The Case for Europe: An Interview with Donald Tusk

European Council President Donald Tusk leaves the Elysee Palace following a meeting with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, France, November 23, 2015
Eric Gaillard/Reuters
European Council President Donald Tusk (right) leaving the Elysee Palace following a meeting with French President Francois Hollande (left), Paris, November 23, 2015

As president of the European Council, Polish politician Donald Tusk has been at the center of one of the most challenging years in the history of the European Union. Since taking office in December 2014, he has faced an economic crisis in Greece, the conflict in Ukraine and growing Russian aggression in the east, and, since last summer, the largest influx of migrants and refugees Europe has faced since World War II. Now he is struggling to reach a compromise with the British government to avert a possible withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.

Born in Gdansk, the heart of the Solidarity movement, and a founder of Poland’s liberal Civic Platform party, Tusk was prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014. As president of the European Council, one of his main tasks is to reconcile the competing views of the various EU member states whose leaders—as members of the council—are responsible for the union’s most important decisions. I spoke to him at his office in Brussels.


Michał Matlak: In the year that you have led the European Council, you’ve witnessed several of the worst crises Europe has ever faced. Was this more than you bargained for?

Donald Tusk: I have absolutely no cause for complaint, because there’s nothing worse in politics than boredom. What’s exciting in politics is power, of course, and the real power is at the level of national governments. But politics is also fascinating when it makes it possible to resolve critical situations, to negotiate, to bring others round to your way of thinking—I have more than enough of that in Brussels.

 You’ve faced a particularly difficult challenge getting European leaders to agree on a common approach to the refugee crisis. Is the growing backlash against migrants a betrayal of core European values?

 One fundamental point must be very unambiguously expressed here. I see a vast amount of hypocrisy among those who say that Europe is closed to migrants, that it isn’t sufficiently tolerant. Last year we received nearly a million and a half asylum seekers, far more than any other Western democracy. Close to Europe we have countries that are very rich and safe, that won’t admit migrants under any circumstances. Accusing Europe of turning its back on migrants is a gross injustice, because it is Europe that is the most open continent, and the standards of behavior toward refugees are very high.

Nevertheless, Central and Eastern European leaders have been deeply skeptical of the EU approach. Is a common immigration policy possible?

From the start of the immigration crisis I have been trying to encourage European leaders and institutions to focus on the practical task of regaining efficient control of the European Union’s outer borders. This is true regardless of what paradigm is in force on migration—whether we want to conduct a more open policy in the German style, or a more closed one. Either way, we must have the tools we need to control the influx of people, screen for security reasons, and so on.

But I also think these differences are not that great. Common sense compels most Europeans to be concerned about border security. And the need to secure the outer EU borders has been universally accepted among European governments. So we can say that today, differences over the basic question of migration are not as great as they seem. Though of course there are various perspectives involved: some countries are simply transit areas for the immigrants, so they place less focus on protecting their borders, while others are in the fairly dramatic situation of receiving large numbers of asylum seekers. This mainly concerns Germany and Sweden. But I think we have succeeded in building a consensus that protecting our external borders is a preliminary condition for conducting any kind of European migration policy.

Realistically, how quickly can a new external border policy be achieved?

Of course it’s not an easy task, especially at sea, starting from the legal questions—we have the Geneva Convention, which, when we’re talking about millions of migrants and refugees, starts to get very hard to uphold. Or for that matter the Dublin regulations and the rules of the Schengen Treaty. But I see no reason to be embarrassed that Europe is not prepared for such a historically unparalleled influx. It’s not surprising that we still need a lot of time to reorganize our external borders. Here we’re dealing with migration on an unprecedented global scale, abetted by the spread of social media and the immense smuggling business. This is why NATO recently got involved in policing traffickers in the Mediterranean. Though of course at the root of all this are the wars surrounding Europe.

Many people think the European Union has been ineffective in trying to end these conflicts. That the Union’s foreign policy doesn’t seem to be working.

