BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s divisive leader has once again got his own way with the European Union — this time in tough negotiations on Russian oil at a summit in Brussels.
And nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wasn’t shy about trumpeting his success in leveraging the bloc to win significant concessions, allowing his country to continue purchasing Russian crude even as war rages on in neighboring Ukraine.
The European Commission’s “proposal to ban the use of Russian oil in Hungary was defeated,” Orban said in a video statement on Facebook. “Families can sleep well tonight as the most outrageous idea has been averted.”
EU leaders concluded four weeks of negotiations on Monday to impose a partial embargo on Russian oil imports.
The package of sanctions, the sixth imposed by the EU since the start of the war in February, had been delayed by vigorous opposition from Orban — widely seen as the Kremlin’s closest EU ally — who threatened to derail the block’s efforts to punish Moscow for its war if they affected energy imports to Hungary.
While the agreement bans all Russian oil from being brought into the EU by sea, it allowed a temporary exemption for imports delivered by the Russian Druzhba pipeline to certain landlocked countries in Central Europe — something Orban touted as a victory for Hungarian interests over what he portrayed as potentially disastrous recommendations by the EU.
EU officials say the agreement will succeed in cutting off 90% of Russian oil imports by year’s end.
But it was the latest instance of Orban breaking ranks with his European partners, dividing the bloc’s united response to crises and ensuring that Russian President Vladimir Putin still has an economic foothold in the EU.
Hungary — which gets around 65% of its oil and 85% of its gas from Russia — was alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbors to refuse to supply it with military aid. It also banned the shipment of lethal weapons into Ukraine across its borders, a policy that drew the ire of many EU leaders and of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Orban has also blocked other EU decisions which require unanimity among member states, including attempts last year to issue a joint statement on China’s crackdown on a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and a joint call for a cease-fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — also in 2021.
In 2020, Hungary joined its ally Poland in vetoing the EU’s seven-year budget and a massive coronavirus recovery plan, stymying efforts to jumpstart European economies during the COVID-19 pandemic and plunging the 27-nation bloc into a political crisis.
Despite Hungary’s refusal to adopt the oil embargo as proposed, EU leaders hailed Monday’s agreement as a success. European Council President Charles Michel tweeted that it covers more than two-thirds of EU oil imports from Russia, “cutting a huge source of financing for its war machine.”
But Daniel Hegedus, a fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, said that Hungary was able to achieve those concessions through the “blackmailing strategy” which Orban used to pressure EU leaders.
“The Hungarian government, once again, got what it wanted, it was able to leverage the whole European Union,” Hegedus said. “(Orban) has only winning cards. He can practically deny the European Union an oil import ban.”
Along with Hungary, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia sought exemptions from the EU embargo, arguing their dependence on Russian oil made an immediate cutoff unrealistic — even though they have signaled their willingness to impose the toughest sanctions possible on Moscow.
Slovakia gets around 97% of its oil from Russia through the Druzhba pipeline, and has argued that the country’s key refiner, Slovnaft, needs to be reoutfitted to be able to process any oil type other than Russian crude, a process that could take several years.
Bulgaria, which is dependent on Russian oil and gas imports, has joined the three landlocked countries in asking for a temporary exemption from the EU oil embargo. The Balkan country with ports on the Black Sea was the first in the EU to stop gas imports, but its leaders insist Sofia cannot finish the process immediately without Russian oil.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said Tuesday that an exemption for Bulgaria would be extended until 2024, giving time for the country to adapt its refinery so that it could process oil from other sources.
But Orban’s opponents see the pipeline concession as another instance of the autocratic leader dividing the EU to serve his own purposes.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Hungarian member of the European Parliament Katalin Cseh said Orban had “navigated Hungary into a desperate dependency on Russian energy.”
“He then declares ‘victory’ over the EU, whose solidarity and protection is our only chance,” Cseh wrote.
At home, Orban has depicted the debate over the oil embargo as a fight to defend Hungarians’ pocketbooks, especially as it concerns household utility costs which have been subsidized by the government since 2013 as a flagship policy of Orban’s government.
But Hegedus, the analyst, said the pipeline exception did not fulfil some of Orban’s “prime strategic objectives” — forcing the EU to release billions in pandemic recovery funds to Hungary which have been withheld over corruption concerns, and scrapping ongoing proceedings to suspend support payments for breaches of the bloc’s rule-of-law standards.
“It was not the worst compromise which could potentially come out of this game,” Hegedus said. “How long this exemption will exist in the European Union is unclear. Of course, Orban can any time in the future veto or block any potential extension of the import ban on the pipeline, but I think it was very wisely played by the European Commission.”
Karel Janicek contributed to this report from Prague.
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