Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Polish PM Donald Tusk: New EU visionary?

The way the (pro-EU) Guardian portrays it, he might well be with his speech as Poland took over the rotating EU presidency* yesterday:

Assuming the rotating presidency of the EU for the first time, Donald Tusk rounded on the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Britain over their handling of the sovereign debt crisis in Greece, immigration, EU spending and the budget. He charged them with posing as European champions while pandering to a new form of Euroscepticism for personal political gain, and of using fears about immigration to curb freedom of travel in Europe.

The passionate and optimistic defence of the EU from the Polish leader was completely at odds with the mood in Brussels and other EU capitals, where commitment to the union is being eroded by the rise of populist Brussels-bashing, squabbling leaders, and soaring mistrust between member states. In defiance of the gloomy European zeitgeist, Tusk said: “The European Union is great. It is the best place on Earth to be born and to live your life.”

And you know what? Think about it for half a moment, you’ll see it’s more or less true. Yes – even the “best place on Earth” bit. Greater equality, freedom, cultural and historical variety, opportunity, social support, comfort and safety than pretty much anywhere.

This is very easy to forget amid all the current talk of crisis and default. But it remains the case that the member states of the European Union are pretty much all still more prosperous and have better qualities of life than at all but a very few points in history (and those very few points *all* came within the last decade, during the boom before the bust).

Hell, you couldn’t get a better illustration of this point than to note that yesterday, 1st July, the day Poland took over the presidency, was the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. One of the bloodiest battles of all time, leaving more than a million dead – with bones and artefacts still rising to the surface almost a century later – and a key reminder of the turmoil of Europe past.

1st July is also, nicely, the anniversary of the entirely peaceful, voluntary 1569 foundation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the largest, most diverse European state of the 16th-17th centuries – ruled by an elective monarchy held in check by a senate and elected parliament. Little-known in Western Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth deserves to be far more widely studied – not least because it arose at a time that the western half of the continent was submersed in a series of bloody religious conflicts that would last the best part of a century, while it was not only democratically progressive, but also religiously tolereant and ethnically diverse.

Poland has shown Europe the way in time of crisis before, in other words. But she has also frequently been a little ahead of her time. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s elective head of state and bicameral parliament, not to mention its religious tolerance, would not become the norm in Europe for another three centuries. And then there’s Solidarity – a movement Tusk was a part of (along with current European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek) – which is now regarded by many as the initial rumbling that helped set in motion the collapse of Soviet communism, kicked off several years before similar popular movements came to prominence in the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

Is this broad view of Tusk coming too soon for a European Union currently caught up in introspection and blame-throwing? Is his sense of historical perspective a little too visionary for an EU whose leaders have not only spent most of the last two decades tinkering with details, but who are also currently more concerned with short-term worries? And is the six months of the rotating presidency anywhere near long enough to start pushing through any serious reform?

Time will tell. But it is, at any rate, a welcome and refreshing change to hear what to me sounds like a rational optimism coming from someone with real influence in the EU after months of hand-wringing and *years* of stagnation.

Sod Tony Blair as an elected President of the EU – if he handles the next six months well, perhaps Donald Tusk could be our man?

Update: I’m starting to have strong hopes for the Polish presidency. Now this from Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski:

In more general terms, Rostowski argued, politicians have to “start thinking in terms of common European interest” and show solidarity – a mantra of the Polish EU presidency – amid signs of “growing estrangement” between northern and southern member states.

“The short-sightedness of some opposition parties in some countries regarding common institutions and programmes is breath-taking,” he said. “If we don’t hang together, we all hang separately.”

Update 2:Yet more good stuff from Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski:

it is not enough to be optimistic and positive. We also must be realistic. The EU does face painful decisions in the months and years to come. Poland will not accept that the answer lies in less solidarity, or “less integration”. That is the sure path to disintegration, leaving us all worse off – and with new divisions.

…Too many of Europe’s rules and regulations were designed for very different times.

…Europe will make a strategic mistake if it retreats into unhappy introspection.

…Thirty years ago the Gdansk ship-workers led the way and changed the world, as millions of Poles joined the Solidarity movement to insist on their basic democratic rights and freedoms. The Polish presidency wants to help the EU draw strength from the ambition and patient wisdom of that movement. Poland itself is an EU success story.

* Yes, this one still exists too. Branded as the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, as opposed to the Presidency of the European Council (Herman van Rompuy), Presidency of the European Parliament (Jerzy Buzek), or Presidency of the European Commission (José Manuel Barroso).