Tusk presents himself as defender of Polish constitution

The president of the European Council gave a lecture at Warsaw University on the anniversary of the Constitution of the May 3.

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In his address, Donald Tusk, a former Polish PM and currently the President of the European Council presented the arguments in Poland over adherence to the constitution as the defence of European values. He also appealed to Poles to learn the lessons of history around the Constitution of May 3.

Mr Tusk acknowledged that some criticise him for getting involved in domestic Polish politics when he holds EU office but he argued that it was “my duty to support those who unite rather than divide Europe”.

Lessons of history

He saw the Constitution of May 3 as an attempt to build a Poland that was a “home for all” who lived in it and one which “gave hope for unifying the country” and was a “step in the direction of freedom and the rule of law”. He believes that it marked the beginning of an understanding in Poland of the importance of a constitution.

Donald Tusk reminded listeners of the painful history of how that constitution came to be nullified and that this was done by those who “under the shield of sovereignty led to dependence on Russia”. He saw parallels in that to the actions of nationalists today. “It is so easy to pander to national sentiments while actually working against the national interest”, he said.

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The European dimension

Turning to the current situation he criticised the current Polish authorities. “We cannot celebrate the constitution once a year on May 3 only to then violate it every day.”. This was clearly an allusion to the rule of law dispute over the judicial reforms which have been implemented by the government. However, he did not list the violations or justify his view that the Polish constitution is being violated on a daily basis.

Mr Tusk linked the issue of the Polish constitution to European values. He said that “all constitutions create a framework for people of different views to live together” and that respect for minority rights was an essential European value.

He saw the EU as being there “to protect citizens against the wealthy and the powerful and to build a framework for dialogue”. Many might argue that this should be what the EU is about but that too often it ends up either interfering in the minutiae of domestic regulations or gives way to the interests of powerful corporations or member states.

He was afraid that the choice in Europe could become one between “hegemony and division”. The way to avoid that was to respect the EU’s constitutional norms. He welcomed the Polish President’s willingness to consider making EU membership a part of the Polish constitution but observed wryly that “writing the EU into the Polish constitution will only be meaningful if that constitution is observed.”

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Appeals for national unity

Mr Tusk went on to call for a national dialogue that moved away from seeing politics as a “fight to the death” and a return to politics as competition in which elections are not about whose country it is. He said that Poles need to stop thinking in terms of “us or them” and start thinking in terms of “ they and us” and, similarly not to think of freedom and security and individual and the community as opposites.

However, he still spoke of the current conflicts in Polish politics in terms of a struggle between good and evil and did not reflect in any way on his seven years as Prime Minister or on policies of the current administration which he could support, preferring, in the more usual partisan way, to attack the current government over its policies on the environment and education.

Mr Tusk keeping his options open over a return to Polish domestic politics

Donald Tusk is clearly keeping his options open on returning to Polish front-line politics at the end of this term of office in the EU. He has not ruled out running for President in 2020. His supporters have signalled that he will launch a national movement rather than a party on June 4, the 30th anniversary of the semi-free elections that led to the end of communist rule in 1989. It will not be a rival to the current opposition “European Coalition” but will be seen by many on all sides of the political spectrum as the beginnings of Mr Tusk building his own organisation for the Presidential election and as a pressure group for greater opposition unity for the parliamentary elections in the autumn.

However, it is not clear that such a move will be convincing to the electorate. According to a SW Research survey conducted for Polish daily “Rzeczpospolita”, only 34 percent of voters actually want Mr Tusk to return to Polish politics with 44 percent being against. This demonstrates that many do not remember his years as PM as the success that clearly he and his fans consider them to have been.