'Hooligan' Tusk faces new EU fight

Danny KEMP
'Hooligan' Tusk faces new EU fight

Once a self-confessed football "hooligan", Poland's Donald Tusk now faces a fight with his own country to remain European Council president.

The 59-year-old former Polish premier took the top Brussels job in 2014, symbolising the former Soviet-ruled east's rise to the heart of the new Europe.

A native of the port city of Gdansk where the Solidarity anti-communist trade union was born, he had to learn English from scratch when he took up the EU post.

His learning curve in the job was equally steep but he has gradually won the approval of EU leaders for his handling of crises ranging from migration to Greece to Britain's vote to leave the EU.

Tusk's job if he wins a second term as head of the European Council, which brings together the EU leaders, will be to maintain unity as they prepare for tough Brexit negotiations.

But ironically his own candidacy is proving a fresh cause for disunity, as Poland's right-wing government desperately tries to block him.

The fact that his bitter enmity with Poland's ruling Law and Justice party during his seven years as premier is now spilling onto the international stage has alarmed EU leaders.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and Europe's most powerful leader, said it would be a "sign of stability" if he is re-elected at a summit on Thursday.

- 'Only salt and vinegar' -

With his direct manner and piercing blue eyes, Tusk was a contrast to his haiku-writing, consensus-building Belgian predecessor Herman Van Rompuy when he took office two and a half years ago.

But he initially seemed unwilling to get his hands dirty.

"In the first year you could realise how difficult it was for him. He did not really want to get involved in the Greek crisis," analyst Janis Emmanouilidis told AFP.

"But eventually he had to take things in his hands. At the Euro summit in July 2015 he forced all sides to find a compromise and participated to prevent the worst."

Since then, Tusk has won a reputation for plain speaking with a penchant for colourful and sometimes apocalyptic warnings about the existential crisis that Europe faces.

Of Brexit he warned for example that "there will be no cakes on the table for anyone, there will be only salt and vinegar."

He has since taken a tough stance on Russia in particular, and also on migration, arguing for tougher control of the EU's borders.

"In the refugee crisis he supported very fast the security faction and not the solidarity camp led by Chancellor Merkel. That annoyed Merkel," Emmanouilidis said.

"But in the end Tusk backed the right horse, because Merkel had to recalibrate her policy."

- 'Cruising for a bruising' -

Tusk's roots as a fighter go back to his upbringing in Gdansk on the Baltic Sea.

"As a child, as a young man, I was a typical hooligan... We would roam the streets, you know, cruising for a bruising" after fights or football matches, he told the Financial Times in 2014.

Football has continued to be an obsession, with Tusk able to recite football results from major tournaments held decades ago off the top of his head.

Gdansk later became the cradle of the Solidarity movement and it was here that Tusk forged his credentials as something of a Cold War warrior.

First a trade unionist and journalist and historian, he became involved in liberal politics.

He took power in 2007 from the ultra-conservative Kaczynski twins until he left for Brussels.

He is married to historian Malgorzata Tusk and has two adult children, one of whom is a well-known fashion blogger in Poland.

But Tusk remains a hate figure for the Law and Justice party that the Kaczynskis founded, and from which Prime Minister Beata Szydlo hails.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains a bitter enemy, accusing Tusk of having "moral responsibility" for the death of his brother Lech, the then-president, in an air crash in Russia in 2010.