French minister says deal could come this week as Macron and Orbán try to break deadlock
France has said a deal on a proposed EU ban on Russian oil could be struck this week, despite opposition from the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who has compared the plans to an atomic bomb.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, held a phone call with Orbán in an effort to break the deadlock over the latest round of EU sanctions, the sixth since the eve of the invasion. There were “contacts at all levels to ensure we have a global deal on this sixth package”, a spokesperson at the Élysée Palace said after the call. Clément Beaune, a Macron ally and France’s Europe minister, said he thought “we could strike a deal this week”.
Meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen said there had been progress after making a last-minute dash to Budapest to discuss the plans with Orbán on Monday night.
The European Commission president described the discussion as “helpful to clarify issues related to sanctions and energy security”. “We made progress, but further work is needed,” she added, promising to hold a video conference with other countries in the region to boost cooperation on oil infrastructure.
EU diplomats insist all 27 member states are united behind the idea of a ban on Russian oil, with sources close to the talks describing the delay as technical rather than political.
However, the EU had hoped to announce the oil embargo and a new set of sanctions on influential Russians before last weekend, following Von der Leyen’s presentation of the plans at the European parliament last Wednesday.
About a quarter of the EU’s oil comes from Russia, but some countries use far more. Slovakia and Hungary, landlocked countries that are nearly 100%-dependent on Russian oil, have been offered a delay in imposing the oil embargo until the end of 2024, to enable them to overhaul their refineries. The Czech Republic has been offered a delay until June 2024, while the full ban would come into force for the rest of the EU by the end of this year.
Orbán said last week that “in its present form” the proposal was “tantamount to dropping a nuclear bomb on the Hungarian economy”. The Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, repeated the phrase before Monday’s talks with Von der Leyen, according to Orbán’s international spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács.
Hungary says it needs five years and hundreds of billions of forints to convert its Százhalombatta refinery near Budapest, which can only take Russian oil. Hungarian officials say they could get oil from Croatia, but this would require their southern neighbour to boost its capacity.
A European Commission spokesperson said on Tuesday that Von der Leyen had been invited by Orbán to discuss “issues related to European energy security and supply” and had gone to Budapest “to listen and to search for solutions jointly”. The discussion did not go into timelines on phasing out Russian oil in Hungary, the spokesperson said, but focused on oil transportation infrastructure.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Orbán has also threatened to block attempts to sanction Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, who has described the attack on Ukraine as a “religious cleansing operation”.
Speaking on Hungarian radio last week, Orbán said the Orthodox community in Hungary had written to him protesting about the cleric’s inclusion on a draft list that would mean a travel ban and asset freezes in the EU. Orbán said he opposed imposing sanctions on church leaders “because that would affect the religious freedom of communities in Hungary, which is sacrosanct”.