European leaders moved on Thursday to isolate Poland as prime minister Beata Szydlo insisted she would press ahead with her campaign to oust Donald Tusk, the country’s former premier, as head of the European Council.
Government leaders from across the EU lined up in support of Mr Tusk as they arrived for a Brussels summit at which they will press to give the European Council president a new 30-month mandate.
The reappointment was seen as a formality until Ms Szydlo’s administration, which has accused Mr Tusk of supporting an illegal attempt to overthrow the government in Warsaw, proposed a little-known Polish MEP for the post.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Szydlo’s conservative Law and Justice party, wants Mr Tusk removed following years of domestic political conflict with the liberal council president.
Speaking on Thursday François Hollande, French president, expressed frustration with the Polish stance. “I don’t understand how a country can oppose this solution when all the rest of us is favourable,” he said.
“And in the period we are living through — when Europe has to reaffirm its unity — and to be firm against a number of pressures . . . there is every reason to confirm the nomination of Donald Tusk.”
Earlier Angela Merkel signalled unequivocally that she expected Mr Tusk to stay in office. “I am looking forward to working with him in the future”, the German chancellor told the Bundestag just before setting off for Brussels.
Poland’s growing isolation was made clear when Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister and one of the few leaders on whom Ms Szydlo had been counting to back up her stance, said he also backed Mr Tusk.
“We support the candidate of the EPP,” said Mr Orban referring the group of centre-right parties of which Ms Merkel and Mr Tusk are leading members.
By contrast Ms Szydlo showed no sign of relenting and said Mr Tusk’s re-election against Warsaw’s will would undercut the bloc’s unity. “Today in this building it would be good to recall this main principle of community building. I will do that,” she said.
“Those who disregard this principle, do not build unity but disunity. For Poland it is obvious that principles are not to be traded and there is no agreement that the European Council president is appointed without the consent of the country he comes from.”
The EU normally chooses its leaders by consensus but the rules allow for a qualified majority vote. But there is also anxiety not to alienate Warsaw, a key partner despite recent tensions. The discussion on Mr Tusk’s future is set to begin at 4pm in Brussels.
Joseph Muscat, Maltese prime minister, has been running the appointment process as his country holds the rotating presidency of EU ministerial councils.
Given overwhelming support for Mr Tusk among EU leaders, diplomats say the matter could be settled within an hour. A German official also said that there was “an overwhelming majority” among the 28 EU member states to grant Mr Tusk a new two-year term.
Poland wants to have Mr Tusk replaced with Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish member of the European Parliament.
Warsaw has pressed for Mr Saryusz-Wolski to make a presentation to the EU leaders, even though Mr Muscat has ruled that out on the basis that the support of all member states is required for an invitation to the summit.
Poland is seeking the appointment to be postponed until Mr Tusk’s mandate concludes at the end of May. But diplomats from several member states said the top political priority was to settle the matter on Thursday.
They are keen to avoid creating a new problem for the bloc ahead of the Brexit negotiation and celebrations this month in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty.
“If there is no president of the European Council at the end of this meeting that could have some devastating consequences for the Rome summit politically,” a senior diplomat said.
Warsaw has also threatened not to sign off on the official summit communiqué to be made by the 28 leaders if Mr Tusk is chosen — a drastic manoeuvre that would be without precedent in the bloc.
Diplomats said the appointment would still go ahead in that event as it is a separate matter to the summit communiqué itself, which would include the leaders’ conclusions on topics such as economic growth, trade, the migration crisis and the situation in the western Balkans.
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