European centre-right new leader vows to fight populism

Zagreb (AFP) –


Former EU Council President Donald Tusk pledged Wednesday to fight against political populism as he was set to be elected leader of Europe's main conservative parties during their grouping meeting in Croatia.

The former Polish prime minister will be tasked with boosting the fortunes of the European People's Party (EPP) -- which includes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU and France's Republicans.

The EPP is still the largest group in the European Parliament but is under increasing pressure from far-right, liberal and green blocs, which all made gains in the last election.

Tusk, 62, will replace France's Joseph Daul to become the EPP's first leader from the European Union's eastern states.

At the start of the meeting Tusk vowed to fight against "political populists, manipulators and autocrats" in apparent references namely to Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Orban's Fidesz party was suspended from the EPP grouping earlier this year because of the Hungarian government's anti-Brussels poster campaign.

Tusk also harked back to the 2015 migrant crisis, Europe's worst since World War II, and a deal reached between the EU and Turkey to reduce the migrant influx after "hundreds of hours of negotiations".

"Someone ... also worked hard, but only on his narrative and self-creation, putting up a fence and billboards with anti-migration propaganda," Tusk told the participants in alluding to Orban.

In 2015 Hungary erected a steel fence along its border to keep out migrants.

Since then, Budapest has continued to pass laws hostile to migrants, alarming EU officials.

"Let us all stand together on this most important political battlefield, on one side parties of irresponsible populism, on the other, our party of responsible popularity.

"I'm ready to fight and I hope you are ready too."

- Talk with France -

Among the pressing issues Tusk faces is a renewed dispute about EU enlargement.

Roughly 2,000 participants in Zagreb -- Merkel among them -- discussed ties between the EU and the Western Balkans, a volatile region with six nations aspiring to join the bloc.

Last month France angered other leading EU countries by blocking attempts to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

French President Emanuel Macron insisted that the EU must strengthen existing ties before adding new members.

But the European Commission and Tusk do not agree, arguing that the two countries have met all the criteria.

"Now we have to talk with France, and we will do so very intensively, which elements should be improved and changed in the accession process," Merkel told reporters Wednesday in Zagreb.

The EU's Western Balkans perspective should remain "realistic", she said after meeting Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and adding she hoped a deal on the issue can be reached as soon as possible.

European Commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen, also at the meeting, said earlier this month that Europe had "asked a lot of North Macedonia and Albania (and) they've fulfilled it all".

"Now we must be true to our word and start accession talks," she said.

Croatia, the newest EU member which joined in 2013, is due to host an EU-Western Balkans summit in May next year attended by all six aspirant countries -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia.

Plenkovic, whose country takes over the EU six-month rotating presidency in January, said earlier he wanted to "help unblock the situation" regarding Northern Macedonia and Albania.

Many in Brussels fear that if France or other reluctant Western countries continue stalling their ambitions, regional capitals may fall under Russian or even Chinese influence.