The President of the European Council and former Polish PM Donald Tusk has been elected unopposed as leader of the European People’s Party (EPP) at its Congress in Zagreb on Wednesday. Mr Tusk led the Polish centrist Civic Platform (PO) from 2003 to 2014.
Mr Tusk succeeds Joseph Daul the retiring leader of the EPP. The EPP is the largest European parliamentary grouping, an alliance of Christian Democratic and centrist parties from across Europe. The last three Presidents of the European Commission were all backed by the EPP.
EPP at a crossroads
Nevertheless, the party has lost seats in the EP over the course of the last two European elections. It has suffered at the bands of both the nationalist and conservative right as well as of the Euro-federalist liberals led by Guy Verhofstadt and boosted of late by Emmanuel Macron and his party.
The EPP is very much a party of the European establishment, sharing power with the Socialists and other centrists. It has up until now always taken a moderate course, highly supportive of European integration, but not to the extent of being supportive of Euro-federalism. It remains a broad church which once hosted the British Conservative Party and still hosts Viktor Orban’s FIDESZ.
Moving to the centre
Mr Tusk’s election is confirmation that the Christian Democrat roots of the movement are now a fading memory. Mr Tusk came into politics as a liberal, and has remained so. His party included Christian Democrats and even conservatives in its ranks, but it has been moving to the centre and beyond for some time.
In his acceptance speech in Zagreb Mr Tusk concentrated on setting out a course which would make security and community the key to a political revival for the EPP. But he said he would never sacrifice values such as the rule of law and freedom in pursuit of security. He saw no need for doing so.
A more popular approach needed
He promised to spice up the message of the EPP. He recalled his meeting with U2 lead singer Bono. The rock star had told him that there was a need for moderates to make their message more appealing so that it connected with emotions and feelings, rather than just reason.
Mr Tusk declared that after five years in the job of President of the European Council he’s had enough of being “the chief bureaucrat”. He now wanted to take on the populists by building a popular but responsible movement.
Mr Tusk will lead a broad church in the EPP. Here in Poland both the liberal Civic Platform (PO) and the centre-right mildly conservative Polish People’s Party (PSL) are both in the EPP.
His experience of dealing with conflicting interests inside the European Council should stand him in good stead. He will have to deal with the likes of Viktor Orban’s FIDESZ, the conservatives in the German CSU as well as the far more liberal member parties such as his own PO.
His instincts are liberal, even if that liberalism is couched with caution. In this respect he may find it easier dealing with liberals such as Guy Verhofstadt and Emmanuel Macron than with some parties inside the EPP tent.
It is not inconceivable that he may wish to unite the different strands of the pro-European integration liberals and centrists under one umbrella to take on the left and the conservative and nationalist right. It will not be an easy operation to manage, but one which makes political sense for those who think like him.
The new position gives him the chance to be visible in Poland and in Europe. He does not have power, but he does have influence. He seems in no mood to retire from active politics and we should expect to hear much more from him over the years to come.