Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels on Monday.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels on Monday.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron in Brussels on Monday.EMMANUEL DUNAND (AFP)

After more than three weeks of tug-of-war, twists and turns, political vetoes tinged with complicity with the Kremlin and technical negotiations of overwhelming complexity, in the end the bite of the European Union to the largest flow of financing from Russia arrived. It was not easy. Honoring those more than 20 days of talks with 27 parties, the pact took place at the stroke of midnight on Monday. “Agreement to prohibit the export of Russian oil to the EU. This immediately covers more than two-thirds of Russia’s oil imports, cutting off a huge source of funding for its war machine,” European Council President Charles Michel proclaimed on Twitter, after the meeting of the heads of state and Community Government, which will continue this Tuesday in Brussels.

This agonizing agreement has a double value for the EU leaders. On the one hand, it subtracts financial resources from Russia to pay for the war it has opened by invading Ukraine. On the other hand, it maintains the unity of the Twenty-seven after tense negotiations in which some of the countries with a position most hostile to Moscow did not understand the position of Hungary, the country that has most resisted taking this step. Both issues were of equal importance to most countries. “We want the toughest possible sanctions against Russia, and the latter, ‘possible’, is important”, they pointed out in a delegation, emphasizing that with this adjective they sought not to leave anyone behind, not even Budapest.

The measure, according to various sources, will first hit crude oil imports by ship, which account for two-thirds of the total that flows to the EU from Russia. Instead, it leaves for later the restrictions on hydrocarbons that travel through pipelines, a mechanism designed to relieve Hungary, but also other countries with a similar geographical and energy situation: the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Austria, states without a coast and with great dependence on Russian fossil fuels, which, moreover, arrive almost exclusively through oil and gas pipelines. The pact also excludes three more Russian banks from the SWIFT payment system, including the country’s leading bank, Sberbank, and bans three television channels.

This minimum agreement that the capitals have on the table at the moment is far from the “total ban” that the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, demanded 26 days ago, when proposing the sixth package of sanctions against the regime of Vladimir Putin, but saves for the time being the unity of the community bloc.

Before the beginning of the extraordinary council, most voices were betting on the agreement. “Everything I hear sounds like there could be a consensus, and sooner or later there will be,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in an appearance at the entrance. Community and diplomatic sources were confident that it could get to where it has finally come. “The agreement is practically closed”, also underlined a diplomatic source, aware of the talks that had taken place for weeks, which even included a meeting of the ambassadors of the Twenty-seven on Monday morning to try to reach the agreement before it began. the top. It was not possible and it had to be the leaders who unblocked the situation.

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dialectical dynamite

The reason for the traffic jam was an open secret that was confirmed as soon as the Hungarian Prime Minister arrived at the headquarters of the European Council. Viktor Orbán entered with dialectical dynamite, causing the foundations of community unity to shake: “There is no commitment at the moment,” he blurted out in an appearance at the entrance to the summit, reiterating the blockade of Budapest. With this position, he sought to ensure access to crude oil even in the event that Moscow – or Ukraine – unilaterally decrees a pipeline cutoff in retaliation for the sanctions. “Today we have to fight for guarantees,” Orbán continued. “If the oil stops and does not reach the country, we must allow ourselves to obtain it by other means, such as maritime transport.”

The negotiations of the leaders tried to leave this point well tied, to achieve the Hungarian yes. And the pressure increased during the meeting, because in the middle of the afternoon the Russian giant Gazprom announced the cut off of gas supplies to countries that refuse to pay in rubles: as announced by the Dutch company GasTerra, the Russian company closes as of this Tuesday the fuel handle to the Netherlands, which joins a list that includes Finland, Poland and Bulgaria.

For most of these countries, except Bulgaria, this decision by Moscow is hardly traumatic. In the case of Poland, for example, the gas supply contracts with Russia end in a few months and starting in the fall it will be able to substitute that fuel with the gas pipeline that comes from Norway. For their part, the Netherlands and Denmark have announced their intention to dispense with Russian gas this year.

