Post-Brexit Sparks Fly as Tusk Heads to EU’s Eastern Mavericks

  • Tusk visits Warsaw, heads to Budapest before Bratislava summit
  • Luxembourg calls for Hungary’s ouster from EU over values

European Union President Donald Tusk entered the lion’s den with visits to Warsaw and Budapest to coordinate policy for this week’s summit of European leaders, a task imperiled by east-west tension over the bloc’s future direction after the U.K.’s vote to leave.

Underscoring the delicacy of Tusk’s endeavor, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said EU countries such as Hungary that build fences to keep out war refugees or infringe on the freedom of the press and judiciary independence should be kicked out. The bloc should change its rules so it can suspend a member without unanimity, Asselborn said in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt published Tuesday.

“We already know that Jean Asselborn is an airhead -- it shows that he lives only a few kilometers from Brussels, he is patronizing, arrogant and frustrated,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told the MTI state news service. “As a proper nihilist, he is restlessly working to destroy Europe’s culture and security.” Szijjarto added that Hungary was “protecting Europe” with its migration policy.

The exchange highlights public divisions ahead of the informal EU summit in Bratislava on Friday that will chart a road map for the 27-nation alliance minus the U.K., its second-biggest economy. While some western nations of the trading bloc of more than half a billion people are calling for deeper integration, the governments of Poland and Hungary are pushing for less oversight from Brussels and more leeway to pursue agendas their fellow partners have decried as backsliding on democratic values.

Polish government spokesman Rafal Bochenek took a more measured approach after Tusk met premier Beata Szydlo in Warsaw, yet he still made clear which tack his country, the biggest of 11 former Communist states that have joined the EU since 2004, would take.

“We expect this summit to be a first impulse to change the EU,” Bochenek told reporters. “EU officials shouldn’t try to block these changes as a passive approach and lack of understanding of what people want led to Brexit.”

Illiberalism Rises

Tusk was due to fly onto Hungary to meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who told Poland’s biggest annual economic conference in Krynica last week the two nations were “heading down the right path” in questioning the role of Brussels following Britain’s Brexit referendum and pursuing patriotic economic agendas in the age of global capital flows.

“The rise of illiberalism in eastern Europe has political and security implications,” said Evghenia Sleptsova, an analyst at Oxford Economics. “It is incompatible with core EU values and creates conditions for greater policy gridlock within the EU and risks further contagion.”

Both Poland and Hungary, who are slated to receive a combined 98.4 billion euros ($110.5 billion) from the EU budget through 2020, are also seeking to shore up the bloc’s external borders to keep out migrants from the Middle East and North Africa after more than 1 million people arrived in 2015.

EU leaders can agree on a “clearer EU identity” in the field of defense, while security and protecting the EU’s external border will need to be discussed, according to Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski. Poland wants a change of direction on migration, a stance clearly at odds with Germany.

‘New Consensus’

The EU Commission risks “repeating, in an even more toxic dimension, all the mistakes that we saw last year,” Szymanski told reporters in Brussels Monday. “The consultations that we had with various countries show that many nations expect a new consensus and want to close the topic that brought many political tensions while failing to bring practical effects.”

Since Tusk’s Civic Platform party lost power in Poland’s elections last year, the country has tacked away from the EU mainstream. The government formed by the Law & Justice party, whose leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski is Tusk’s biggest political opponent, has passed legislation limiting the ability of the country’s Constitutional Tribunal to vet laws, triggering the EU’s first ever probe into rule of law in a member state. The European Parliament will debate the issue for a second time this year Tuesday as the Venice Commission, a European democracy watchdog, wraps up a fact-finding mission to Warsaw.

Orban has also been among the most vocal opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for migrants, linking foreigners to terrorism. Orban was the first EU leader to build a border fence to keep refugees out last year and has pledged to erect a second, “more massive line of defense” on its southern border.

Despite the acrimony, Hungary has always insisted on staying in the EU. Both it and Poland rely on EU subsidies for economic growth, as reflected by an unexpected drop in Hungary’s output in the first quarter after a plunge in funding from the bloc.

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