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Von der Leyen’s team scrambles to find Russia oil ban compromise

Negotiations are intensifying among EU countries over plans for a new Russia sanctions package and diplomats are bracing themselves for talks to drag on late into Friday night — or even beyond.

The EU executive is trying to win over Hungary and Slovakia to support its proposal for a complete ban on Russian oil, in an effort to inflict maximum economic pressure on Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine.

European diplomats had hoped the bloc’s sixth sanctions package would be approved on Friday when EU ambassadors will gather for their latest rounds of formal talks.

But the wrangling over how long countries will get to wean themselves off Russian oil could even drag into the weekend, according to multiple EU diplomats.

“I’d guess that it’ll be quite a long session tomorrow,” one diplomat said Thursday. “I can’t exclude that it’ll go into the weekend.”

“We will have a long night on Friday,” another EU diplomat agreed.

As an expected ad-hoc meeting of EU ambassadors on Thursday didn’t happen, negotiations between the European Commission and EU countries are instead taking place over phone lines and in one-to-one discussions.

While reaching consensus is proving hard work, Brussels diplomats are still optimistic that the sanctions package will get over the line in the days ahead.

“You can never be 100 percent certain, but it’s more likely than not,” one of the diplomats said. Another said he expected a political deal on Friday night and formal adoption of the package on Saturday.

But whether that timeline is realistic will depend on two players in particular: Hungary and Slovakia.

The Commission sent out its sanctions proposals late Tuesday night. On Wednesday, it embarked on a first high-level political discussion with the 27 EU countries — and both Slovakia and Hungary swiftly rejected the plans, arguing that they needed more time to phase out Russian oil than foreseen.

The plans foresee a phaseout of crude oil within six months and refined fuels by the end of the year. Under the current draft, Hungary and Slovakia get one more year before the embargo kicks in to account for their dependency on Russian oil.

The two countries are pushing back against that timeframe, saying they need longer — and it looks like they could be successful. According to another EU diplomat, Hungary and Slovakia could get another year to prepare.

But other countries could also benefit from the flexibility, the EU diplomat said, with the Czech Republic and Bulgaria lining up for a potentially longer phaseout period.

That could be a hard pill to swallow for other countries, which argue that the proposed ban as it stands already begins too late.

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