War in Ukraine: Hungary slows down European plan to embargo Russian oil

The unanimity of the European Union is weakening on the Russian oil issue. Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban ruled on Friday that Brussels had crossed “a red line” when it wanted to ban Russian oil imports. “Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “whether she attacked European unity or not,” he said in a radio interview.

As sanctions will require unanimity of the Twenty-Seven, the Hungarian disagreement will prompt difficult negotiations, which will continue between the EU’s 27 member countries in a bid to reach an agreement over the weekend. “If no agreement is reached this weekend, I should convene an extraordinary meeting of EU foreign ministers next week after Europe Day,” said EU diplomatic chief Josep Borrel. “I am convinced that we will adopt this package. If it takes another day, it takes another day,” said Ursula von der Leyen.

“There will be no Yes from Hungary”

Hungary had already spoken out against the embargo project “in its current form” on Wednesday, and Viktor Orban, just before Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, made it clear this Friday. “We need a unanimous decision, as long as the Hungarian question is not solved, there will be no yes from Hungary,” he insisted, without wanting to use the word “veto”.

“I said yes to the first five packages of sanctions, but we made it clear from the start that there was a red line: the energy embargo. You’ve crossed that line (…), there’s a moment when you have to say stop,” he added.

“The proposal has been returned to sender Madam President for revision, we are awaiting a new proposal,” added the Chair. Unanimity of the 27 is mandatory for the EU to pass sanctions. It was received for the last five rounds of sanctions.

“A nuclear bomb on the Hungarian economy”

In its 6th sanctions package, the Commission recommends “a ban on all Russian oil, crude oil and refining transported by sea and pipeline” by the end of 2022. According to Viktor Orban, Europeans have “recognized each country’s right of sovereignty over its energy mix” since Hungary is 65% dependent on Russian oil. An embargo “would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on the Hungarian economy,” said the prime minister on Friday, who has been used to wrestling with his European partners for 12 years.

In his view, the exemption planned by the Commission for his country until the end of 2023 is by no means satisfactory. “The complete transformation of the Hungarian transport and energy supply system”, which will take “five years”, turns out to be very expensive to implement, he stressed.

“We’re not going anywhere with a year-and-a-half exception,” he said, adding that Budapest would accept the proposal if crude oil delivered through pipelines was excluded from the package. Viktor Orban also protested the inclusion in the sanctions package of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who showed his support for the offensive. “We will not allow church leaders to be put on any sanctions list,” he said.

Ensuring “security of supply”

Regarding the embargo, the negotiations at the level of the ambassadors of the member states are “complicated”, confided a diplomat. A first meeting on Friday ended at noon without an agreement. “The most important question is that of security of supply. It is existential for Hungary,” a landlocked country dependent on Russian supplies as significant technological investment is required to adapt its refineries to other types of crude, he explained.

A new meeting of ambassadors is planned for this weekend. “It will take place when the technical consultations are sufficiently advanced,” he said. “Hungary has a problem and (the ambassadors) have to solve it. Technical clarifications are required, which will take some time. This will continue over the weekend for technical, not policy, work,” confirmed another diplomat.

A longer waiver?

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was confident. “There are countries with different positions on oil and gas dependency,” he said in an interview with Euronews. “There are talks with the European Commission about what the transition periods could look like. However, as far as I know, they will not block these sanctions,” he said.

The proposal presented to member states on Wednesday bans imports of Russian crude oil within six months and of refined products by the end of 2022. However, for Hungary and Slovakia, a one-year derogation until the end of 2023 has been considered insufficient. In the new version of the project discussed on Friday, it was extended until the end of 2024 and the Czech Republic is also given this option, according to consistent sources.

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