Donald Tusk: ‘We are in a pre-war era. I don’t exaggerate’

The Polish prime minister warns that Europe is at ‘the most critical moment since the end of the Second World War’ and must commit more to defense and protecting Ukraine

Donald Tusk
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Brussels on February 1.Nicolas Economou (NurPhoto/ Getty Images)
Gloria Rodríguez-Pina

Donald Tusk, 66, has an image of his childhood etched in his memory. It is a photograph that was in his family home in Sopot, on the shores of the Baltic Sea, next to his hometown: a beach full of smiling, happy people. The snapshot was taken on August 31, 1939. “A dozen hours later, five kilometers away, the Second World War began,” he remembers. The Polish prime minister warns that Europe is once again “in a pre-war era” and must get ready to defend itself.

In an interview with several newspapers of the LENA media alliance, including EL PAÍS, in his office in Warsaw, Tusk argues that the NATO commitment to dedicate 2% of GDP to defense must be met and advocates for increasing aid to Ukraine to avoid “pessimistic scenarios.” The leader, who generates both hatred and admiration in Poland, served as prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and returned to power after winning the elections last October. His main campaign promise was to restore the rule of law after eight years of the ultra-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government and return the country to the center of Europe, a task that he has undertaken with an iron fist and some controversial decisions.

Tusk — who has been the leading figure of the liberal-conservative space in Poland for the last two decades — returned to his country’s political scene from Brussels, where he presided over the European Council and later, the European People’s Party (EPP), which in the next European elections must decide whether it partners with the extreme right or opts for the alliances of the last 60 years.

Question. Politicians, military officials, and experts all over Europe say that within a few years Russia could attack NATO countries. Is war inevitable?

Answer. What is most worrying now is that literally any scenario is possible. We have not had a situation like this since 1945. I know it sounds devastating, especially to people of the younger generation, but we have to mentally get used to a new era. We are in a pre-war era. I don’t exaggerate. This is becoming more and more apparent every day.

Q. Recently, Polish airspace was again violated by a Russian cruise missile.

A. Yes, this was another worrying incident. When Lviv or other cities in western Ukraine are attacked, the sound of explosions can be heard in our part of the border area. At the last European Council I had an interesting discussion with the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. He asked us to stop using the word “war” in statements. He argued that people do not want to be threatened in this way, that in Spain it sounds abstract. I replied that in my part of Europe, war is no longer an abstraction — and that our duty is not to discuss, but to act and prepare to defend ourselves.

Q. Ukraine is currently experiencing hard times. What would have happened if it had lost the war?

A. We need to abandon this way of thinking: “What if.” Our main task should be to protect Ukraine from the Russian invasion and to maintain Ukraine as an independent and integral state. It is up to us to ensure that Ukraine can avoid pessimistic scenarios. Its situation today is much more difficult than it was a year ago, but also much better than it was at the beginning of the war, when Putin’s soldiers were standing on the outskirts of Kyiv. The war in Ukraine may have to be thought about in the long term. This means more and more new responsibilities for European countries. In Poland, everyone is aware of this and it is not up for discussion. And yet it did not have to be taken for granted; we had a very difficult common history with Ukraine. What has now happened between our peoples — this undisputed solidarity — is a miracle. I want to maintain this attitude, although it is not easy.

Q. Especially now, when Polish farmers and truck drivers are protesting.

A. The saddest moments in my political career are when I have to be tough and harsh with our Ukrainian friends. As Polish prime minister, I am supposed to protect Poland’s fundamental interests. The search for a solution to this problem occupies a huge part of my time.

Q. How can it be solved?

A. We want to help Ukraine as much as we can. But at the last European Council I argued that the idea of free trade with Ukraine needs to be redesigned. I think I convinced France, Italy and Austria to do this. I want a fair agreement with Ukraine on this, I want to find a common denominator for the interests of Ukraine, Poland and the whole EU.

Whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the next election, it is Europe that needs to do more when it comes to defense

Q. You were invited to the White House 15 days ago, then flew to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. What message did you bring back from the U.S.?

