In November 2009, Herman Van Rompuy was selected to be the first full time President of the European Council, courtesy of the Lisbon Treaty. A rather odd choice, Van Rompuy had only been Prime Minister of Belgium for a year and unsurprisingly he had his critics, most notably Nigel Farage who said he had the ‘charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low grade bank clerk’. Nevertheless, he plodded along in the role without showing any real flair and managed to secure a second term expiring in November this year. On Saturday EU leaders chose his successor.
According to the media Donald Tusk had been a long touted favourite to succeed Herman Van Rompuy. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Tusk will come into the role with much more gravitas from being Poland’s first Prime Minister being re-elected since the fall of communism and from representing the so-called ‘leading’ country in Eastern Europe. His reluctance to accept the job also suggests something rather different to the approach taken by other senior EU officials, most notably Jean – Claude Juncker who seemed power mad to become President of the Commission (There is probably very little doubt that Van Rompuy too was very keen for his role so he could take benefit from the EU ‘gravy train’). A man not driven by greed, his salary in Poland was only 240,000 zloty a year (£47,500 or 60,000 euros), yet it was not the 300,000 euro salary that convinced him but rather his wife (and the possibility he that may be defeated in Poland’s general election next year.
Yet what is important for us is how Donald Tusk’s appointment would benefit Britain. I am not overly optimistic that Lord Hill, David Cameron’s rather odd choice to be Britain’s next commissioner, will get a key spot with the EU looking to fill the top spots with strong female candidates (as with the appointment of Frederica Mogherini as Baroness Ashton’s successor) and Hill himself being seen in Europe as a Eurosceptic. With a strained relationship with Jean-Claude Juncker he now has to focus on Mr Tusk.
As leader of Poland’s centre right Civic Platform Party and somebody who strongly believes free markets, privatisation and minimal government interference he is very much a true conservative and should be a natural ally. Of course with David Cameron’s rather messy and bizarre European policy, it is unlikely to be that straight forward.
When he is feeling in an anti-Europe mood, David Cameron many times criticised the EU freedom of movement rights which have helped many hardworking Poles settle in the UK since 2004. Their relationship has not always been great and to start David Cameron was against the appointment of Mr Tusk. This changed when David Cameron thought he might once again upset Germany, where Angela Merkel strongly supported Mr Tusk.
Since his appointment however, there has been some very good news for David Cameron. Mr Tusk has claimed that he cannot imagine Europe without Britain and it would be a ‘dark scenario’ if Britain left. There is no doubt that Mr Tusk does not want to be the person who loses Britain, a very similar situation that David Cameron is in over Scotland. Mr Tusk has promised to reform the free movement rights, which is rather surprising as the whole idea is one of the founding pillars of the EU and secondly that Poland itself has benefited from greatly.
For the many of us who see Britain’s future to still be within Europe, a possible ‘reformer’ (we will have to wait and see) at the head is very encouraging. Whether or not Mr Tusk can fight off the federalist ideas of Mr Juncker or if he can convince other EU leaders to support reform, he is at the time representing a promising future in Europe.
Many Conservative backbenchers will still be unconvinced. Nigel Fargae will no doubt attack him verbally just like he did to Herman Van Rompuy when he takes the position in November. The fact that Mr Van Rompuy praised Mr Tusk as a ‘European statesmen’ will do little to help win over sceptics, but the nevertheless David Cameron can be now be for a short time, pleased. Who knows, it may even lead to a more organised and successful European policy.