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Tusk grills the steps and breaks European unity (update)

Donald forgot to use the phone to call Athens (credit: European Council)
Did Donald Tusk forget to call Athens? (credit: European Council)

(BRUSSELS2) The President of the European Council, the Pole Donald Tusk, has decided to take matters into his own hands on the “Russia” file. This won't surprise anyone... And it was expected.

The stick against Russia is in the European Council

From the first day of his taking office, on December 1, the former Polish Prime Minister took his phone to call Barack Obama, and made it known loudly, not only to affirm Europe's privileged link with the United States but also to remind that Brussels and Washington would continue to work hand in hand both on sanctions against Russia and in financial support for Ukraine and to put pressure on Moscow so that the Russians withdraw from eastern Ukraine (1). A very clear message to indicate that if the High Representative of the EU was there to lead European diplomacy, the cudgel vis-à-vis Russia was in the Council. After all, a healthy distribution of roles between the “nice woman” and the “bad boy” is quite classic in international relations.

A hiccup between Donald and Federica…

The announcement of a possible turnaround in the situation with Russia, which began at the end of December, however, disturbs Donald Tusk who believes that Russia is playing a double game. The torpedoing of the “paper” of High Representative Federica Mogherini, with a well-organized leak to the Wall Street Journal, is not entirely foreign to him. But, above all, he begins with a public blow the relations between the two institutions with a press release published “in the name of the Heads of State and Government”, taking somewhat the opposite view of the position which has just been defined by the High Representative. He calls on foreign ministers to take appropriate measures (Nb: sanctions) vis-à-vis Russia. This is called giving an “order” to ministers and aims to put additional pressure on European diplomacy. This – as I detail in the Club — had rather planned to proceed in two stages: assessment and mandate, then decision on the sanctions either at the European Council of February 12, or by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs meeting on February 9.

And a boomerang return for Tusk disowned by Tsipras…

In his haste to move as quickly as possible on the path to sanctions, Donald Tusk, however, made an unforgivable blunder. He forgot to ensure that the new Greek government shared the views of the old one (*). He was severely called to order by the new head of government, Alexis Tsipras. The new government led by Syriza underlines, in a press release – detailed by EU Observe - that this " statement is released without the prescribed procedure to obtain consent by Member States and especially without obtaining consent of Greece. (…) In this context, Greece does not give its consent ». A severe tackle on Donald Tusk. Comment: Instead of showing their unity, Europeans appear all the more divided as the discussion between ministers was intended precisely to allow options to be tested.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(*) A footnote or nothing!

According to information collected by B2, the European declaration was ready Monday morning, in liaison with the Sherpas in all the capitals. None expressed disagreement (including some of the most reluctant like Hungary or Slovakia or Austria). The “Samaras” government was still at work in Athens. To ensure the consent of the new “Tsipras” government, the declaration is then sent to the advisor of the new Greek Prime Minister. No response comes. “ According to the “silence procedure”, usual in this case, the declaration is deemed adopted. There was urgency », pleads those around Tusk. Hence the “ surprise related » from the team of the President of the European Council when the new Greek government reacts by indicating its disagreement. An arrangement is then proposed in the form of a footnote indicating that Greece did not share the views of this declaration. Athens does not follow up on this unusual arrangement proposal, to say the least. On the other hand, a telephone conversation took place on Tuesday noon between the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, and Alexis Tsipras.

Objective to corner Tsipras… and Mogherini.

The shift in Greek foreign policy was predictable and announced. Donald Tusk's apparent surprise seems rather feigned to me. And we should rather see in this attitude of the President of the European Council the desire to put Athens against the wall, publicly, before other deadlines that are much more important for Greece (at the economic level). A sort of give and take (economic support versus support for Russian sanctions). In this game of three-cushion billiards, where Angela Merkel's face must not be too far away, it is also a question for Tusk of marking its territory in relation to the High Representative of the EU, Fed. Mogherini, and to push foreign ministers – generally more reluctant than heads of state to sanctions – to act faster and stronger.

A dangerous path and a blank check in Moscow

This technique of “cornerization” is undoubtedly a skillful process, and commonly practiced on an interior stage. But it can prove difficult to handle at the European level, especially from a president of the Council of Heads of State and Government who has only weak influence over national policies. Herman Van Rompuy understood the need to be discreet, very discreet (probably too discreet). Donald Tusk plays the opposite route, at least on Russia (because on other subjects, he is rather absent). A dangerous path, both externally and internally. It opens, in fact, the way to a differentiated attitude towards Russia... into which other European countries could rush. By exposing European divisions to the public eye, he is in fact encouraging Moscow to continue the offensive. Putin's Russia doesn't really need any encouragement anyway. Tusk is also open to criticism by putting his differences with other European officials on the public stage. It’s reckless and it’s a shame…

NB: If the asterisk “technique” – well known to diplomats because it allows a compromise to be saved – has been practiced in the past at the level of the European Council; it was almost always at the time of adoption of a European Council document. But after the publication of a press release from the Council, this is extremely rare.


(1) We shared our concerns over the crisis in Ukraine and agreed on how important it is for Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, to stop supplying troops and equipment, to allow effective control of the border and to allow the OSCE to carry out its assignment. All hostages should be released. The European Union and the United States continue working together closely, including on sanctions as well as on financial support to Ukraine. We agreed to stay united and to keep a steady course

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).