That’s obviously not true. In the first place, we are responsible for ourselves, and the European Union is a project for peace. This is the primary reason why the Europeans agreed to sacrifice the sovereignty of their own national states to build the Union. And it works. In this area of direct European responsibility we have pretty lasting peace. Europe is not responsible for everything that is happening in Syria, in the Middle East, or in Afghanistan. Nowadays conflicts are occurring all over Asia, in much of Africa, and in parts of South and Central America. It’s clear that various models of foreign policy—intervention, classic diplomacy, or sanctions—can be ineffective. The situation in Libya is maybe the most clear illustration of this fact. But these are global problems, not exclusively European ones. That is why I appealed to the G20 leaders last year to recognize this as a global crisis. This year, I will take up this challenge at the G7 and G20 summits.

In Europe itself, though, the question of sovereignty is disputed. You’ve said there’s a “real risk” of the UK withdrawing from the EU—the so-called “Brexit”—if an agreement with European leaders on Britain’s special status can’t be reached.

It’s nothing new. From the very start it was clear that Britain’s status within the EU would be slightly different, and we would have to live with that. Now it’s the next act in this debate. The idea of a British referendum is not within the scope of my authority. I can only state that when the prospect of a referendum came up in Britain, everyone knew that we would have to find a way to avoid a negative outcome—a political decision by London to leave the European Union. Not just because the Union without Great Britain would be something else, something defective—including for geopolitical reasons. But also because it might offer an attractive example for anti-European political forces in other countries.

And so from the moment the possibility of a “Brexit” was suggested, I have been looking for a way to protect us from that outcome. And this means reaching an agreement with London that will enable Prime Minister David Cameron to conduct an effective campaign to stay in Europe before the referendum. For me the red line in these negotiations was fundamental European values, such as the free flow of people. And this has been guaranteed in my proposal.

Britain has insisted on being able to suspend social benefits for migrants. Doesn’t this contradict the fundamental values you mention?

That was the hardest dilemma to resolve. My condition was that there can be no question of making changes to the European treaties to allow discrimination, a lack of equality, or limits on the free flow of people. Whereas for the British the most important issue in the entire referendum debate is being able to say “no” to migrants taking advantage of the social system in ways they had not anticipated. So it was important for them to obtain a protective mechanism that would act as a safety brake and temporarily withhold benefits of that kind. For me it was crucial that these arrangements not be retroactive. But people who are only now deciding to immigrate should be aware that something like this could affect them. This is a compromise, of course. The feature of a good compromise in politics is that nobody is satisfied with it, but everyone is able to live with it.

In your recent letter to European leaders, you also acknowledged that the UK would not be required to take part in “ever closer Union.”

To be precise, in the treaties [underlying the European Union] it says that Europe should be closer to its citizens. It does not legally bind the European states to become ever more integrated. But since this phrase has become a symbol of European integration, I understand why it is crucial for Prime Minister Cameron to show that Great Britain will not participate in further political integration of the Union. I too would be very cautious about the most ambitious proposals for a kind of European federation. A year of working in Brussels has been invaluable in showing me that the European Union consists first of citizens, nations, and nation states, and only second of pan-European institutions. If we push too sharply for integration, the result could be the opposite.

You’ve been known to refer to John Gray’s definition of good politics—as the art of reacting to changing circumstances.

Certainly, the past year in Brussels has confirmed that a capacity to foresee the future is not in the realm of man; as the Polish say, “Man plans, and God laughs.” Very often politicians with great visions are actually trying hard to conceal their own incompetence at solving very specific problems. And very often attempting to apply ideologies, great visions, and intellectual ambitions to everyday politics leads to tragedy. All of history teaches us to expect misfortune rather than anything positive from this sort of politician. As far as the current European Union goes, I am entirely convinced we need leaders who are able to focus on solving specific problems, such as the immigration crisis. I think it shows most emphatically how much more valuable a common-sense approach is than an ideological assumption or a long-term vision. If there are politicians who claim to know the future, as a rule they are charlatans.  

