect Tusk to remain dominant in defending the argument over the EU’s unity in the decision-making process. Support for Ukraine does not mean an easy end to the dispute over agricultural imports from that country, as Tusk has also strongly supported the demands of Polish farmers on this issue.

Despite greater involvement in new EU defence initiatives, Poland will remain a vital member of the Atlanticist camp. It will continue to be a problematic actor on Green Deal issues despite the more pro-green approach of some of Tusk's coalition partners.

Preparations for accession to the Eurozone are unlikely to be a priority for the new Polish government. In contrast to some of his potential coalition partners, Tusk has been sceptical of the "obligatory solidarity" in the EU's migration policy. However, Tusk's government may avoid conflict on migration reform because the Council's overall strategy already addresses the most contentious problem. It will seek a quick resolution of the rule of law dispute with Brussels, which would mean releasing funds from the Recovery and Resilience Plan. However, his efforts will be impeded as it lacks the majority (60% of MPs) needed to override a possible veto by President Andrzej Duda on new legislation.

Tusk’s EU mission will not be easy. Still, his adeptness in navigating EU corridors, underlined by his previous roles, such as the President of the European Council and the President of the European People’s Party, carries promises of a potential reshaping of Poland’s standing on the European stage.

Tomasz Bielecki, EU and NATO correspondent, Deutsche Welle Polish Section and Gazeta Wyborcza.

Teona Lavrelashvili, Policy Analyst and Coordinator of the Task Force on EU Enlargement, European Policy Centre.

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