EU diplomats are considering a radical option to circumvent Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's aversion to a Russian oil ban: putting the plan on hold.
Other elements of the EU's sixth package of Russia sanctions, according to one proposal circulating in Brussels, would be implemented with the support of all 27 EU member countries. However, EU diplomats told POLITICO that the complete ban on all imports of Russian crude and refined fuels could be put on hold for the time being while work on a compromise deal that Hungary can accept continues.
A delay of this magnitude would be a significant setback for the EU's efforts to counter Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine. It would be a setback for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who proposed a blanket ban on all Russian oil imports in a draft sixth sanctions package on May 4.
The fact that diplomats are considering such a drastic step demonstrates how difficult it is for the EU to intensify its economic offensive against Russia and how difficult it is to wean itself off Russian energy.
Cutting off the EU market for Russian fossil fuels is seen as a critical step in limiting a key source of revenue that helps Putin's war fund.
However, prohibiting crude will be painful for landlocked countries like Hungary and Slovakia, which rely heavily on Russian oil pipeline supplies. The Commission has attempted to reach an agreement with Orbán, but his government has stated that more time — and possibly more money — is required before it can agree.
"There is indeed an idea floating to split up the package as we're agreed on 90 percent of it, so moving forward with everything but the oil ban," one EU diplomat said. "It's frustrating that we can't move forward with the things that are agreed on. So why not do it like this, be pragmatic and then continue the energy discussion?"
Separating the oil ban from the rest of the sanctions package, according to the diplomat, would "send a bad signal" and would likely be opposed by other countries. Diplomats will meet on Friday, but it is unclear whether they will discuss the Russia sanctions package.
Another EU diplomat suggested that it would be preferable to approve the rest of the new sanctions package as quickly as possible before returning to the oil ban. It would also be preferable to agree on 90% of the proposed oil ban rather than none at all, according to the diplomat.
Separating the most contentious parts of the oil ban and moving forward with other parts of the plan that Hungary could support could be one option. Budapest has previously suggested that pipeline deliveries should be allowed to continue, with sanctions applied only to oil delivered by ship.
Any weakening of the oil package, on the other hand, would be damaging to the EU's credibility, especially after von der Leyen and other political leaders have stated unequivocally that hitting Putin's oil industry is critical. Sanctions against pro-Russian propaganda, lobbyists, and consultants, as well as Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, are included in the remaining sanctions package. However, the package was always intended to be a slap in the face to the Kremlin's energy industry. By fLEXI tEAM