At the beginning of the month Austria assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. To mark the occasion, Donald Tusk, president of the confusingly similar European Council, surprisingly devoted a chunk of his introductory remarks to two of the country’s most famous classical liberal thinkers:
“As a faithful reader of the works of your great compatriots such as Karl Popper and Friedrich August von Hayek. I would like to warn all those who look for order and security in the public life, not to do it at the cost of freedom. In the history of Europe and Austria, of Poland and Bulgaria, the road to security has all too often become the road to serfdom.”
How much stock can we really put in Tusk’s apparently faithful reading of these two great free-market thinkers? Before he became president of the European Council in 2014, Tusk served as Prime Minister of Poland, the longest-serving leader to hold office since the fall of the Iron Curtain. His career in Polish politics is largely seen as a success. His greatest political victory, becoming the first Polish PM to win re-election, came during his time in the Civic Platform, a party which he co- founded in 2001.
The influence of Hayek and even Ludwig von Mises – another prominent Austrian Economist – on Civic Platform was evident from the beginning, at least in the party’s rhetoric. Jarosław Gowin, Tusk’s former Justice Minister and current Deputy Prime Minister, said both men had both been brought up on the works of the Austrian economists, while Tusk himself specifically invoked Hayek and von Mises’s Austrian Business Cycle Theory in a 2009 interview:
“The problem with [Keynesianism and monetarism] is that they serve well in thought, but they don’t serve well in practice. If I had to identify myself with someone, at this time it would have to be with Friedrich von Hayek who, talking about the business cycle, highlighted the fact that every artificial boom caused by the expansion of credit by banks works in the end against itself.
“Today in the philosophy of operating American financial institutions there are too many footprints of the Keynesian tradition of regulation, such as intervention for achieving – in effect – only temporary results.”
Sadly this apparent influence rarely translated into political action. While in 2007’s parliamentary elections Civic Platform ran on a strong free-market ticket, promising lower taxes, lower employment in the public sector, and the privatisation of state-owned companies, it ultimately reneged on all those promises.
Between 2008 and 2012 alone Civic Platform hired almost 20,000 new bureaucrats – an increase of more than ten per cent. Tusk’s government was also responsible for a sharp increase in Poland’s public debt, which went from 530bn zlotys to 935bn in between 2007 and 2013.
Tusk must also have missed Hayek’s famous remark in The Road to Serfdom about private property being “the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not”.
After all, his government decided to deal with Poland’s crumbling public finances by seizing over 51bn zlotys from the Open Funded Pension system, effectively expropriating the savings of millions of Poles. They were heavily criticised by the architect of the Polish transformation, Leszek Balcerowicz, who noted: “Reaching for accumulated pension savings as way of curing public finances is a medicine that is worse than the illness.”
What’s more, despite campaigning under the tagline of an “inexpensive state”, Civic Platform actually increased taxes to support its public spending programmes. In 2010, it raised VAT by one per cent and later increased pension contributions from 4.5 to 6.5 per cent. Tusk’s government also increased excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol. By the end of his term as Prime Minister, the transformation of Donald Tusk from asymptomatic classical liberal into fully-fledged social democrat was complete, the symbolic threshold being his interview in which he openly apologised for ever wanting to lower taxes.
Tusk’s time as European Council president has been pretty solid compared to his abysmal handling of his own country’s government — not that that is a particularly high bar.
Not that the Council has been a buccaneering free-market institution under Tusk’s stewardship either. During the last EU summit, for instance, heads of state agreed that retaliatory actions against Donald Trump’s tariffs need to be taken. While there was a pledge in favour of free trade, it was no more than that: in the same breath, the Council conclusions mentioned “trade defence” mechanisms and “screening of foreign direct investments” – fighting protectionism with protectionism.
When it comes to free trade, Tusk is following the normal Brussels procedure: paying lip service to it as much as possible, while rarely following through with it. A recent tweet is a classic example of the genre:
“President Trump said: ‘trade wars are good and easy to win’. But the truth is trade wars are bad and easy to lose. EU’s goal is to keep world trade alive and if necessary to protect Europeans by proportionate responses.”
It’s truly a shame that our avid reader of Hayek seems to have forgotten this passage from Individualism and Economic Order: “Every philosophy of mercantilism is a philosophy of a gun stuck in the belly of another American. Every mercantilist idea is a defence of gun-in-the-belly economics.”
On Brexit, Tusk has been one of the most hawkish voices in Brussels. In 2016, he famously said that “the only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit” — showing once more the EU’s attitude to any democratic vote with which they disagree.
He also insisted that Brexit could not mean tax or regulatory competition between the EU and Britain, and that the UK would have to stay aligned to rules put forth by Brussels. Or to use Tusk’s somewhat more florid language, any final deal must “ensure a level playing field in terms of competition and state aid, and must encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping”.
Aside from that, he’s been at loggerheads with his successors in the Polish government. Regardless of whether developments by the current Law and Justice Party are concerning or not, one should question whether Brussels should be dictating Polish domestic policies — even more so when the person dictating is Donald Tusk, whose own illiberal reforms and hasty exit from Polish politics paved the way for Law and Justice to gain power.
As Bill Wirtz has written, “Polish problems need Polish solutions, not European sanctions,” something which the most powerful in Brussels, including Tusk, have yet to realise.
All in all, the Hayekian legacy of Donald Tusk is spurious. While he pays lip service to the great man’s ideas, he has rarely implemented anything which would make the Nobel laureate happy. This is especially true when it comes to his stint as Polish Prime Minister, where his politics more often resembled those of Hayek’s intellectual rival, John Maynard Keynes.
But even on the European level – despite being not nearly as bad as arch-federalists like Juncker – his claims of being an advocate for peace, liberty, and the free market are highly questionable.
It is always nice to see leading politicians in Europe quoting Hayek and other classical liberal thinkers. It would be unwise, though, to conclude from that they are actually serious about putting their ideas into practice.