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Will the European Union ever stop depending on Russian oil? Not if Viktor Orbán can prevent it.
Hungary’s newly re-elected prime minister has emerged as the main obstacle to tightening sanctions on the hugely profitable energy sector that funds Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
Pressure is building across the bloc for a sweeping oil ban. On Thursday, an overwhelming majority of European lawmakers called for an “immediate full embargo” on Russian oil, gas and coal. On board are European heads of state and government in Brussels, as well as the governments of France, Italy, Poland and the Baltic States to go further in sanctioning Russian energy.
Germany is reluctant to move too quickly on the energy front, even trying to delay the moment when a total ban on Russian coal imports comes into effect. But there is also growing acceptance in Berlin that at some point Putin will no longer have to be paid for oil.
With regard to Hungary, however, the obstacle remains.
“Oil finally looks feasible for Germany,” said an EU diplomat. “But now we have a Hungary problem.”
According to Orbán and his team, energy sanctions are so important that they should be discussed by EU leaders rather than their representatives in Brussels. Orban too allegedly made it clear he would block sanctions on oil and gas, warning that it would be a “red line” as cutting off Russian energy imports would “kill Hungary”.
In theory, EU sanctions must be unanimous, but the problem of smaller countries trying to block an embargo surfaced when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. Hungary and Slovakia were the possible obstacles and the other EU states were examining the legal possibility of bypassing the pro-Russian camp. This – ultimately unused – Plan B would have meant that all countries except Hungary and Slovakia would have imposed bilateral sanctions on Moscow. While this would have dealt a serious blow to EU unity, diplomats at the time insisted it would have been a viable way out of the impasse.
shades of red
Another EU diplomat said Hungary’s concerns are understood given the country’s dependence on Russian gas. But Russian oil is easier to replace with other suppliers. The question for the coming weeks will be: “What shade of red is Orbán’s red line?”
Another key question is how quickly other more skeptical European countries, led by Germany, will be willing to give up their dependence on Russian oil.
EU diplomats met on Thursday to discuss the bloc’s fifth sanctions package aimed at urging Russia to end the war in Ukraine.
those of the EU latest sanction proposal was intensified following an international outcry over alleged atrocities committed by Putin’s forces in places like Bucha. The package affects Russian energy imports into the EU for the first time. But it’s focused on cutting less valuable coal rather than targeting Russian oil, which would deal a bigger blow to Moscow’s war fund.
Also, the coal ban is more of an exit than an immediate, blanket embargo. Germany has pushed to extend the three-month grace period to four months, EU diplomats said. That deadline is more in line with Berlin’s plans to reduce its dependence on Russian coal by the fall.
As for the oil ban, the will to act is growing in Berlin and elsewhere, but the timetable remains unclear. So far, senior EU figures appear to believe it will be “weeks” before the bloc is ready to shut down Russian oil imports.
weeks, not days
On Thursday, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire called for an import stop for Russian oil “in a few weeks”. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi also urged further measures on Wednesday. “Would you rather be quiet or turn on the air conditioning? We have to ask ourselves this question.”
Poland and the Baltics fear the coal ban will make other countries think they’ve done enough in the energy sector. Behind closed doors, several EU ambassadors raised the need for an oil embargo this week, EU diplomats said.
As of last week, Germany and Austria had been firmly opposed to any oil or gas targets, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned of a recession and mass poverty for Europe if it cut off Russian energy supplies. But officials suggested that Berlin soften its opposition to stopping oil imports.
“We not only need alternative energy sources, but also energy savings, energy efficiency if we want to achieve this independence in a few weeks,” said EU Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni on Thursday at the Delphi Economic Forum. “If we had more time it would be less costly, but we know that peace comes at a price.”
Michael Kruse, the energy policy spokesman for the FDP, one of Scholz’s two coalition partners, referred to a similar period earlier this week.
“We have to get out of Russian oil as soon as possible,” said Kruse. “In order for this to succeed, new sales channels must be established in East Germany, because Russian oil is mainly consumed there. This can be done within a few weeks.”
The Federal Ministry of Economics did not immediately respond to a request for comment as to whether Kruse’s schedule was correct.
Germany used to have called that treaty changes mean it can reduce Russian oil imports from 35 percent to 25 percent of consumption “in the coming weeks and months.”
A paper prepared by the Economics Ministry for this week’s Economics Committee meeting in the Bundestag, received from the German news site Klimareporteroutlines that “should all Russian deliveries fail at short notice, the supply of crude oil could theoretically be secured for more than 200 days with the oil reserve alone – i.e. regardless of transport options and oil quality.”
However, the paper also warned that an immediate embargo could temporarily lead to “market distortions and supply bottlenecks”, at least in eastern and central Germany.
Paola Tamma, Leonie Kijewski and Giorgio Leali contributed to the reporting.
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