Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán may ultimately take a payoff to back the European Commission’s plan to sanction Russian oil, but there were signs Friday that some other EU capitals were not too distressed about the delay caused by Budapest’s obstruction.
On the EU’s eastern edge, Orbán’s stubborn refusal to back the oil sanctions has given cover to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which also fear severe economic fallout from the European Commission’s proposed embargo but are more timid in their complaints.
On the EU’s southern tier, in countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy, which have been struggling to shield citizens from soaring energy prices, there is hardly big enthusiasm for the oil ban, which is seen as an essential but very costly step to punish Moscow for its war.
As Brussels ended the week with EU countries still unable to reach a deal on the oil sanctions, diplomats and officials voiced guarded optimism that Orbán would ultimately accept a deal — including upward of €500 million to diversify the country’s oil refining capabilities, and €200 million to expand the capacity of its Adriatic Sea pipeline.
But the Commission and the European Council have also begun to face uncomfortable questions about just how committed EU countries are to cutting off Russia’s oil revenues, which provide Vladimir Putin with desperately needed financing at a time when his military is said to be running short of soldiers and material, given heavy losses and flagging morale.
“To answer your question about sanctions, the only thing I can say is that as far as I know discussions are continuing in Council,” the Commission’s chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said. “For the time being, we have no particular news to announce on that subject.”
In a demonstration of how the sanctions have become intertwined with the issue of energy prices for EU citizens, the only other question at the Commission’s daily news conference was about plans by Spain and Portugal to seek special exemption from electricity market rules to implement cost-saving measures for consumers.
“We don’t have anything to add from our side, nothing new, no formal decision was taken yet by the Commission at this stage,” said a spokeswoman, Arianna Podesta. “What we need to do now is to wait for formal notification by the Spanish and Portuguese authorities. Only when we have that we will be able to take a formal decision.”
Waiting may be a new favorite pastime in Brussels. After approving five previous sanctions packages against Russia and Belarus with remarkable speed and unanimity, EU leaders have reached the point at which the penalties against Putin carry increasing costs and heightened risk of damage to their own economies.
And that is testing their unity.
“It’s a delicate phase for EU unity, we were expecting it,” said an EU diplomat. “Hungary’s behavior is not such a big novelty, but I can’t deny that the unity we have shown so far is now at risk.”
EU leaders agreed in March at a summit in Versailles, France to wean their nations off of Russian energy — not just oil but also, eventually, natural gas, which will likely be a much more difficult step. And the current delay in the oil sanctions will likely have a domino effect, potentially forestalling that harder set of negotiations.
“Orbán is making a favor to many,” a second EU diplomat said. “Germans, Italians and others, they all said they will do the gas ban, but it seems clear to me that … buying more time for it can be appreciated in many capitals.”
While Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a trip to Budapest to lobby Orbán on the oil measures, the lack of urgency in Brussels was evident in her subsequent travel, along with Council President Charles Michel, to Japan for an annual summit meeting. The haggling over the oil embargo, meanwhile, was left to ambassadors to sort out. Michel, on Friday, continued his Japan trip with a visit to Hiroshima, the ancestral home of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, where he warned about Russia’s threats of using nuclear weapons.
Hungary’s blockade of the oil sanctions has caused outrage in Kyiv, where officials are well-accustomed to Orbán’s traditionally cozy ties with Putin.
“At what point will the European Union and its leaders wake up to the fact that it simply is not going far or fast enough in targeting Putin’s cash cow fossil fuel industry,” Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a statement. “We must move beyond rhetoric and big words. It’s time for action. Every drop of oil Europe buys from Russia has a price in Ukrainian blood.”
Another Ukrainian official accused Budapest of using the oil sanctions as leverage in Hungary’s ongoing dispute with the Commission over rule of law violations, and a new “conditionality mechanism” to cut off budget funds for Hungary. Brussels last month triggered the mechanism for the first time.
“It’s so cynical,” the Ukrainian official said. “Hungary is making a fuss, calling the idea of embargo a crazy one and using it to solve their bigger issues with the European Commission.”
In Brussels, EU officials and diplomats also believe Orbán’s stalling tactics are implicitly aimed at getting the Commission to back off on the conditionality mechanism, even though the negotiations over the oil sanctions have focused on Hungary’s demands for compensation and on the question of a lengthier phase-in period.
Several officials and diplomats said that the lack of trust between Budapest and the Commission was also contributing to the delays, and that Orbán was holding out for the hardest possible guarantees that he would get the money he is seeking.
One senior official said Hungary is “going to make a link to access to funding and not hypothetical funding but funding coming into their bank accounts.”
In the meantime, some EU countries are hoping the delay might create additional time for Ukraine to pursue cease-fire options.
In an interview with TV channel RAI’s Porta a Porta talk show broadcast Thursday evening, Zelenskyy said French President Emmanuel Macron wanted Ukraine to surrender territory to give Putin a face-saving reason to end the war.
While EU leaders have already agreed to end their reliance on Russian gas and oil supplies, an end to the fighting in Ukraine would allow them to phase out Russian supplies at a more leisurely pace.
“The EU will reduce its dependency on Russian gas, I mean, the decision is taken, but one thing is to do it in a hurry and under pressure, another thing is to mitigate the effects because there’s more time,” the second EU diplomat said, hinting that there could soon be more space for diplomacy between Moscow, Washington and Kyiv.
But such hope seems unlikely to materialize given that Russia is currently occupying substantial Ukrainian territory, including Putin’s long-sought land bridge to Crimea, running through the port city of Mariupol, which Russian forces have mostly destroyed, through the Kherson region.
“We want the Russian army to leave our land — we aren’t on Russian soil,” Zelenskyy said in the Italian television interview. “We won’t help Putin save face by paying with our territory. That would be unjust.”
EU officials and diplomats acknowledged on Friday that they did not necessarily need to wait for Hungary’s agreement. Legally, all of the willing individual EU nations could seek to impose their own embargoes on Russian oil.
But diplomats said they remain intent on keeping the 27 together as a bloc, which requires unanimous approval of sanctions. And some officials said that trying to circumvent the debate with Orbán would merely create a risk of 27 separate debates among officials and lawmakers in the national capitals, with implications also for the EU’s single market.
Earlier in the week, some diplomats said the EU was considering a plan to push the sanctions package forward without the oil embargo, to avoid delaying measures on which there is already unanimity. But that option was ruled out, at least temporarily, at a meeting of ambassadors on Friday.
One official expressed confidence that by the middle of next week, Orbán would be ready to declare himself the victor in his negotiations and would sign off on the oil ban.
“Orbán doesn’t trust anyone and he wants rather tight guarantees for what the Commission has promised him,” the official said. “Orbán is a tough negotiator. He is very good at holding out but, eventually, he comes around.”
Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting.