Donald Tusk’s role as one of the EU’s most powerful figures is in doubt after the head of Poland’s ruling party suggested it will not support him for a second term.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who pulls the strings of Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, said his government was unlikely to back the former Polish prime minister to remain as president of the European Council.
The removal of Mr Tusk could throw the EU into more uncertainty in coming months as it deals with Britain’s vote to leave the EU and growing anti-Brussels sentiment in many member states.
Mr Kaczynski described Mr Tusk as “trouble” and threatened his longstanding political enemy over an air crash in which President Lech Kaczynski, his twin, was killed six years ago.
“I imagine the Polish government will not support Donald Tusk for the second term in the council,” said Mr Kaczynski.
The move will sow doubts in the upper echelons of the EU institutions, where many officials have assumed Mr Tusk would enjoy a smooth transition into his next two-and-a-half year term that would start in June.
Although Poland has no veto and candidates for council president do not require the support of their home country, it is highly unusual for someone to run for a senior position without it. Council presidents are elected by a qualified majority of leaders.
Since taking the presidency in late 2014 Mr Tusk has won plaudits for his handling of crises ranging from migration to Brexit.
“His reputation has been steadily going upwards as president of the European Council,” said one senior diplomat. “This would be the general view, certainly from the people that matter, that he’s doing this job very well. He’s handled a series of meetings this year quite adroitly.”
Despite his growing reputation abroad, Mr Tusk has been under fire at home for his alleged involvement in the 2010 accident in Smolensk that killed the then Polish president and 95 others.
“Tusk is big trouble,” Mr Kaczynski told Polska The Times, a local newspaper. “In Poland, there are cases, both in the parliament and the prosecution [service], which may lead to charges against him. Should such person lead the European Council? I have big doubts.”
Mr Kaczynski has long alleged that Mr Tusk bears some blame for the Smolensk crash, which has spawned conspiracy theories and remains a lightning rod for rightwing voters in Poland who fear Russian influence.
“His further stay in Brussels is pretty risky, especially for the European Union. We should warn the EU about potential problems,” Mr Kaczynski added.
Responding on Twitter, Mr Tusk said: “Shall we debate, Mr Chairman? About Europe, Poland and your insinuations. I am at your disposal.”
Whether Mr Tusk continues in the position is likely to play a key role in filling other top EU jobs. MEPs are selecting a new president of the European Parliament, which has a veto over crucial issues such as the terms of a UK exit deal.
Officials are keen to maintain a balance between top officials hailing from the centre-right European People’s party, such as Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, and their peers from the socialist group, which includes Martin Schulz, the parliament president.
Under PiS’s rule, Warsaw has become one of Brussels’ most vocal critics. The EU has launched its first investigation into a member state accused of endangering democracy in response to moves by Mr Kaczynski’s government to weaken Poland’s highest court, take control of its public TV channels and politicise the role of its public prosecutor.
The animosity between Mr Kaczynski and Mr Tusk predates the Smolensk crash, opposing one another in elections over the past decade.
Additional reporting by Evon Huber in Warsaw and Arthur Beesley in Brussels
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