A. This message was that whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump wins the next election, it is Europe that needs to do more when it comes to defense. Not to achieve military autonomy vis-à-vis the U.S., or to create parallel structures to NATO — but to make better use of our potential, our capabilities and our strength. We will be a more attractive partner for the U.S. if we are more self-sufficient in defense matters.

Q. You say that Europe should spend more on defense. But how can this spending be financed?

A. There is no reason for Europeans not to respect the fundamental principle [of NATO] and spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defense. We can discuss European arms bonds and more involvement of the European Investment Bank. We have to spend as much as we can to buy equipment and ammunition for Ukraine, because we are living in the most critical moment since the end of the Second World War. The next two years will decide everything. If we cannot support Ukraine with enough equipment and ammunition, if Ukraine loses, no one in Europe will be able to feel safe.

Donald Tusk in an appearance with his Ukrainian counterpart, Denys Shmyhal, on Thursday in Warsaw.
Donald Tusk in an appearance with his Ukrainian counterpart, Denys Shmyhal, on Thursday in Warsaw.Omar Marques (Getty Images)

Q. The Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is campaigning against journalists and judges, reaching for patterns familiar from the PiS government. But there is growing talk in Brussels that the European People’s Party should cooperate with her, and even offer her membership. In your opinion, is this realistic?

A. Meloni’s positive role in Brussels, in the European Council, is widely appreciated. I was impressed when I heard her speak publicly in support of Ukraine. Internationally, I hear only her pro-European statements. Meloni is certainly aware that I would find it difficult to accept her views and methods when it comes to domestic policy.

Q. At the European elections, will there once again be a classic coalition of the EPP with social democrats and liberals, or are we going to see the EPP enter into cooperation with the extreme right?

A. I have a clear position on the far-right parties in Poland, but every democratic leader knows best the situation in his country and decides for himself what strategy to adopt. The far right is part of government coalitions in Sweden, Finland, several Spanish regions, and it remains to be seen whether this will not also happen after the elections in Portugal. Looking for positive aspects, let us note that some far-right parties have changed thanks to this.

It is the state’s job to effectively protect its borders and territory. If we continue to be naïve, unreservedly open, we will lose the support of the people

Q. Does this mean that you want to renegotiate the migration pact adopted by the EU?

A. Unfortunately, this pact is not a good answer to the problems we face in Poland. In our part of Europe, migration means something different to the Mediterranean. Today, once again, we are witnessing a well-prepared operation organized by the [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko regime on the border with Belarus. I will not justify some of the methods used by the Polish border guards, but we cannot be helpless in the face of Putin and Lukashenko. It is the state’s job to effectively protect its borders and territory. If we continue to be naïve, unreservedly open, we will lose the support of the people. We will lose out to states and forces that are prepared to fight violently for their interests.

Q. As leader of the Polish opposition, you won an unequal battle against PiS. What can Europe learn from this victory?

A. It takes determination and belief in victory, this is key. The problem was to convince people that the concepts of “rule of law” or “freedom” are not abstractions, but issues that affect everyday life and fighting for them can lead to victory. One must have a very clear communication with the voters. Sometimes you have to be able to use their own arguments. [PiS leader Jaroslaw] Kaczynski or [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán are partly right in their diagnoses, but the medicine they propose is poisonous and wrong. For example, during the first migration crisis in 2015, people wanted to hear from the leaders what their plan was to protect the borders,

Q. Is that why your government is continuing pushbacks on the border with Belarus?

A. This is a completely different issue. I have already spoken about it. International law needs to be corrected on this issue, although I know it is almost impossible today, but the current legislation was introduced in completely different times. I am no longer even talking about the fact that the U.N. estimates that 100 million people from Asia and Africa are ready to emigrate to Europe, but about the fact that authoritarian regimes instrumentally use these already disadvantaged people as part of a hybrid war. Pushbacks as a method are morally unacceptable, we must find a better solution, but the alternative cannot be helplessness.

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