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EU leaders divided over Russia oil embargo

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will address the bloc’s 27 leaders by video on Monday evening.

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Demonstrators demand an embargo on Russian oil during a protest in front of EU institutions prior to a meeting of EU leaders (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Demonstrators demand an embargo on Russian oil during a protest in front of EU institutions prior to a meeting of EU leaders (Olivier Matthys/AP)

Demonstrators demand an embargo on Russian oil during a protest in front of EU institutions prior to a meeting of EU leaders (Olivier Matthys/AP)

European Union leaders gathered on Monday in a new show of solidarity with Ukraine, but divisions over whether to target Russian oil in a new series of sanctions are exposing the limits of how far the bloc can go to help the war-torn country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who will address the bloc’s 27 leaders by video in the evening, has repeatedly demanded that the EU target Russia’s lucrative energy sector and deprive Moscow of billions of dollars each day in supply payments.

The EU gets about 40% of its natural gas and 25% of its oil from Russia, and Ukraine says those energy imports are funding Russia’s war on its neighbour.

But Hungary is leading a group of EU countries — along with Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria — that rely on Russian oil and cannot afford to take such steps. Hungary gets more than 60% of its oil from Russia and 85% of its natural gas.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to media prior the meeting of EU leaders (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to media prior the meeting of EU leaders (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks to media prior the meeting of EU leaders (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was adamant upon his arrival in Brussels that a deal was not in sight, while Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala suggested that delaying oil sanctions on Russia could be a solution.

“We’re ready to get rid of our dependence on Russia’s energy sources … but we’re not able to do it in a short term,” Mr Fiala said.

A meeting of ambassadors just before the summit spurred some hope that a compromise could be reached.

According to an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the negotiations, leaders will aim “to reach a political agreement today” for an embargo on Russian oil that would cover “more than two-third of oil imports from Russia, i.e. all seaborne oil from Russia”.

Mr Orban said he is ready to support the sixth round of sanctions if Hungary’s security of oil supplies is guaranteed. Hungary and Slovakia depend on Russian oil that comes through the Soviet-era Druzhba pipeline.

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The EU has already imposed five rounds of sanctions on Russia over its war in Ukraine. The bloc has targeted more than 1,000 people, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and top government officials, as well as pro-Kremlin oligarchs, banks, the coal sector and more.

A sixth package of sanctions against Russia was announced on May 4, but the hold-up over oil is embarrassing the bloc, which has been forced to scale down its ambitions.

When European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proposed the package, the initial aim was to phase out imports of crude oil within six months and refined products by the end of the year.

The problem with hitting sea-transported oil is that countries — like Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands — that are most reliant on that form would suffer a surge in oil prices, distorting competition because Hungary would still be purchasing cheaper Russian oil.

Mr Orban said “the pipeline solution is not bad. It’s a good approach. But we need the guarantee that in the case of an accident with the pipeline rushing through Ukraine, we have to have the right to get Russian oil from other sources.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz left open the possibility of an EU agreement being struck at the summit, calling talks on the matter “good and constructive” and saying the bloc is determined to remain united.

“Everything that I hear makes it sound as if a consensus could be reached and, sooner or later, it will be,” Mr Scholz told reporters.

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Volodymyr Zelensky will address EU leaders (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Volodymyr Zelensky will address EU leaders (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Volodymyr Zelensky will address EU leaders (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Ms Von der Leyen all but ruled out the prospect of a breakthrough at this week’s summit, saying as she arrived “my expectations are low that it will be solved in the next 48 hours”.

Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins urged his EU counterparts to get over their differences on oil, saying that member countries are “getting a little bogged down in all of the details and we’re forgetting the big picture”.

“It’s only money, and Ukrainians are paying with their lives,” he said. “Only when Russia is defeated can we in Europe feel safe.”

If leaders manage to adopt the sanctions, the package will also include an asset freeze and travel ban on individuals while Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, will be excluded from the major global system for financial transfers.

The EU has already banned several smaller Russian banks from Swift. Three big Russian state-owned broadcasters will also be prevented from distributing their content in the EU.

The two-day summit will also focus on continued EU financial support to Ukraine — probably the endorsement of a nine billion-euro (£7.6 billion) tranche of assistance — and on military help and war crimes investigations.

The issue of food security will be on the table on Tuesday, with the leaders set to encourage their governments to speed up work on “solidarity lanes” to help Ukraine export grain and other produce.

A small group of protesters gathered outside EU buildings on Monday before the summit, with some holding signs like “No to Russian oil and gas”.


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