With a New Leader, Poland Prepares for a Course Change in Europe

Just hours after being sworn in, Poland’s new prime minister, Donald Tusk, left for a trip to Brussels on Wednesday to try to invigorate flagging European support for Ukraine and push for “full mobilization” against Russia’s military assault.

In a speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Tusk outlined an assertive Polish foreign policy anchored in close ties to the United States and the European Union, and “Poland’s full involvement with Ukraine in this cruel conflict with the Russian aggressor.”

“I am fed up with some European politicians from countries of the West who speak about being tired of the situation in Ukraine,” he said.

The return to power of Mr. Tusk, who had previously served as Poland’s prime minister before becoming a senior E.U. official in Brussels, ended eight years of rule by Law and Justice, a conservative nationalist party that has long been at odds with the European Union.

His approval as prime minister by the Polish parliament this week ushered in a potentially consequential change of direction by the biggest and most populous country on the European Union’s formerly communist eastern flank.

That could help counter the steady rise of Ukraine fatigue across much of Europe and rebuff efforts by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, to block further military and economic aid for Ukraine. Breaking ranks with his NATO allies, Mr. Orban, who relies on Russian energy supplies and has followed the Kremlin’s example of restricting independent media and the space for opposition politics, met with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in China in October.

Before losing power in Poland this week, Law and Justice officials had clashed repeatedly with the European bloc and, despite offering robust support to Ukraine during the first year of the war with Russia, the government led by the party presided over a sharp souring of relations with Kyiv ahead of Poland’s general election on Oct. 15.

Disputes over cheap Ukrainian grain and a blockade of the border by Polish truckers eroded previously strong Polish support for Ukraine. Fearful of losing votes to a far-right party opposed to helping Ukraine, the former prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, at one point even suggested that Poland would suspend arms deliveries. It did not.

“Poland will now finally have a serious foreign policy again instead of a supposed foreign policy that was all about domestic politics,” said Roman Kuzniar, a professor of strategic and international studies at the University of Warsaw and a former presidential adviser.

Mr. Tusk’s trip to Brussels for a summit with fellow leaders signaled his desire to repair strained relations with the European Union and unlock nearly $60 billion in funding frozen under Mr. Morawiecki’s government. It was also an assertion of Poland as a counterweight to countries pushing to curb aid to Ukraine — like Hungary, a close ideological ally of the previous Polish government in its battles with Brussels.

“There is no doubt that the Poland of Donald Tusk will be back at the center of European policy, not just a troublemaker,” Mr. Kuzniar said.

Mr. Tusk, a centrist, has close relations with many officials in Brussels from his time as president of the European Council, the bloc’s principal power center, from 2014 until 2019. The hope in Warsaw is that these will help unblock funds that were frozen under the previous Polish government because of disputes over the rule of law, minority rights and other issues.

Without naming them in his remarks in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Tusk took a thinly veiled swipe at Mr. Orban and the prime minister of neighboring Slovakia, Robert Fico. Both oppose helping Ukraine and want to keep it out of the European Union.

“I will not mention their name and the country names,” Mr. Tusk said, expressing hope that his visit to Brussels would “convince our traditional allies to take a clear stance in favor of freedom” and “in defense of Ukraine.”

Many European leaders share Mr. Orban’s skepticism about the wisdom of putting Ukraine on a fast track into the European Union, but nearly all support giving it a four-year financial and military aid package worth 70 billion euros, or almost $76 billion.

Hungary has been blocking that package, as well as Sweden’s admission to NATO, which has been delayed by foot-dragging by the Hungarian and Turkish parliaments on votes on the Nordic nation’s membership in the military alliance.

Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said divisions over Ukraine were part of a bigger struggle over the future of the European Union.

Mr. Tusk and Mr. Orban, he said, “stand on opposite sides of a battle over two visions of Europe” — a trading bloc focused entirely on economic relations or a “community of values” committed to the rule of law and democratic norms.

Mr. Orban, committed to building what he calls “illiberal democracy” and exporting that model to other countries, has resisted efforts by Brussels to enforce adherence to liberal values, comparing the European Union to the Soviet Union.

“Tusk is absolutely opposed to Orban’s vision but the question now is how determined he will be to stand up to him,” Mr. Buras said.

Mr. Kuzniar recalled that Mr. Orban and Mr. Tusk were once close, before an authoritarian shift by the Hungarian leader years ago, but said they were now bitterly estranged. “There is a deep ideological break,” he said, adding: “Why bother with Hungary, it is not a strategically important country?”

But Hungary, despite its small size and limited military power, has some clout as the standard-bearer of efforts by nationalist forces in a number of countries to reshape Europe, something that Mr. Orban has openly declared as his mission.

Dismissing the possibility that Hungary might follow Britain and leave the European Union or be forced out, Mr. Orban this week vowed to fight to remake Europe in Hungary’s image. “My plan is not to leave,” he said in Budapest, “but to take over Brussels.”

In his speech to Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Tusk pledged to defend what he described as “European political values of democracy, the rule of law, media independence and freedom of speech.” He added: “By some strange coincidence, politicians who attack the foundations of Western political civilization are also anti-Ukrainian.”