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In their fight against Russia’s war in Ukraine, EU leaders surrendered to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – capitulating to his demands and granting Budapest a near-total exemption from a new Russian oil embargo.
The collective submission to Orbán, who spent 26 days obstructing the proposed ban, allowed EU heads of state and government to claim victory late Monday night by adopting a sixth sanctions package to punish Moscow for invading its neighbour, and that spared Brussels the miserable embarrassment of not having decreed the much-heralded embargo.
At the same time, officials and diplomats have acknowledged that Orbán, the authoritarian-minded leader of the EU, has successfully put Hungary’s interests ahead of efforts to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“If you look at the whole deal of the month,” an EU diplomat said of Orbán’s obstructionist efforts, “yes, he had a lot of them – and held everyone hostage.”
Orbán himself published a brief jubilant statement on Facebook: “An agreement has been reached. Hungary is exempt from the oil embargo!
European Council President Charles Michel and other senior officials said the embargo would end 90% of Russian oil exports to EU countries by the end of the year, depriving the Kremlin of crucial revenues to finance the war.
The package includes other tough sanctions, including the separation of Sberbank, Russia’s largest consumer bank, from the international payment system SWIFT. The new sanctions also target Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and close ally of Putin, who granted a holy imprimatur to the war, as well as Russian military officials responsible for atrocities in Bucha and other cities. occupied by Russian forces.
The measures still need to be translated into legal language and formally approved by the Council of the EU – formalities which officials say would take place later this week.
“We want to stop the Russian war machine and stop the funding of Russian military capability,” Michel said early Tuesday morning at a press conference, where he was joined by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen, who traveled to Budapest to negotiate with Orbán and whose office led much of the negotiations, predicted last week that the heads of state and government would not be able to reach a agreement at this week’s summit. She said she was pleased that things turned out differently.
“I am very happy that the leaders were able to agree on the principle of the sixth sanctions package,” von der Leyen said at the press conference. “With this, the Council should now be able to finalize a ban on almost 90% of all Russian oil imports by the end of the year.”
She noted that the new sanctions would also ban the insurance and reinsurance of Russian ships by EU companies and suspend the broadcasting in the EU of three Russian-controlled media outlets that were used to broadcast Kremlin propaganda.
Michel, von der Leyen and some national leaders have insisted that the European Council reconsider “as soon as possible” Hungary’s most important exemption – the permission for Russian oil to continue to flow in the southern section of the Druzhba pipeline. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even declared that the Heads of State and Government would take up the issue again at their very next summit, towards the end of June.
But for all practical purposes, the exemption has no limit.
Closure of the northern line
However, while the exception technically applies to all pipelines, officials said Germany and Poland voluntarily agreed to halt all Russian oil purchases by the end of the year, cutting thus the supply of the northern section of the Druzhba pipeline.
Michel said the net result would be a relatively quick ban on around 70% of Russian oil exports to the EU, with around 90% cut by the end of the year. And while he hailed the deal as a triumph, he also acknowledged the daunting challenges EU countries had faced in reaching the deal.
“We don’t underestimate all the difficulties,” Michel said at the press conference. “We know that it took us a few weeks before we could make such a decision. But I think it’s a very strong signal that we sent out today because in the last few hours, in the last few days, there has been speculation about the risk of a lack of unity, of the unity of the European Union .
Michel continues: “I think that more than ever, it is important to show that we are capable of being strong, that we are capable of being firm, that we are capable of being tough in order to be able to defend our values. , to defend our interests”.
Officials said they would work to improve infrastructure that would allow Hungary to receive more oil via an alternative pipeline from Croatia, in which case the Budapest exception could be removed.
Asked about the fairness of an EU country not actually taking part in the ban, officials insisted that Hungary faced particular “security of supply” problems because it did not has no seaports – making it unable to take delivery of oil by tanker – and because the southern Druzhba pipe runs through Ukraine, making it vulnerable to sabotage or war damage.
To take this factor into account, EU leaders agreed in their conclusion that “in the event of a sudden interruption of supply, emergency measures will be put in place to ensure security of supply”. This means that Hungary could buy additional oil if its normal pipeline supply were cut off.
Even without pressure from Hungary, the embargo was designed to give countries long dependent on Russian oil supplies time to adjust. Crude petroleum products must be phased out within six months and refined products by the end of the year.
Hungary was not the only country to object, although it was the most forceful in its demands. Slovakia and Bulgaria also asked for concessions. The Czech Republic has obtained an 18-month exemption from the ban on the resale of petroleum products.
The tortured process to reach a political agreement on the embargo has highlighted the growing difficulty the EU faces in punishing Russia for the war. Von der Leyen first announced plans for the oil ban in a speech to the European Parliament on May 4 and predicted its passage within days. Instead, it took almost a month.
Officials and diplomats said ending EU purchases of Russian natural gas would be even more complicated. But Michel said EU heads of state and government were determined to deliver on their pledge, adopted at a summit in Versailles in March, to end their decades of dependence on Russian energy.
Rutte said leaders would approach the next round of sanctions differently so they don’t get stuck. “I and others pleaded tonight that when we work on the seventh package,” Rutte said. “We should have an initial debate on all the technical details before we start discussing what the actual sanctions would look like.”
Lili Bayer, Andrew Gray, Giorgio Leali and Zosia Wanat contributed reporting.