Donald Tusk talks to supporters of the Civic Platform party in the centre of Gdansk, Poland, August 12, 2005
Lukasz Glowala/FORUM KS/CVI/Reuters
Donald Tusk talking to supporters of his Civic Platform party, Gdansk, Poland, August 12, 2005

But Europe has a long tradition of leaders with big visions. Jacques Delors, for example, as head of the European Commission (1985-1995) used the vision of a strongly integrated union as an instrument for solving the continent’s problems.

Of course, a well-constructed opinion, a well-expressed thought and giving the impression that you’re a leader who knows what the future will be like can be a useful tool for mobilizing people and institutions around a specific goal. Certainly Delors and Helmut Kohl belong to the generation that insisted on a common Europe and achieved success. But I repeat: if we examine their specific predictions for the future, they didn’t always get it right, just like everybody else. But one thing is indisputable, they made Europe happen.

You’ve often identified yourself as a liberal, but in recent years this has been debated. Because you value the involvement of the state in the economy you have been described as a social democrat; but you’ve also referred to the concept of Christian democracy, and have said that you are married to conservatism.

I admit that I have a soft spot for Leszek Kołakowski’s text, “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” Even if we regard it as a clever, perverse joke, it also contains a truth about politics that suits me, and by which I have always been guided: there are various kinds of sensibility in which we can find not just ourselves, but also arguments and rationales for resolving specific matters. That’s why Kołakowski’s way of thinking about politics is closest to me: not to set certain political sensibilities against each other, although there is a tendency to do so, because it adds appeal to an argument. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with politicians seeking their own inspiration in many seemingly complicated traditions, because it also immunizes them against ideological blindness. I prefer politicians who think to politicians who believe.

I was born a liberal and I’m sure I’ll die as one, but in the fundamental, very basic meaning of the word. For me freedom will always be the absolute chief value, both in public life and politics, and in my personal life. So I won’t wince if somebody sticks that sort of label on me. But as I’m also a loyal student of the wisest political thinkers, such as Raymond Aron or Isaiah Berlin; it’s important to me to distinguish a predilection for certain values from the ideology that can be built around those values. In this sense I think of a liberal as someone who will take a mistrustful, wary attitude to ideology and precisely constructed systems of thought within politics. Yes, go ahead and call me a liberal, but on condition that it will be very specifically connected with an affirmation of freedom as the most important value in human life.

In recent years this value seems to be weakening in some parts of Europe. Not only Hungary but Poland, since the last election, has become a cause for concern. Do you have a sense of failure, when you’ve spent your entire political career trying to move Poland the other way?

This brings us to the main dilemma of European politics, namely the movement toward official pessimism about what Europe is today. I believe that this could be a dangerous phenomenon—pessimism as European ideology. It’s true that we do have very different, sometimes extreme political models – for instance, there’s Syriza in Greece, or Orbán in Hungary. It’s hard to imagine schools of political thought more distant from each other than those two. Yet if you look at the everyday political life of the Greeks and the Hungarians, it’s quite similar. That’s why the revisions that are appearing in European politics may prompt concern among the most orthodox liberal democrats. The fact is that around Europe, and within it too, there’s no lack of enemies of liberal democracy, and it certainly requires constant mobilization and readiness to defend it. But I am much calmer about it. If we take the area surrounding our continent into consideration, liberal democracy is still doing pretty well in Europe.

 So you wouldn’t call the situation in Poland a crisis of liberal democracy?

In Poland the situation is a little more complicated, because the camp that has come to power contains several strands, one of which is a fairly radical nationalism, very suspicious of liberal democracy and the entire political culture of the West. But is that the leading current? I’m not sure of that yet. As you can guess, I’m not a fan of what’s happening in Poland, but I’d be far from making hysterical judgments about the end of democracy. I’m confident that Polish democracy has a large enough number of defenses to protect itself against threats. The Polish case continues to confirm the European rule of a predilection for liberal democracy.

You spent much of last year trying to reach an agreement between Greece and its paymasters within the Euro. What still has to happen to avert a wider Eurozone crisis?

