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Charlemagne: A task for Tusk (Economist - 31 October 2015)

 Tusk

Poland’s former prime minister desperately seeks to ensure that Europe’s centre can hold

MOVING to Brussels, says Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, was like reaching “paradise”. True, that had more to do with the abundance of Flemish masterpieces in local museums than the delights of coaxing compromise from the European Union’s 28 disputatious leaders. Mr Tusk has the unenviable task of managing the European response to an endless series of crises without any real power of his own. Yet almost a year into the job he has found ways to manage, and sometimes to surpass, its limitations. As he speaks in his Brussels office, you get the sense that he might even be enjoying himself.

Few Eurocrats’ eyebrows remained unraised when Mr Tusk won his appointment. Poland, the country he had run for seven years, had barely a decade’s experience of EU membership and remained outside the euro, the union’s signature project. Mr Tusk’s abrasive style, honed in the rough-and-tumble of Poland’s young democratic politics, seemed an ill fit with the consensual methods preferred in Brussels. He worked to improve his English but, some sniff, still cannot speak French.

Mr Tusk has not swayed all his critics, though their numbers are dwindling. Europe’s crisis-manager-in-chief has weightier problems on his mind. He returns repeatedly to a single theme: the need to shore up Europe’s liberal values against the threat from populism. This is hardly an original thought in a continent afflicted by Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, but Mr Tusk has his own take on it. The liberal centre must be “tough and determined”, he said recently in the Netherlands, “not to become more like the right-wing populists, but to protect Europe against them.”

Thus, for example, his mantra that the EU must regain control of the borders through which hundreds of thousands of refugees and other migrants have flowed this year. He has called for an end to the policy of “open doors and windows”, a remark some saw as a jab at Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. If voters cannot be assured that Europe’s frontiers are secure, fears Mr Tusk, then they will turn to nastier leaders. (He mentions Poland, where nationalists have just ejected Civic Platform, the centre-right party Mr Tusk founded and led to two election victories.) That will make it hard, if not impossible, to pursue the more liberal policies, such as sharing out asylum-seekers across Europe, that Mr Tusk says he backs. He notes the paradox: to preserve its openness, Europe must countenance a degree of closure.

© 2015 - The Economist

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