ZAGREB — The biggest political family in Europe has pivoted to the East — and away from Germany.
The center-right European People’s Party on Wednesday picked as its new president Donald Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland and who will be, come December, a former president of the European Council.
Tusk, who was elected unopposed at a party congress in the Croatian capital Wednesday, is the first Eastern European to take the helm of the largest political force in Europe and the political home of German chancellors Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl.
Although the German Christian Democratic Union is still the largest conservative party in Europe, it no longer has the strong grip it once had. Many in the party believe that only a non-German and non-Westerner like Tusk can help keep the EPP ahead of its rivals and assuage East-West tensions over the rule of law, climate change and migration.
“With Tusk, we will be opening a new chapter in the history of the EPP,” said David McAllister, a senior German MEP from the conservative grouping. “Tusk has proven to be a bridge builder between the East and the West, and as a former prime minister and president of the Council, he has a huge experience. And I very much look forward to him shaping the future of Europe’s largest political family.”
It’s not just Tusk. For the first time in the EPP’s history, MEPs from Eastern Europe outnumber their Spanish and French colleagues, giving parties like Tusk’s own Civic Platform and Romania’s National Liberal Party power and influence they have rarely enjoyed before. Bulgaria has the same number of center-right MEPs as Italy, and among the Western European powers that founded that EU, only Germany has a leader from the EPP: Angela Merkel, who is in the twilight of her career.
Tusk’s predecessor, the Frenchman Joseph Daul, was a little-known behind-the-scenes operator from Alsace who speaks fluent German and was often seen as closer to Merkel and Germany than to Paris.
Tusk, by contrast, is not expected to be close to Berlin or to Warsaw (he’s the sworn enemy of Poland’s populist governing Law and Justice party).
EPP officials say Tusk’s biggest task will be to smooth the difficult relations with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party.
“Only an Eastern European can challenge the Orbán narrative in the EPP,” one party insider said. “Any purely Western coup against Orbán will fail miserably.”
Fidesz was suspended from the EPP in March in a bid to show voters that it took criticism of Budapest’s anti-EU rhetoric and backsliding on the rule of law seriously. The move was made partly in reaction to the outrage caused by the Hungarian government’s anti-migration billboard campaign featuring Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, a senior member of the EPP.
The party grouping also set up a three-person panel of “wise men,” including former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, to investigate the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary and issue recommendations on whether the EPP should expel Fidesz.
According to EPP officials, the “wise men,” who have met Orbán twice and are scheduled to meet him again in December, are due to issue their recommendations in early 2020. But in Zagreb, officials said Tusk will have to sort out the Hungary problem or the party’s image will be tarnished. “There is a real sense of urgency,” said another party insider.
Besides Hungary, Tusk will have multiple challenges to overcome in his new role, which lasts for three years, including breathing new life into a respected but now struggling political brand. In the May European election, the party lost 35 seats as it came under threat from the far right, a liberal group boosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, and the surging Greens.
“We have once again lost seats,” Daul told EPP members prior to Tusk’s election. “While the unprecedented mobilization of young voters is a cause for satisfaction … the EPP has not benefited from it,” he said, adding that “the extremes … continue to attract too many votes.”
“We are the only efficient antidote against populists … we don’t offer empty slogans but concrete solutions,” Daul added. “We thus have the right recipe to win but we must adapt it to the challenges of today and tomorrow.”
One of those challenges is climate change, which has risen up the agenda of incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and seen the EPP scrambling to shift toward a greener policy program with an objective of promoting economic growth and jobs.
Von der Leyen told the congress in Zagreb, “We must achieve climate ambitions with people and with companies, not against them. Therefore the EPP’s economic expertise is needed.”
The EU’s climate efforts have long divided the bloc’s East and West. Plans to boost the EU’s emissions-reduction efforts and set a long-term goal have met with resistance from Central and Eastern European states, which continue to rely heavily on coal and other polluting fossil fuels.
Poland plays a central role in that fight, and is set to play a central role at December’s EU leaders’ summit. Warsaw — along with Hungary and the Czech Republic — is for now refusing to back a goal of the EU becoming climate-neutral by 2050, over concerns that it will hit jobs and economic competitiveness. Getting the countries to change course is going to cost a lot of money, to help soften the blow of decarbonization for high-emitting regions.
Tusk’s appointment to the helm of the EPP could embolden group members, which are concerned about the economic cost of speeding up emissions cuts. On the other hand, it could be easier for more reluctant Eastern members to embrace more ambitious climate policy if they’re prodded to do so by one of their own.
In his speech, Daul attacked “green populism” and argued that in the EPP, “we must be honest with our people and tell them ‘here’s the cost. Here’s the number of jobs we can lose or gain, here’s the direction we want to go to, and the consequences that this will have.'”
Speaking before his election, Tusk took a veiled dig at countries like Hungary, which he said believe “that protecting our borders and territory cannot be reconciled with liberal democracy and an effective governance with the rule of law.”
Without naming him, he made a thinly disguised reference to Orbán and those “putting up a fence and billboards with anti-migration propaganda.”
“This is the essence of our debate within the European People’s Party,” Tusk said. “I would like us to end it as quickly as possible, with an obvious conclusion. We will not sacrifice values like civil liberties, the rule of law, and decency in public life on the altar of security … whoever is unable to accept it is de facto placing himself outside of our family.”
Kalina Oroschakoff contributed to this article.
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