Hungary will not drop its opposition to an EU embargo on Russian oil any time soon, and so EU leaders should not discuss the issue at next week’s summit in Brussels, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán told European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday (24 May) in a letter seen by EURACTIV.
In recent weeks Budapest has emerged as the bloc’s disrupter on punitive measures against Russia over its war in Ukraine, opposing an embargo on Russian oil proposed by the European Commission in early May.
“Looking at the gravity of the issues still open, it is very unlikely that a comprehensive solution could be found before the special meeting of the European Council on 30-31 May,” Orbán wrote in a letter to Michel, dated Monday.
“I am convinced that discussing the sanctions package at the level of leaders in the absence of a consensus would be counterproductive,” Orbán stated, adding it would highlight the EU’s internal divisions without offering a realistic chance of resolving them.
In his letter, Orbán also warned that the proposed sixth package of EU sanctions would cause “serious supply problems” in Hungary and undermine its energy security interests, delivering a “price shock” to the country’s households and economy.
Last week, the European Commission presented a €210 billion plan dubbed REPowerEU, aimed at ditching Russian fossil fuels by 2027.
While the plan has been greeted by most EU states, Orbán said in his letter, the proposal failed to address Hungary’s concerns because there “are no [funding] envelopes for the most concerned landlocked member states”.
Budapest, which relies on Russian oil from a single pipeline, has demanded an exemption from the embargo for at least four years and wants €800 million in EU funds to re-tool a refinery and boost the capacity of a pipeline to Croatia.
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó on Monday (23 May) appeared to up the price tag for ditching Russian oil by saying it would cost €15 to €18 billion to completely modernise Hungary’s energy infrastructure.
“It is legitimate for Hungarians to expect a proposal” to cushion that blow, Szijjártó said in comments broadcast on his Facebook page.
The EU has offered Hungary, along with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, lengthy exemptions from imposing the embargo and remains locked in talks with Budapest to resolve the stand-off.
“There is no indication on the modalities and the timing of the financing for the urgent investment needs related to replacing Russian oil,” the letter added.
However, Hungary remains committed to continuing the talks, Orbán said.
Orbán’s comments are set to frustrate Brussels and other Eastern European member states, which had been pushing hard to cut down on flows of European cash to fund Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
EU sanctions require unanimous agreement, but EURACTIV understands that some EU officials have been looking into legal options on how to bypass potential blockages.
One such option includes EU member states imposing sanctions bilaterally on Moscow.
However, EU officials say such an option would be a ‘last resort’, since it would damage the sense of unity the bloc wants to project to Moscow.
In his letter, Orbán seemed to make a reference to the direction of those that would consider such an option, stating that “it must remain our priority to maintain the unity of the European Union”.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]