European centre-right's new leader vows to fight populism

Former EU Council President Donald Tusk vowed to fight against "political populists, manipulators and autocrats" (AFP Photo/Denis LOVROVIC) (AFP)

Zagreb (AFP) - Former EU Council president Donald Tusk pledged Wednesday to fight political populism as he was elected leader of Europe's main conservative parties during their group 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 at the last elections.

Tusk, 62, replaces 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" -- seen as a swipe at 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.

"Someone... also worked hard, but only on his narrative and self-creation, putting up a fence and billboards with anti-migration propaganda," Tusk said, 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."

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".

- 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 European 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, about which elements should be improved and changed in the accession process," Merkel told reporters Wednesday in Zagreb.

Her compatriot Ursula von der Leyen, the president-elect of the European Commission, said: "It is in our common interest that the Western Balkans have a European perspective."

Von der Leyen backed the EU bids of the six countries -- Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia.

"We share the same continent, we share the same history, we share the same culture," she told the meeting earlier.

She said after meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic that she hoped a deal could be reached as soon as possible.

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.