European Council: Last-minute efforts under way to secure Russian sanctions deal

A special meeting of the European Council on Monday and Tuesday (30-31 May) has been called to discuss support for Ukraine and the related issues of defence, energy and food security. But the latest round of sanctions against Russia is being held up by disagreements about oil imports. Council President Charles Michel is hoping that a compromise can be reached, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the opening session of the European Council by video link, he may sound impatient with EU leaders. Although he is essentially a supplicant, he shows no inclination to hide the urgency of his country’s need for greater economic and military support to turn the tide of war against Russia.

Indeed, he’s told his people, in his nightly video address, that it’s time to look at how many weeks the sixth package of EU sanctions on Russia is taking. (It’s been nearly a month since the Commission presented it to the Parliament but EU ambassadors have failed to agree to it).

“Of course, I am grateful to our friends who are promoting new sanctions”, he said. “But where did those who block the sixth package get so much power … in intra-European procedures?”

The main sticking point is a proposed ban on importing Russian oil. When she presented the package, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen allowed no wriggle room. “This will be a complete ban on all Russian oil, seaborne and pipeline, crude and refined”, she said.

Landlocked member states struggle to see how they could quickly stop relying on oil piped from Russia, with Hungary in particular flatly refusing to entertain the idea. At present, the Council’s draft conclusions are thought to only refer in general terms to phasing out Russian fossil fuels. That puts oil in the same category as gas, an issue on which agreement cannot be achieved.

The EU ambassadors will continue to tweak the wording at their meeting on Sunday and Council President Charles Michel hopes for a breakthrough, if not before the Council meets then once he’s got all the heads of government in the same room.

No one is pretending it will be easy, the Commission’s proposals envisage a six-month transition and outside the EU, the United Kingdom has given itself until the end of the year to stop importing 8% of its oil from Russia. What Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orbàn, might be persuaded to accept is an exemption for oil delivered by pipeline.

The sanctions would still hit the 90% of Russian oil delivered to the EU by ship but would effectively exempt Hungary and other landlocked member states. Orbàn may well hold out for further concessions of course but Ukraine has its own opportunity to apply pressure to Hungary.

The Druzhba oil pipeline that supplies Central Europe crosses Ukrainian territory. “Something could happen to it”, mused an adviser to the Ukrainian energy minister recently, describing it as a “wonderful lever”, enabling President Zelenskyy to treat Victor Orbàn much as he sees the Hungarian Prime Minister treating the rest of the EU.

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