Hungary digs heels in over EU embargo on Russian oil

A handout photo made available by the Hungarian PM's Press Office shows Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (L), Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Szijjarto (2-R) and the PM's state secretary in charge of European Union affairs Janos Boka (3-R) attending a working dinner at the Hungarian PM's office in Budapest, Hungary, 09 May 2022. [EPA-EFE/Vivien Benko Cher / Hungarian PM's Press Office]

The European Union’s executive is looking to support Hungary in beefing up the eastern European state’s oil pipelines, storage and refining capacity, a spokesman said on Tuesday (10 May), as Budapest dug its heels in over a Russian oil embargo.

Most other EU countries support banning Russian oil under a new sixth package of sanctions designed to punish Moscow for waging war on Ukraine. Unanimity is required for such a decision, however, with Hungary the most vocal critic.

Over dinner in Budapest on Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed investment in upgrading Hungarian oil infrastructure, a spokesman for the latter said on Tuesday.

“What is extremely important… is that we maintain unity of the European Union when it comes to sanctions against Russia, this is a collective effort,” the spokesman, Eric Mamer, told a news conference.

“We hope the European Union can adopt the sanctions as quickly as possible.”

No breakthrough on oil embargo after Von der Leyen’s surprise Budapest visit

Progress was made in efforts to convince Hungary to lift its veto on the sixth sanctions package that would see the EU quit Russian oil, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after her meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Monday evening.

Von der Leyen said more work was needed to reach agreement and that she would host a discussion about regional cooperation on oil infrastructure.

Mamer refused to say when that call would take place, adding that preparatory technical work was going on.

French President Emmanuel Macron also talked to Orbán, the Elyéee said on Tuesday, and France’s EU minister said separately an agreement was possible this week. Member states’ EU envoys are due to meet on the matter in Brussels on Wednesday.

Work needed

But comments from Budapest did not suggest an imminent breakthrough, with Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto saying the leaders’ dinner marked “a small step forward” but that a lot more work was needed.

“The passing of this sanctions package would ruin our energy security,” he said. “It would be impossible to purchase enough oil to keep Hungary and the Hungarian economy working.”

“As long as the European Commission is not offering solutions to these problems, Hungary, obviously, cannot support this sanctions package as… an atomic bomb dropped on the Hungarian economy.”

Orbán said last week Hungary needed “vast investment” to modernise the country’s energy system.

EU considers more cash for eastern states in bid for deal on Russia oil ban

The European Commission is considering offering landlocked eastern European Union states more money to upgrade oil infrastructure in a bid to convince them to agree to an embargo on Russian oil, an EU source said on Monday (9 May).

Some in EU hub Brussels made the link with the Commission, which criticises Orbán for undercutting the rule of law, blocking Hungary’s access to billions of euros intended to help economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commission has also recently launched an unprecedented sanction, the so-called conditionality mechanism, over Hungary’s persistently sluggish anti-corruption measures. It could cost Hungary more EU funds, an important driver of its development.

“What Viktor Orbán’s government is clearly looking for is extra money, a slow-walk on the conditionality mechanism, or both,” said think-tank Eurointelligence.

Others worried Orbán – who has cultivated close personal ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin – was seeking to ingratiate himself with Moscow and could drag the discussion out to the next summit of EU national leaders due on May 30.

“That would already be a win for Orbán,” said one EU diplomat, unhappy about the disagreement exposing divisions within the bloc and providing fuel to those criticising it for inefficiency.

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