25 Years After the Fall of the Iron Curtain, a Changing Face of Europe

On December 1, Herman Van Rompuy stepped down as European Council President, the post that oversees meetings of the 28 EU leaders. In the past, that role was held on a rotating basis, but it became permanent under the Lisbon Treaty of 2007. Mr. Van Rompuy was the first person to hold the job, and most analysts agree that he has set the bar high.

He will be replaced by Donald Tusk, a center-right former Polish Prime Minister who spent seven years profoundly shaping the political landscape in his country. In EU circles, there is some concern that Mr. Tusk may lack the coalition-building skills that enabled his predecessor to be reasonably successful in working with 28 leaders who tend to be deeply divided on many issues. The fear is that Mr. Tusk, who is accustomed to a more hierarchical model of governance, may find it difficult to build coalitions among Europe’s leaders.

The very fact that a political leader from the former ‘East’ has been elevated to one of the top jobs in Europe reveals just how much the continent has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This, of course, is a serious concern, and it remains to be seen how Donald Tusk will adapt to his new job. But any questions one might have about his leadership style should not overshadow the deep political significance of this transition. The EU is evolving, and Tusk’s appointment marks a significant shift in what might be called the ‘balance of power’ in Europe. Importantly, he is the first leader from Central/Eastern Europe to hold a top EU job. In recent years, he has been one of the most prominent European politicians, has worked hard to forge a strong alliance with Germany, and has apparently become the mediator among Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Matteo Renzi, David Cameron and other European leaders.

Tusk has been an outspoken critic of Russia since the Ukraine crisis erupted, and Poland more broadly has led the hawks in Europe on being tough with President Putin. In his new job, he may need to soften his stance—particularly if countries like France, Germany or Italy are unwilling to be quite as hawkish as he may wish the EU to be. Nevertheless, his appointment will almost inevitably be interpreted in Moscow as a sign that the EU is not in a compromising mood over Ukraine.

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Russia and the crisis in Ukraine will not be Tusk’s only challenge. The worst of the eurozone crisis may be behind us, but unemployment remains alarmingly high and pre-crisis rates of economic growth remain a dream in many parts of Europe. In this context, Tusk’s track record is promising: from 2007‑14, as Polish Prime Minister he oversaw strong growth in a continent plagued by recession. And with growing mistrust in the EU, European leaders and bureaucrats must be hoping that a politician not associated with the traditional power bases of France, Germany and the richer north will help bridge some divides.

As he assumes his new role, Tusk will be operating in an environment marked by transformations that few could have anticipated when the Cold War ended. The economies of several Central/East European countries are growing faster than many of the ‘old’ EU economies. Compare, for instance, the GDP growth rate of Latvia (4.1%), Romania (3.5%) or Poland (1.6%) to that of Spain (-1.2%), the Netherlands (-0.8%) or France (0.2%). And in the context of Moscow’s growing assertiveness, some Central/East European countries are also playing increasingly prominent roles in the field of Euro-Atlantic security. It is revealing that NATO’s next summit will be hosted by Poland in 2016—an acknowledgement of the successful transformation of Poland and several other ex-communist states over the past quarter century.

This is not to say that the Central and East Europeans can rest on their laurels. On the contrary, many of those states are still facing serious challenges ranging from persisting corruption to environmental and social problems, not to mention the resurgence of nationalist ideas and political parties. But it is undeniable that their role in Europe has changed beyond recognition since 1989.


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Meanwhile, new and difficult questions are emerging regarding the role of some ‘old’ EU members. Above all, there is a serious question mark over the future of the UK in Europe. Given the rise in euro-skepticism in Britain—and linked to that, the growing popularity of the anti-EU UK Independence Party—a British exit from the EU cannot be ruled out. Clearly, this would be an event of seismic importance in Europe. Tusk has publicly stated that “No reasonable person can imagine the EU without the UK.” His faith in the possibility of reaching a compromise that would keep Britain in the Union may be tested soon. Indeed, he will be expected to play a leading role in negotiations with Prime Minister David Cameron (if he remains in power after the next UK elections), on a so-called ‘new deal’ redefining the terms of British membership.

What impact Tusk will have on the future evolution of the European Union is unclear. Inevitably, the President of the European Council cannot go very far without the support of EU state leaders. But the agenda-setting and mediation powers that come with the job also enable him to shape Europe’s direction, at least to a certain degree. The way in which he uses those powers will be watched closely both in Europe and abroad—including in the US and Canada, which have strong economic, cultural and security ties to the EU.

The responsibility falling on Donald Tusk’s shoulders is not going to be light. But the very fact that a political leader from the former ‘East’ has been elevated to one of the top jobs in Europe reveals just how much the continent has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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