December 7, 2022

EU leaders plead with Orban to back Russian oil ban

Arriving at the summit, Orban said no compromised had yet been reached


Arriving at the summit, Orban said no compromised had yet been reached – Copyright AFP Roslan RAHMAN

Alex PIGMAN

EU leaders were hoping Monday to persuade Prime Minister Viktor Orban to back a watered-down oil embargo against Russia after a month of haggling over a blocked sanctions package.

But the Hungarian leader, who has demanded an exemption from the ban and guarantees for his country’s energy supply, warned on arrival at the EU summit that no compromise had yet been reached.

Orban confirmed that the proposal on the table would see Russian oil arriving in the EU and in Hungary by pipeline, rather than by sea, exempted from the sanctions.

“For Hungary this is a good solution, it means that an atomic bomb won’t be thrown on the Hungarian economy,” he said. But he warned that this would not be enough to guarantee supply.

“What causes us a problem is that in the case that something happens to the pipeline carrying Russian oil, which is something that the Ukrainians and others have spoken about,” he said. 

“If Russian oil does not arrive by pipeline, then we would have the right to receive oil by sea, and have it arrive from elsewhere, that is the guarantee that we need.”

Orban said “there is no agreement at all”. He did not, however, threaten to veto the leaders’ planned summit statement, arguing that it was the European Commission’s job to fine-tune the sanctions package.

— ‘Exceptions’ being negotiated —

A sixth wave of EU measures against Moscow was put on the table weeks ago, but has been rejected by Orban and resisted by neighbouring countries also reliant on pipelined Russia oil.

French President Emmanuel Macron cautiously told reporters that a long-sought-after deal was “getting closer”, but others doubted that.

“I don’t think we’ll reach an agreement today,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at a political meeting Monday ahead of the summit.

“Of course, we’re going to have discussions, but everybody needs to be on board,” she said, adding that she did not expect a solution before a summit in late June. 

EU sanctions require the backing of all 27 member states and ambassadors fell short of finalising a deal just hours before the start of the summit. 

A senior EU diplomat described the failure as the “elephant in the room”, especially given that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was also slated to address the leaders by video link.

An EU official said the leaders would attempt to find a “political agreement” on the Russian oil ban, with exceptions for specific countries worked out “as soon as possible”.

– ‘Orban’s antics’ –

Landlocked Hungary imports 65 percent of its oil from Russia through the Druzhba pipeline and, along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have asked for an exception from the import ban.

Diplomats said a two-year delay to the embargo has been granted to the countries concerned, but that Budapest wants at least four years and nearly 800 million euros ($860 million) in EU funding to adapt its refineries.

“There is quite a lot of sympathy for Hungary’s oil supply issues, which are great, despite the antics by Orban,” an EU diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

The latest compromise solution would exclude the Druzhba pipeline from the embargo and only impose sanctions on oil shipped to the EU by tanker vessel, which counts for two-thirds of Russian oil imports.

“The European Council aims to reach a political agreement today on an embargo on Russian oil,” an EU official told reporters.

“Some temporary exceptions have been granted to ensure security of supply for certain member states.”

Hungary’s intransigence comes on the back of Orban’s recent resounding re-election to a fourth term and some experts are sceptical about the official claims of alarm over a Russian oil ban.  

Also complicating the stand-off is Hungary’s share of the EU’s 800-billion-euro recovery fund, which Brussels has yet to approve due to disagreements over Budapest’s respect for the rule of law and human rights.

A senior diplomat warned that some leaders had accused negotiators of going too far in their efforts to placate Orban, who before the war was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest EU ally.

The question of how we answer Russia is always “emotional” for certain member states and will be “one of the most sensitive issues” at the summit, the diplomat added.