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.

Mr Tusk is no gentler when he discusses Britain’s position in the EU. In early November David Cameron, the prime minister, will send Mr Tusk a letter outlining his requests for a “renegotiation” of Britain’s membership. It will fall to Mr Tusk to seek the common ground between what Mr Cameron needs and what his 27 counterparts can accept, particularly on Britain’s demands to reduce welfare payments to EU immigrants (Mr Cameron’s foot-dragging could postpone serious talks until next spring, possibly pushing Britain’s promised in/out referendum into 2017). Mr Tusk says that his role is clear: to help Mr Cameron keep Britain in the EU. But he worries that the process could encourage other countries to demand their own opt-outs and exemptions. For Britain to be a “role model” for everyone, he warns, would mean “the end of the EU”.

Beyond the EU’s borders, the limits of his power are becoming clearer. With fighting raging in Ukraine, Mr Tusk took office vowing a tough line on Russia. His opinions have not changed, but he now accepts that the EU can do little for Crimea or the Donbas. While Germany and France have taken the political lead in talking to Russia about Ukraine, the challenge for the EU, says Mr Tusk, is internal: to defy Vladimir Putin’s attempts to foster division in Europe. So far the EU has held the line on sanctions (which require unanimous backing, and must soon be renewed). Passing this test, which Mr Tusk describes as Europe’s first big challenge since 1989, bodes well for future crises, he says.

Perhaps the new job has mellowed the president: his happiness now rests on that of the leaders whose meetings he oversees. At a euro-zone summit Mr Tusk chaired in July, for example, it took 17 hours to find a deal that kept Greece inside the currency. This is a drastic change from his time in Poland, when, he acknowledges, he had “very limited” tolerance for political wrangling. Still, unlike the many Eurocrats who seem to have spent their whole lives in the EU’s unlovely bureaucratic buildings, Mr Tusk retains a whiff of the outsider. His approach has not been to everyone’s taste: he has pricked the egos of ambassadors, for example, by declining to meet them as often as his predecessor did. But most admit that he is warming to his role.

Avoiding “no more Europe”

Mr Tusk describes himself as an “obsessive pro-European” rather than a federalist. That distinction might once have been difficult to parse. Not today: the EU’s problems, from the integrity of its single currency to the security of its borders, cut to the heart of national sovereignty—but they also lead irresistibly to the logic of co-operation, if not its practice.

The creation of Mr Tusk’s job in the prelapsarian Lisbon treaty of 2007 was for some the first step towards a “president of Europe”. That the task should now fall to one who accepts the primacy of national governments is no surprise. Mr Tusk, never having succumbed to the dream of a federal Europe, does not regret its demise. He accepts German leadership, with the caveat that “not everything that is good for Germany is good for Europe.” Instead, he has set himself a humbler task: to ensure that Europe’s stream of crises does not entirely wash away the old order.

Unlike the sermonisers of yore, who preached More Europe and predicted the end times for nation-states, Mr Tusk is more like a life coach, gently urging Europe’s anxious leaders to find the courage to face up to hard but unavoidable challenges. Others may build Europe; he will try to keep it from falling apart.