There is no doubt that apart from short-term rescue measures, such as packages for Greece, we need a serious conversation, and as a consequence of it, progress, where mechanisms such as a banking union are concerned. And so I hope that once the confusion over immigration issues passes, we will return to the realization of this plan and the ideas contained in the five presidents’ report on Eurozone reform, which I co-authored. In my view there is no alternative to this way of proceeding: we will continue to work together on financial, fiscal, and budgetary integration, in order to strengthen the common currency. There is no doubt about it.

The financier George Soros, along with economists such as Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, has said that austerity policies are making it impossible for Greece to emerge from economic crisis.

That was at the heart of the debate during the Greek crisis. I don’t think it’s right to blame austerity, which is said to be the source of the misfortunes of several countries in the European Union. There can be no doubt that a major part of failures in countries across the whole world arose out of a lack of financial discipline, not an excess of it; and, to be frank, Greece is no exception. One might consider whether fiscal discipline is the best or the only means of proceeding today. But I’d like to say that Ireland, Portugal, and Spain show that traditional austerity and fiscal discipline bring results, although they are unpleasant. Take Spain, for example. Currently we are projecting that economic growth there will reach over 3 percent. Unemployment is still very high, but falling at a pronounced rate.

So in this respect I’m more of a traditionalist. I don’t think Europe should depart from this traditional liberal way of thinking about the economy. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be flexible in seeking tools, and that’s why the debate on writing off debt is interesting. But not because we should be questioning the need for financial discipline. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but to me the simple idea that you shouldn’t spend more than you earn still applies.

Meanwhile, there is the conflict with Russia and Ukraine. Will Ukraine be able to defend its pro-European course, and what can the European Union do about it?

I feel responsible for taking action on this issue, but not necessarily for providing a forecast. To the question of whether Ukraine will survive this difficult period and will manage to defend its pro-European side, I don’t know the answer. There are too many variables, inside Ukraine as well. But I do know what our task is: we must do everything we can to help Ukraine to maintain its sovereignty and to build Western standards as much as possible. I believe that so far Europe is passing this test pretty well. Though many people in Ukraine expect stronger action.

More money for example.

More money, or stronger support for military confrontation with Russia.

And there isn’t any.

No, and Europe definitely isn’t going to choose direct confrontation with Russia. In my view the model involving consistent pressure on Russia works pretty well, such as applying sanctions and the full involvement of the European leaders in constant persuasion. I am pleased that Europe has defined what is possible as a joint response, and to many people’s surprise we are sticking with this action—the sanctions are the most visible example of it. They may not have a devastating effect on the Russian economy, but they’re a strong enough signal for Putin to have to take European policy into consideration.

The incomplete truce we have reached, and halting the Russians—because it was said that after annexing Crimea they would try to go further – I regard to a large extent as the result of sanctions, and of maintaining solidarity between Europe, the United States, and our other allies. The point is that this policy, even if not the most ambitious, should be common to all, and that nobody should break with it. In any case, this is a continuing task ahead—we shall soon once again be deciding on a potential extension of the sanctions. I have firmly focused on maintaining European and G7 unity on this issue—so far it has succeeded.

What if Russia decides to go further? What can the Union do?

In my view, the wiser approach is to carry out diplomatic, financial, and every other sort of activity to restrain Russia from aggressive behavior, rather than to consider how to react in the event of further Russian aggression. But of course both at the NATO and the European Union level we are determined to maintain the unity of the European Union and of the entire community of the West in the event of increased tension.

Without the US, Europe is weak militarily. Has the standoff with Russia reinforced the transatlantic alliance?

We’re having this conversation shortly after the Americans decided to spend more than three billion dollars on defense systems here, so their presence will be more evident again. The security crisis is undoubtedly strengthening European defense capacities. It may be that we’ll remember Putin as the man who woke up the Western world, and we’ll end up being grateful to him for making Europe and the United States drop their illusion that everything’s all right in this part of the world—that we may be living in the phase that’s the end of history, as Fukuyama would have it. As obvious as it may sound, history tends to repeat itself, and so we are rather dealing with “history as usual,” as Raymond Aron so often said.

—Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones