March 5, 2017 / 5:01 PM / 9 months ago

Poland pushes quest to unseat Tusk from top EU post

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A push by Poland’s eurosceptic government to remove fellow-countryman Donald Tusk from one of the top jobs in the European Union seemed to be gaining little traction as the bloc’s foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday.

European Council President Donald Tusk looks at Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan after a meeting in Brussels, Belgium February 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Tusk’s first term expires this May and he enjoys the comfortable backing of most EU states to be reappointed for another 2-1/2 years as president of the European Council, responsible for chairing summits of EU leaders.

But Poland, where the head of the ruling party is Tusk’s arch-foe, wants to oust Tusk from the influential post and replace him with another Pole, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski.

Many in Brussels dread opening another feud at a time when the bloc faces daunting challenges including handling the pending departure of Britain, facing up to an assertive Russia and getting to grips with new U.S. President Donald Trump.

But Poland’s ruling party boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski is implacably opposed to Tusk, holding him “morally responsible” for the death of his twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, in a plane crash in Russia in 2010, when Tusk was Polish prime minister. Polish and Russian probes blamed pilot error.

Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, arriving for talks in Brussels with his EU peers, said Warsaw was insistent on Saryusz-Wolski, a centre-right member of the European Parliament, as its nominee.

“This is our candidate and he is in the game. This is the only Polish candidate right now for the post of the European Council head. There is no other Polish candidate,” he said.

Over dinner in Brussels on Sunday evening, the Polish minister had sought to persuade his counterparts from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, to back Saryusz-Wolski.

But the Czech minister, Lubomir Zaoralek, said on Monday that the east Europeans had much to lose.

“I‘m convinced that Donald Tusk has been a EC chairman who understood the needs and interests of central and eastern Europe and I really wouldn’t want to risk that we could lose such a representative,” he said.

“If there were other candidates, it could have a very unpleasant result... I am afraid that this can result in central and eastern Europe losing its representative, and I would consider that a serious mistake.”

The fact that the bitter political rivalry between Kaczynski and Tusk has spilled over to Brussels has raised many eyebrows in the European capital. Waszczykowski refused to say if any other country backed Saryusz-Wolski, and the other ministers arriving at the talks did not offer any public support.

A soft-spoken centrist, Tusk is widely seen in the EU as a safe pair of hands. The decision on whether to give him a new term is expected this Thursday, when all 28 EU leaders will meet in Brussels.

While a unanimous decision would have been their preferred option, a majority vote would be enough to keep him in the post.

Waszczykowski suggested the decision could be delayed, but Zaoralek said that would risk opening a Pandora’s box. No third candidate has emerged so far.

“There is a majority for Tusk, and pleasing Kaczynski is not on everyone’s mind here in Brussels,” said a senior diplomat from one of the other countries that took part in the Sunday dinner.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Robert Muller in Prague; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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