In his first visit to Brussels since the parliamentary elections, Donald Tusk vowed to bring Poland back to the “European stage” and unlock over €35 billion in COVID-19 recovery funds.
“I am here (today) at the headquarters of the European Commission to speed up the process of returning back to the European stage. We are fully convinced that this is the will of Polish voters,” the Polish opposition leader said on Wednesday morning.
“The whole world has seen that democracy, the rule of law (and) freedom are back in fashion, and Poles contributed to it.”
Although the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) came first in the October 15 elections, Tusk’s Civic Platform (KO), together with two other opposition parties, won more than 54% of the votes and secured a majority of 248 seats in the 460-seat Sejm, the lower house of the Parliament.
Tusk, a former president of the European Council, is now widely tipped to become Poland’s next prime minister, a change of guard that Brussels hopes will greatly improve relations with Warsaw, which plunged to all-time lows during eight years of hard-right, Eurosceptic PiS-led governments.
The persistent strain led to public recriminations, blockages in collective decisions and multiple lawsuits before the European Court of Justice.
“I am really proud of my compatriots. They have proved that the anti-democratic and anti-European mood doesn’t have to be a trend, that it’s just seasonal turbulence, I hope,” Tusk said, standing next to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“We all have proved to ourselves, but also to the world, that if you believe in change, if you make an effort, it will pay off. And it did.”
Von der Leyen celebrated the “record turnout” of the Polish elections – over 74%, the highest level registered since the fall of communism – as proof that “Poles are strongly attached to democracy.”
Their meeting, which was informal due to Tusk’s standing as opposition leader rather than as prime minister, focused on Russia’s war on Ukraine, security and defence, competitiveness, the green transition and democratic values.
“I know that Donald Tusk and I will find a lot of common ground on all these issues,” von der Leyen said.
Another issue high on the agenda was the €35.4 billion of COVID-19 recovery funds that Poland has been trying to unlock for more than a year – to no avail.
The European Commission green-lighted the plan in June 2022 but has not yet released any money due to an ongoing dispute over the rule of law and judicial independence. Warsaw is required to fulfil a series of “milestones” as a condition to disburse the cash. The lack of progress indicates the Commission believes work so far has been insufficient.
Tusk wants to break the impasse and is willing to take “non-standard” measures, as he called them, to guarantee the money will soon flow into Polish coffers. Payments under the bloc’s €750-billion fund are made on a gradual basis and need to be completed before the end of 2027.
“The clock is ticking,” he said.