Tusk Scolds Poland as East-West Tension Erupts in Brexit’s Wake

  • Tusk visits Warsaw, heads to Budapest before Bratislava summit
  • EU president tells Szydlo to stop attacking, questioning bloc

European Union President Donald Tusk lashed out at his Polish compatriots, telling them to stop attacking the bloc as a spat between Luxembourg and Hungary underlined the east-west tension he’s struggling to defuse ahead of this week’s summit of European leaders.

In untypically blunt remarks, Tusk told reporters after meeting Prime Minister Beata Szydlo in Warsaw that the informal EU summit in Bratislava on Friday was sure to see “ideas and emotions.” Europe is “less stable” after the U.K.’s vote to leave the 27-nation alliance, he said, as leaders prepare to chart a road map for a future without its second-biggest economy.

“I encouraged Beata Szydlo’s government to treat Europe as something that’s worth taking care of, not attack and question,” said Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister until 2014. “It’s important that Poland doesn’t join those who want to rock the EU boat. We need an EU that is stable, strong and as united as possible.”

Lion’s Den

Tusk’s comments, made as he entered the lion’s den with a visit to Warsaw and a later trip to Budapest to meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, underscore public divisions ahead of the Bratislava summit. While some western nations of the 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 made clear which tack his country, the biggest of 11 former Communist states that have joined the EU since 2004, would take at the meeting.

“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.”

Sparks also flew between Budapest and Luxembourg, whose 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, according to an interview with German newspaper Die Welt published Tuesday.


Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Hungary was “protecting Europe” with its migration policy and dismissed Asselborn as an “airhead.”

“It shows that he lives only a few kilometers from Brussels -- he’s patronizing, arrogant and frustrated,” Szijjarto told the MTI state news service. “As a proper nihilist, he is restlessly working to destroy Europe’s culture and security.”

Other countries joined the argument. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said it wasn’t his “personal position to throw an EU state out the door,” while European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said it’s “essential” that leaders take joint action on defense and migration if they want to regain support of voters in the EU.

“Deepening the divide and shouting about excluding certain members are nonsense,” Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said. “Europe must cooperate and remain united.”

Tusk was due to fly onto Hungary to meet 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. Both countries rely on EU subsidies -- they’re slated to receive a combined 98.4 billion euros ($110.5 billion) from the EU budget through 2020 -- for economic growth, and they have always insisted they plan to remain members.


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 Constitutional Tribunal’s ability to vet laws, triggering the EU’s first probe into rule of law in a member state. The European Parliament will debate the issue for a second time this year Tuesday.

“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.”

Orban, meanwhile, has also been among the most vocal opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees, linking migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to terrorism after more than 1 million arrived in 2015. He 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.

Poland shares similar views. The EU Commission risks “repeating, in an even more toxic dimension, all the mistakes that we saw last year,” Polish EU Affairs Minister Konrad Szymanski told reporters in Brussels Monday. He said leaders need to discuss protecting the bloc’s borders and can agree on a “clearer EU identity” in the field of defense.

“Many nations expect a new consensus,” he said.

— With assistance by Gabriella Lovas, Sheenagh Matthews, Ladka Mortkowitz Bauerova, Ewa Krukowska, and Edith Balazs

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