The long shadow of the populists: Donald Tusk’s first 100 days

It is easier to defeat populists than to unravel the system they have built

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk walks out of the West Wing for a press conference at the White House on March 12, 2024 in Washington, D.C. Prime Minister Tusk and Polish President Andrzej Duda met with US President Joe Biden at the White House today. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Sipa USA)
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk walks out of the West Wing for a press conference at the White House on March 12, 2024 in Washington, D.C
Image by picture alliance / Sipa USA | Sipa USA
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“The main threat to Europe is populism”, a top-level Polish politician told me recently when we discussed the upcoming European Parliament election and the future of Poland’s policy towards the European Union. In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine and concerns about its possible spillover to Europe, focusing on populism might seem out of touch with reality. But in Poland, after eight years of the rule of the illiberal and anti-European Law and Justice party, it is not. Like his colleagues in the new ruling “October 15 coalition” – named after the date of the election – led by prime minister Donald Tusk, my interlocutor has experienced the virulent symptoms of the populist disease and how difficult it is to cure.

One hundred days have passed since the Tusk government took office and set out to overcome its predecessor’s legacy. But despite the impressive electoral success of the liberal and pro-European forces last autumn, the legacy of the populist era will continue to constrain their policy changes on both the domestic and European level.

Tusk’s key success is unquestionable: his government has unblocked €57 billion from the EU’s post-covid-19 recovery and resilience fund, which the European Commission had previously withheld for more than two years due to the Law and Justice government’s violations of the EU’s rule of law standards. Brussels decided to release the funds in February, recognising the efforts by the October 15 coalition to reinstate judicial independence, respect EU law, and restore observance of the Polish constitution. The government has put an end to politically motivated disciplinary proceedings against judges and put forward new legislation to bring the judicial system back in line with EU law. It has declared that verdicts of the Court of Justice of the EU will be fully respected (the previous government had refused to implement those related to the rule of law). Poland has also joined the European Public Prosecutor’s Office in a sign of readiness to cooperate with EU institutions to fight corruption and the misuse of EU funds. However, as remarkable as these efforts are, President Andrzej Duda – a Law and Justice party loyalist – will almost certainly use his veto against any attempts to implement them through legislative changes throughout the remainder of his term, which runs until August 2025.

After eight years of Law and Justice rule, the Polish political system is reminiscent of a Gordian knot. Key institutions such as the Constitutional Court, Media Council, National Council of the Judiciary, and the Supreme Court are no longer independent – packed with Law and Justice loyalists – and based on unconstitutional legal foundations. Respecting this status quo would be politically absurd for a government that was elected to change it. But passing reforms through formal procedures is both a tedious and very often impossible task.

After eight years of Law and Justice rule, the Polish political system is reminiscent of a Gordian knot

Overcoming illiberalism requires Tusk to square the circle: restoring the rule of law is hardly possible without taking measures at which legal purists would scoff. Be it changes to the public media, the judiciary, or the Constitutional Court, the new government is testing the thin differences between ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’, carefully navigating the high seas of systemic change without yielding the full power to implement it. With legislative changes near impossible, it often has to rely on parliamentary declarations or ministerial orders to form the legal basis to move things forward. Take the liberalisation of the anti-abortion law – one of the government’s key promises, which likely mobilised large numbers of women and young voters to support the October 15 coalition. The health minister has issued a ministerial order about how to interpret the existing, highly restrictive legal provisions to allow abortions to be performed under certain circumstances. Any further liberalisation would be blocked by the president.

Tusk’s government has been praised for bringing Poland back to the EU’s mainstream. Indeed, recent meetings in the Weimar format revealed a striking feature of the new era: once a junior partner in the trio with France and Germany, Warsaw has now positioned itself as an intermediary between Paris and Berlin, which struggle to find common language on some of the most burning issues in the EU. For example, after weeks disagreement between France and Germany following Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about sending NATO soldiers to Ukraine, a trilateral meeting between Macron, Olaf Scholz, and Tusk in Berlin sent a signal of unity between the EU’s main powers regarding enduring support for Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Poland – in the past an orthodox transatlanticist country, which was highly sceptical about defence cooperation in the EU – has come out in support of more central funding and common production to ramp up European defence capabilities. However, it would be a mistake to qualify this change as a federalist turn or Poland as an avant-garde of deeper EU integration. Tusk is a Eurorealist, willing to work on solutions to EU problems (instead of instrumentalising them for domestic policy purposes) but risk-averse when it comes to EU-level initiatives. Tusk’s more constructive approach does not involve a fundamental redefinition of Poland’s national interests. He has not abandoned the previous government’s opposition to the migration pact, wants to protect the interests of Polish farmers above the trade liberalisation with Ukraine, rejects the extension of qualified majority voting in the EU as well as Franco-German proposals for EU reform, and is critical about the European Green Deal.

The fact that Tusk is not a European visionary – he resembles Merkel more than Macron – is nothing new. But his cautious approach to Poland’s EU policy ambitions is also a reflection of the difficult domestic political context. The Law and Justice party’s years-long anti-European and sovereigntist propaganda has left its imprint on the society. Poles support their country’s EU membership but have grown more critical about the EU’s goals and the benefits of integration. Both opposition parties – the Law and Justice party and the far-right Confederation – are Eurosceptic and anti-EU. According to a new poll by More in Common, the majorities of their voters believe that Poland would fare better outside the EU. Poland will mark the 20th anniversary of its EU membership on 1 May, but the mood is not celebratory with regards to Europe.

After 100 days in power, the liberals’ feeling of strength is tainted by a sense of fragility. The More in Common poll shows that the society’s general optimism about the future has risen significantly since spring 2023. But Poles are still divided in their assessment of the government’s work, with 45 per cent holding a positive opinion about the government’s record so far and 41 per cent a negative one. The legitimacy of the liberal restoration will ultimately depend not on the adopted procedures but on its tangible results; whether the new system will be able to deliver on public expectations regarding the independence of public media, efficiency of the judicial system, influence in Brussels, security, and sense of togetherness in the society. In October, Tusk proved that it was possible to turn the populists’ tide. He still has to escape their long shadow.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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