Nor was the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, optimistic upon arrival: “My expectations that we will reach an agreement in the next 48 hours are low,” she confessed at her entrance to an appointment to which the President of the Spanish Government , Pedro Sánchez, arrived a little late due to the celebration in Madrid of the 40th anniversary of Spain’s entry into NATO. On his way to Brussels, also the headquarters of the Atlantic Alliance, Sánchez took Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the organization, on the plane, whom the Spanish president received over the weekend.

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Von der Leyen’s mood was different after the meeting. “I welcome the agreement on sanctions against Russian oil. This will cut off 90% of Russia’s crude oil imports by the end of this year,” the German politician proclaimed on Twitter.

With the compromise negotiated by the capitals, Hungary and the rest of the remiss countries to date are covered under the mantle of the temporary exemption to the Russian pipeline network Druzhba (friendship, in Russian). Russia’s black gold will also continue to arrive by pipeline to Germany and Poland, via the northern Druzhba branch, which crosses into the EU via Belarus. But these two partners have promised to completely disconnect by the end of 2022, according to sources close to the negotiation. In this way, the EU embargo will reach more than 90% of total Russian oil imports in December, which in 2021 totaled nearly 75,000 million euros, if derivative products are included. In other words, the ban reaches a figure of almost 70,000 million euros, causing a considerable hole in the coffers with which Putin finances the invasion of Ukraine.

The executive arm of the EU trusts that after the green light from the Council – the body that represents the 27 capitals of the EU – the fringes and details still pending can be polished. There are three concerns yet to be clarified: the terms of the temporary exemption for oil pipelines, the countries that will finally be able to avail themselves of it and the guarantees so that the fact of exempting an entry route does not end up cracking the prized single market of the EU to avoid For example, that a country that continues to receive cheap Russian oil resells it to other countries that have already declared an embargo.

Michel assured in an appearance after the agreement, already at dawn, that the ambassadors of the Twenty-seven plan to meet on Wednesday to “implement the political decision” and shape the legal texts of the sixth package of sanctions. Von der Leyen intervened to explain that despite the fact that the capitals have not been able to agree on precise times for countries like Hungary to disengage from Russian oil pipelines, it has been agreed to resume this discussion in the Council “as soon as possible”. He also pointed out that it will be necessary to undertake investments in the Adria pipeline (which runs from Croatia to Hungary) and in Hungarian refineries to get Budapest on the road to a Russian oil blackout.

The progress of the work attests to the draft conclusions that entered the summit: “The European Council agrees that the sixth package of sanctions against Russia will cover crude oil, as well as oil products, delivered from Russia to the Member States, with a temporary exception for crude oil delivered by pipeline”, reads the provisional text to which EL PAÍS has had access. The draft urges the Council “to finalize and adopt it without delay”, and calls for finishing off the fringes that are still up in the air.

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Diplomatic sources acknowledge that the debate was much more complicated than they initially thought, due to the different variables and unexpected ramifications of a power outage. The draft conclusions even contemplate the need to articulate solidarity mechanisms between European partners “in the event of a sudden interruption of supply”. This is a possibility that nobody rules out, either because Moscow suddenly decides to cut off the flow of oil by tube in retaliation against sanctions or because the oil pipeline that runs from Russia to Hungary through Ukraine suffers some setback. The draft text also includes an additional guarantee: “The Commission will regularly monitor and report to the Council on the implementation of these measures to ensure a level playing field in the EU single market and security of supply.”

On the second day of the meeting in Brussels, the Twenty-seven will discuss various issues related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine: from food security to the common defense policy, passing through energy, where Hungary plans to demand investment in infrastructure to help in its transition to a world without Russian oil. And everything indicates that the summit as a whole will serve as a litmus test to see how far the seams that have begun to appear in the joint strategy against Putin give way.

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