Even out of office, Donald Tusk is making his voice heard. President of the European Council since 2014, he was reelected by a robust majority in 2017 over the protests of his own increasingly right wing government (which was promptly punished in the polls.)
With European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, he tirelessly represented the EU in the protracted negotiations with skill and good humor. A convinced European, Tusk is credited with maintaining solidarity among the member states, shaping what many predicted would pull the Union apart, to leave it instead, only stronger. The two-term rule meant stepping down in November 2019 – but not retiring from the political stage.
The Sunday morning after “Brexit Day”, Tusk was interviewed at length by BBC journalist Andrew Marr. A brave thing to do, you could say, particularly following a half hour of a gloating Nigel Farage.
Marr and Tusk
And Marr hardly gave him a free pass, pressing him first on his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron in May, 2015. Pre-Referendum, Cameron had wanted concessions from the EU on immigration and apparently came back from Brussels thinking, “This is not enough” to change public opinion in the U.K.
Should Tusk have offered more? Marr asked.
Tusk shrugged: “This was part of the illusion. It was clear from the beginning it was too much, based on our treaty obligations.” He paused, as if deciding how much to admit. “Frankly, we gave more than we were allowed to give.”
Marr tried again: But isn’t there something wrong with the EU, when so many people want to leave?
Tusk frowned. He looked pained. “I am 60 years old,” he said slowly, “old enough to remember this irresponsible, sometimes hostile narrative.” Perhaps he was thinking also of other times, other deceptions. “We became the bogey man of British politics; we became responsible for every failure…” He stopped, without adding “of your own.”
Candor and careful choices
Tusk is disarming in person, a mix of candor and careful choices, sincere but not sloppy, thoughtful but also thick skinned. He takes his time, using his second-language English as a buffer against hasty answers. “Sometimes I say too much,” he admitted.
Like his remark in 2019, that “There is a special place in Hell” for those who pushed Brexit without a plan. Did he mean Boris Johnson, Marr wondered.
Tusk smiled: “No, no. I should agree with the Polish pope, that Hell is still empty.”
Marr looked confused. So there’s nobody in Hell at all? Ever tactful, Tusk cushioned the misunderstanding. Yes, that too, but “it also means, there is space there for all of us.” He’s probably funnier in Polish – throwaway lines are fiendishly difficult in translation. Still, enough survives to get the point.
In Britain, the big news from the interview was Tusk’s unguarded enthusiasm for an application for EU membership from Scotland, should it opt for independence. Here, again, he hesitated, not wanting to be “too blunt.” But egged on by Marr, he happily went ahead.
“Emotionally, I have no doubt everyone would be enthusiastic here, in Brussels and more widely in Europe.” Of course, there were difficulties, rules, treaties; there would have to be a new process, a new application. Nothing is automatic. “But if you ask me about our emotions, there’s a genuine feeling. You will witness only, I think, empathy.”
As to Boris Johnson, Tusk admitted he had been angry about the poor preparation for post- Referendum Britain. But today, he said, “we are good friends,” with a shared goal “to preserve western civilization in a political sense.”
In the end, Tusk said, “we will not remember the wealth of our enemies; we will remember the silence of our friends. When I feel something is going wrong, I cannot be silent.”