WARSAW (Reuters) - The son of a carpenter, Donald Tusk came of political age in the cauldron of Poland’s “Solidarity” movement, which presaged the fall of communism a quarter of a century ago.
His appointment as president of the European Council, a long way from the shipyards of his native Gdansk on the Baltic Sea, heralds the rise of Poland to the top table of European policymaking, though critics have questioned his suitability to manage the multilingual art of the classic Brussels compromise.
Tusk becomes a symbol of the country’s transformation, and of the shifting balance of power in Europe. He himself spoke of the bloc harnessing the energy of “this ambitious and energetic region”, with its experience of dealing with Moscow.
“This would change Poland’s international standing spectacularly,” Pawel Swieboda, head of the Polish DemosEurope think-tank, said shortly before Tusk’s widely anticipated confirmation.
“To be honest, with the exception of John Paul II, no Polish man has ever assumed such high office.”
Tusk, 57, is a history graduate and avid soccer fan who has been prime minister since 2007.
On Dec. 1, he will take on the job of steering policy meetings of EU leaders, addressing crises from the war in Ukraine to the woes of euro zone economies and issues of immigration, intolerance and inequality affecting the EU’s 500 million citizens.
Responding to questions about his lack of French and limited English and how that would affect his ability to follow the polyglot Belgian Van Rompuy in brokering compromise in Europe, he promised to polish up his English by December. “Don’t worry,” he quipped in response to a question from a British newspaper.
He does, notably, speak good German.
Van Rompuy, for his part, praised Tusk as one of the continent’s longest-serving elected leaders and a man who had won the respect of his peers around the EU negotiating table.
Supporters say Tusk brings with him a reputation as a skilled mediator between the competing political camps and personalities within his conservative Civic Platform party, a talent that may stand him in good stead as he tries to marshal consensus among the 28 leaders of the EU member states.
Some critics also point to his strong consolidation of power within his party and recent hard line on Russia as bad omens.
“As head of his party, he eliminated all potential competitors and stymied intellectual debate, which is a warning sign for anyone wondering what he might be like in charge of the Council,” said political scientist Kazimierz Kik.
Kik said Tusk’s appointment was “illogical, from the viewpoint of the EU’s interests and international aspirations, as it would damage the EU’s relations with Russia even further”.
Though he did seek to build warmer relations with Moscow, and has been cautious about the damage to Poland’s economy from a trade war, the Ukraine crisis has seen Poland join other ex-communist eastern states in seeking firm action against Russia.
Tusk has managed to improve relations with Germany to a degree unprecedented in the two countries’ fraught modern history. German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to be an early supporter of his candidacy for the EU role, although Tusk at first was reported to have set his sights on winning an unprecedented third term in a general election next year.
In 1980, Tusk graduated as strikes gripped the Gdansk shipyards. He formed a student branch of the Solidarity pro-democracy labor movement that would sweep the country over the next decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The young Tusk spent seven years as a blue-collar worker, including a period spent painting chimneys - an experience credited with forging his commitment to the free market.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Tusk entered Poland’s first opposition-contested parliament, and has remained in politics ever since. Overlooked for the leadership of the Democratic Union party in 2001, he left to co-found the center-right Civic Platform.
He ran for president in 2005, but lost partly because of charges by his opponents that his grandfather had volunteered for the German army during World War Two. In fact, as a member of the Kashubian ethnic group like Tusk, he was drafted by the Nazi invaders, who saw the community as kin of the Germans.
Tusk eventually came to power in 2007 as prime minister, won a second term in 2011 and survived a scandal in June this year over leaked audio recordings that drew accusations that the rules governing the separation of powers between government and central bank had been breached.
His image as calm and rational has endeared him to many Poles, who have seen their economy grow to become the sixth biggest in the EU.
Critics, however, say he has failed to challenge the special economic privileges enjoyed by groups such as miners, farmers and teachers, and has sown the seeds of a future public finance crisis by not curbing welfare payments.
“Tusk is an incredibly straightforward man. People like him make friends easily,” said Janusz Lewandowski, a Polish member of the European Parliament and fellow veteran of the Gdansk Solidarity movement. “He feels at ease among European leaders.”
Poland and its peers among the 10 ex-communist central and eastern states that joined the EU a decade ago have long argued they should hold one of the top jobs in the bloc, and Tusk has spoken out against the danger of France and Germany monopolizing the political leadership of Europe.
His tougher line on Russia, however, may put him at odds with Berlin, Paris and Rome, which are worried about the cost to their economies and gas supplies if relations with Moscow deteriorate further over Ukraine.
Ironically, with no obvious successor at the helm of the Civic Platform, Tusk’s departure for Brussels may help condemn the party to second place in next year’s election, and bring a return to power for the conservative Law and Justice party.
Writing by Marcin Goclowski and Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Matt Robinson