Donald Tusk was Polish prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and since December 2014 has been President of the European Council, which brings together the leaders of the 28 countries of the European Union. His country has been the beneficiary of the principle of free movement of people and especially of Tony Blairís decision to not take up the option of delaying that free movement for up to seven years. Germany, a more natural destination for Polish citizens, imposed the full delay to 2011 with the result that a large proportion of the one million Poles who emigrated straight away came to the United Kingdom. So at the time of the European Union referendum Tusk was aware of the worries of hundreds of thousands of Poles who had settled in the United Kingdom.
Tusk was in post six months when David Cameron won a surprise outright majority in the May 2015 United Kingdom general election. Cameron immediately set about implementing his manifesto commitment to hold an in out referendum on European Union membership and raised the issue in the June 2015 European Council. Discussion of the matter was postponed until the December 2015 European Council, but that did not stop Cameron raising the issue at the October 2015 meeting and writing to Tusk on 10 November 2015 setting the four items that he wished to re-negotiate. Tusk responded that it was unlikely that agreement could be reached on such far reaching proposals by December. Tusk had toured European Union capitals to sound out the leaders of the other countries. He issued a letter to all leaders in early December, but the European Council meeting later that month only had time for general discussion of the issues. The full negotiation then took place at the European Council in February 2016, which was planned to focus on the refugee crisis, but the United Kingdom negotiations took up much of the summit.
In both his December letter and his chairing of the February summit Tusk was fair-minded, even though most of the leaders wanted to move on to the refugee issue. Part of the reason for the impatience of the other leaders was that they had imbibed the message from the liberal media in the United Kingdom that Cameron was only making a pretence of negotiation in order to make it more certain that he would win the referendum. Right up until the results of the vote began to come in those other leaders had accepted the mainstream media line that the United Kingdom would vote to remain in the European Union and therefore the referendum was an expensive waste of European Council time. Cameron has assumed that he only had to persuade the dominant powers of the European Union, France and Germany, and while they were not overly positive his biggest hurdles came from Tuskís own bloc: the Visegrad Group of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. Those countries were very hesitant about Cameronís proposal impacting on the many nationals of their countries who had taken advantage of European Union freedom of movement to live in the United Kingdom. Tusk had organised that Cameron would meet with them separately and eventually a deal was made, although it was less than Cameron had hoped for.
As a lot of anti immigrant sentiment in the United Kingdom is directed at Poles it might have behoved Tusk to tread gently, but instead this beneficiary of Polish emigration to the United Kingdom chose to go on the offensive during the referendum campaign. He chimed in with tone of much of the other establishment remain campaigners by descending into almost comical hyperbole. Tuskís most noted contribution to the referendum campaign was to claim that the United Kingdom leaving the European Union would lead to the end of Western civilisation. This did not go down well with the British public, although the damage had probably already been done in Tuskís December letter that described Cameronís requests as difficult even though many in the United Kingdom regarded them as of little consequence.
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