Donald Tusk, new face from the east to lead Europe

Jean-Luc Bardet
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Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk poses after being named new EU Council president during a European Union summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on August 30, 2014

Poland's Donald Tusk takes over as European Council president Monday, the first person from the former Soviet-dominated east to take a top Brussels role, with a mandate to revive the economy and deal with a resurgent Russia.

With his direct manner and piercing blue eyes, the 57-year-old former prime minister promises a contrast with Herman Van Rompuy, the outgoing council chief and the first person to hold the post.

Former Belgian premier Van Rompuy was a conciliatory figure during his five years at the head of the council of all 28 EU leaders, known for writing Japanese haiku poems and once described as having the "charisma of a damp rag".

But Tusk will be a different proposition, with his roots in Poland's anti-communist Solidarity trade union, at a time when the European Union faces a mounting challenge from Russia over Ukraine.

"He speaks for himself, and often says exactly what he thinks," a European diplomat told AFP.

Tusk completes the EU's new top trio for the next five years, alongside Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the union's executive branch the European Commission, and foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.

- 'Different perspective' -

The choice of Tusk for a strategic job that involves coordinating the EU's heads of government and representing the bloc abroad underscores the rise of the former Warsaw Pact countries 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 10 years after they joined the union.

"I come to Brussels from a country that deeply believes in the significance of Europe," Tusk said after he was named on August 30.

"His perspective is very different from the West Europeans," said Agnieszka Lada from the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw.

"He will seek more comprehension for what the Balts, the Polish, the Czechs or the Hungarians are thinking."

After years dominated by the euro's debt crisis, Tusk will also direct the EU towards a "stronger role in foreign policy", a European source said.

The first challenge will be the crisis in Ukraine -- a subject on which Poland has always had strong views -- with NATO foreign ministers set to discuss the issue in Brussels on Tuesday.

"Ukraine will not be easy for him," said Lada. "But he understands that you have to negotiate with Russia."

Janis Emmanouilidis of the European Policy Centre in Brussels agreed.

"Tusk is a pragmatist. If he sees the possibility and necessity to negotiate with Russia he definitely will do that."

As a protege of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Tusk has also made it a priority to revive the economy after years of crisis.

Juncker unveiled a 315-billion-euro ($380 billion) investment plan on Wednesday with an appeal to EU states to contribute, starting with Germany, and at the first European summit Tusk leads on December 18, he is set to call for the plan to be launched as soon as possible.

Together with Juncker he will also try to keep Britain from leaving the EU, a possibility British Prime Minister David Cameron again raised as he unveiled migrant welfare reforms on Friday.

- 'Polish my English' -

Born on April 22, 1957 in Gdansk, the Polish port city that gave birth to the Solidarity movement, Tusk is a dedicated liberal.

The football-mad historian took power in 2007 from the ultra-conservative Kaczynski twins, and his seven years as premier made him a veteran of European Council meetings by the time he was appointed its leader.

"He has a long experience in the Council, he knows by experience how his peers interact," said Emmanouilidis.

But Tusk "has to learn to negotiate on the European level", added Lada, the Warsaw analyst, saying he was more used to being the "strong man" of domestic politics.

To understand Brussels, he can count on his cabinet chief Piotr Serafin, the former Polish minister of European Affairs, she said.

Meanwhile Tusk has, since August, apparently mastered what was widely seen as his weakness -- his shaky command of English.

On his appointment he joked that he would "polish" his English and three months later it is fine, his entourage says. He already speaks German and has also been learning French, the other working language of the EU.