Theresa May is facing a fresh European diplomatic headache after Poland’s foreign minister demanded British support for a Polish bid to oust Donald Tusk from his role as president of the European Council.
Mr Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, was due for a rubber-stamp re-election at the EU leaders’ summit on Thursday until Poland proposed a rival candidate in the shape of a virtually unknown MEP.
The Polish candidate, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, has virtually no support from other EU members states, including several of Poland’s Visegrad allies in eastern Europe, but Warsaw indicated it still wanted British support for the no-hope candidacy.
“Saryusz-Wolski will be better for Brexit negotiations”, Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister told The Telegraph in a text message, adding that the UK should “support him”.
The Polish attempt to unseat Mr Tusk at the eleventh hour presents Mrs May with nasty diplomatic dilemma only days before she fires the starting gun on the Brexit negotiations by triggering Article 50.
Mrs May will travel to Brussels on Thursday for the first day of a two-day EU Summit where Mr Tusk’s re-election will be decided.
The Polish insistence that Mrs May back their candidate now forces Mrs May to choose between alienating the other 26 EU member states by backing the EU’s most recalcitrant member state, or upsetting Poland, the country seen as Britain’s foremost Brexit ally.
“It’s a lose-lose situation for Britain,” said a senior EU diplomat, “either Mrs May alienates almost all the other member states or she upsets the Poles, who she’s spent months and months cultivating. She just can’t win.”
As deliberations continued on Tuesday, Germany - another key player for Mrs May in the Brexit talks - made its position clear, with the deputy foreign minister Michael Roth saying that Mr Tusk enjoyed widespread confidence.
"That is a clear signal that those who currently still have problems with the reappointment of Donald Tusk as Council president should understand,” he said.
But Mr Waszczykowski’s comments suggest that Poland will take a dim view of British plans to duck the controversy by, as one UK diplomatic source put it, “keeping our heads down and staying in the middle of the pack”.
W nowym 2017 roku - Ojczyznę wolną od zła i głupoty, Panie.— Donald Tusk (@donaldtusk) December 31, 2016
That may be difficult given the strength of feeling in Poland. Back in January Mr Waszczykowski dismissed Mr Tusk as an "icon of evil and stupidity" after Mr Tusk sent out a New Year's Eve tweet wishing his followers on Twitter a “fatherland free of evil and stupidity” - an apparent reference to the current Polish government.
Since the Brexit vote last June Downing Street has mounted an all-out charm offensive towards Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party, inviting its prime minister Beata Szydło to visit the UK last November.
In a clear sign of British determination to curry favour, Mrs May even travelled to RAF Northolt to greet the Polish leader personally on arrival.
The red-carpet treatment has been matched with serious behind-the-scenes diplomatic outreach, including the formation of a new annual Anglo-Polish dialogue, the deployment of 150 troops to Poland to deter Russian aggression and a host of new business initiatives.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are also to make a stop in Poland on their forthcoming "Brexit tour" to Europe in July at the request of Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary.
Mrs May has also moved to reassure Poland over the status of its 800,000 expats living in Britain after David Cameron infuriated Warsaw by singling out Polish immigrants in a BBC interview where he discussed the UK’s problem with excessive numbers of EU workers.
Despite differences over the free movement of people, Poland and the UK are ideologically aligned over the future of Europe, agreeing on the need to return power to national capitals in the face of more federalist ambitions among core EU powers.
Poland’s quixotic decision to challenge Mr Tusk’s re-election reflects bad blood between the country’s ruling Law and Justice party and the European Commission which has expressed concerns that the new Polish government is undemocratic.
Poland, which has a large coal industry, is also fighting Europe over the imposition of new climate change targets.
The Polish gambit also reflects a bitter political feud between Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Law and Justice and Mr Tusk who was prime minister when Poland’s late president - Mr Kaczynski’s twin brother, Lech - was killed in plane crash in 2010.
To yet further complicate matters, Law and Justice sits in the same European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political grouping in the European Parliament as the Tories, further raising Polish expectations that Mrs May should support Mr Kaczynski’s favoured candidate.
Charles Tannock, a pro-EU Tory MEP who tweeted personal his support for Mr Saryusz-Wolski, said it was “natural” that parties from the same political grouping would expect solidarity on such an issue.
“Law and Justice would naturally expect the Conservative party to close ranks and support their candidate, but the British government has often failed to appreciate the power of these EU transnational political groups,” he said.
“It’s a dilemma for Boris and the PM. I wish them good luck.”