By Justyna Pawlak and Pawel Sobczak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's ambition to be central Europe's leader within the EU suffered a humiliating blow when Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic defied its call to block the re-election of Donald Tusk as European Council president.
The lack of support from the other three "Visegrad" countries left Prime Minister Beata Szydlo in uncomfortable isolation at an EU summit on Thursday - one leader out of 28 refusing to back Tusk, a former Polish leader who is loathed by her Law and Justice (PiS) party.
The emphatic defeat exposed the Polish conservatives' inability to unite their ex-communist neighbors under a shared wish to gain more sway for the region in Brussels.
Particularly painful was the desertion by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has defended the PiS against EU accusations it is undermining the rule of law by seeking more control over the justice system and the media.
"We are disappointed by Prime Minister Orban's attitude," said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the co-founder and head of the PiS who has never hidden his enmity towards Tusk.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said the Visegrad four (V4) group continued to function, and Poland, by far its largest member, "didn't have to be the leader".
"We can be its spokesman," he told reporters.
Divisions among the four, which joined the EU in 2004 in the bloc's biggest expansion into ex-communist Europe, are numerous.
They differ on relations with their former communist master Russia, ties with Germany, membership of the euro currency and the place of religion in society.
All three of Poland's regional peers view Tusk as a safe pair of hands who can forward the region's agenda in Europe. Poland's official reason for wanting to veto him was that he had unfairly criticized the government from his seat in Brussels.
"Tusk understands our world view and our view of how the European Union should work," Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told reporters.
He added that Poland would also have to explain its refusal to sign off on the official record of the summit in protest against Tusk's reappointment, suggesting a potential new rift within the V4.
"Poland will have to explain it well because it simply is not possible for one member state to veto European Council conclusions without giving specific, factual reasons," Sobotka said.
Andrzej Rychard, sociologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences, said: "The PiS has paid a tremendous amount of attention to the V4 group but (the Tusk vote) was a spectacular demonstration of how the V4 is divided and how Poland is alone."
"CONSEQUENCES ARE DIRE"
The PiS' euroscepticism and what some western capitals see as Poland's tilt towards authoritarianism had already pushed it towards isolation in Brussels.Among other issues, Warsaw is frustrated about its failure to find support in a push against EU action on global warming, which it sees as a menace to its coal-powered energy industry.
While EU officials and diplomats also consider Hungary's Orban an authoritarian, they generally see him as a more cunning player who would eventually sit down for talks to hammer out deals, whereas Poland's Kaczynski is seen as a rigid ideologue that people outside Poland do not understand.
Even so, the two come together more often than Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which have strong economic ties with Germany and are often concerned about Kaczynski's nationalist rhetoric against Berlin.
Orban's Fidesz party belongs to the same political grouping in the European Parliament as Tusk, the European People's Party. Kaczynski's PiS is part of the European Conservatives and Reformists, a smaller centre-right group that is more skeptical on EU integration.
In the coming years, Warsaw will need to build alliances in negotiations over how much of Europe's budget will go to Poland's poorer regions and how big a hit it will take when Britain leaves the bloc and stops paying its dues.
Poland, the biggest recipient of EU funds, and Hungary, stand to lose more than Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which are somewhat richer in per capita terms.
"The V4 group has been struggling for a long time, though I wouldn't say it's dead," said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University.
"(But) the consequences are dire," she said of the Tusk vote. "Not only did the government expose itself to ridicule but it also showed it doesn't understand diplomacy and EU rules, and doesn't know how to forge alliances."
(Additional reporting by Marcin Goettig, Agnieszka Barteczko, Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Robert Muller in Prague, Tatiana Jancarikova in Bratislava and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)