With a new leader, Poland is preparing for a change of direction in Europe

Just hours after being sworn in, Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, set off on a trip to Brussels on Wednesday to try to reinvigorate flagging European support for Ukraine and push for “full mobilization” against Russia’s military onslaught .

In a speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Tusk outlined an assertive Polish foreign policy, anchored in close ties with the United States and the European Union, and “Poland’s full involvement with Ukraine in this cruel conflict with the aggressor Russian”.

“I’m fed up with some European politicians from Western countries saying they are tired of the situation in Ukraine,” he said.

The return to power of Tusk, who had previously been Polish prime minister before becoming a top EU official in Brussels, ended eight years of rule by Law and Justice, a conservative nationalist party that has long been in conflict with the European Union. .

His approval as prime minister by the Polish parliament this week ushered in a potentially consequential change of direction by the largest and most populous country on the European Union’s former communist eastern flank.

That could help counter the steady rise of Ukrainian fatigue across much of Europe and fend off efforts by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to block further military and economic aid for Ukraine. Breaking ranks with his NATO allies, Orban, who relies on Russian energy supplies and has followed the Kremlin’s lead in limiting independent media and space for opposition politics, met with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in China in October.

Before losing power in Poland this week, Law and Justice officials had repeatedly clashed with the European bloc, and despite offering strong support to Ukraine during the first year of war with Russia, the party-led government resulted in a strong souring of relations. with Kiev ahead of the Polish general elections on 15 October.

Disputes over cheap Ukrainian grain and the border blockade by Polish truckers have eroded previously strong Polish support for Ukraine. Fearful of losing votes to a far-right party opposed to helping Ukraine, former Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at one point even suggested that Poland suspend arms deliveries. It was not so.

“Poland will finally have a serious foreign policy again instead of a supposed foreign policy all about domestic politics,” said Roman Kuzniar, a professor of strategic and international studies at the University of Warsaw and a former presidential adviser.

Tusk’s trip to Brussels for a summit with his fellow leaders signaled his desire to mend strained relations with the European Union and unlock nearly $60 billion in funding frozen under Morawiecki’s government. It was also an assertion by Poland as a counterweight to countries pushing to curb aid to Ukraine – such as Hungary, a close ideological ally of the previous Polish government in its battles with Brussels.

“There is no doubt that Donald Tusk’s Poland will return to the center of European politics and not just a troublemaker,” Kuzniar said.

Tusk, a centrist, has had close ties with many officials in Brussels since his tenure as president of the European Council, the bloc’s main power center, from 2014 to 2019. The hope in Warsaw is that they will help unlock funds that were been frozen. under the previous Polish government due to disputes over the rule of law, minority rights and other issues.

Without naming them in his speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Tusk aimed a veiled attack on Orban and the prime minister of neighboring Slovakia, Robert Fico. Both oppose aid to Ukraine and want to keep it out of the European Union.

“I will not mention their name and the names of the countries,” Tusk said, expressing hope that his visit to Brussels “will convince our traditional allies to take a clear position in favor of freedom” and “in defense of Ukraine”.

Many European leaders share Orban’s skepticism about putting Ukraine on a fast track in the European Union, but almost all favor a four-year financial and military aid package worth 70 billion euros, or nearly 76 billions of dollars.

Hungary blocked that package, as well as Sweden’s admission to NATO, which was delayed due to delays in the Hungarian and Turkish parliaments on votes on whether the Nordic nation would join the military alliance.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said divisions over Ukraine were part of a broader fight over the future of the European Union.

Tusk and Orban, he said, “find themselves on opposite sides of a battle over two visions of Europe” – a trading bloc focused entirely on economic relations or a “community of values” committed to the rule of law and democratic norms. .

Orban, committed to building what he calls “illiberal democracy” and exporting that model to other countries, has resisted Brussels’ efforts to impose adherence to liberal values, comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union.

“Tusk is absolutely against Orban’s vision, but the question now is how determined he will be to stand up to him,” Buras said.

Kuzniar recalled that Orban and Tusk were once closed, before an authoritarian change by the Hungarian leader years ago, but said they are now bitterly estranged. “There is a deep ideological split,” he said, adding: “Why worry about Hungary, it’s not a strategically important country?”

But Hungary, despite its small size and limited military power, carries some weight as a standard-bearer for the efforts of nationalist forces in a number of countries to reshape Europe, something Orban has openly declared as his mission .

Dismissing the possibility that Hungary could follow Britain and leave the European Union or be forced out, Orban this week vowed to fight to remake Europe in Hungary’s image. “My plan is not to leave,” he said in Budapest, “but to take control of Brussels.”

In his speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Tusk pledged to defend what he described as “the European political values ​​of democracy, the rule of law, independent media and freedom of speech.” He added: “By some strange coincidence, politicians who attack the foundations of Western political civilization are also anti-Ukrainian.”