Ursula von der Leyen faces a battle to save her proposed ban on Russian oil imports, after Hungary and Slovakia raised major objections.
The European Commission president put forward proposals to end crude oil imports from Russia within six months and processed fuels by December 31.
In response to concerns over the economic impact on Slovakia and Hungary, special arrangements were drafted to give the two countries an extra year to adjust to the ban.
But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government signaled major reservations and suggested it may not be able to support the sanctions package.
Slovakia’s deputy economy minister told POLITICO the country backed the EU’s sanctions, but will need at least until 2025 to prepare. He called on other EU countries to show solidarity with the region, arguing the proposals would not just put pressure on oil supplies for Slovakia, but also for Austria, the Czech Republic and Ukraine.
For more hawkish countries such as Poland and the Baltics, however, the proposed timeline is already painfully slow. An even longer phase-out of Russian oil would be hard for them to swallow, and the disagreement sets up tense talks between EU governments in the days ahead.
The key question for von der Leyen is whether Hungary and Slovakia are just playing hard to get in the hope of securing better terms. The proposal needs unanimous support from all 27 EU countries to move forward.
After a first discussion on the proposal by EU ambassadors on Wednesday, a wide range of EU diplomats and officials told POLITICO they expected Hungary and Slovakia would ultimately get on board, if they can win more concessions.
While Slovakia argued the end of 2025 would already be a major stretch for the country’s economy, diplomats stressed it’s a typical negotiating strategy to start with a high opening bid to end up somewhere in the middle. One EU diplomat described the reactions from Hungary and Slovakia as “posturing.”
Others were more sympathetic. “We’ve come to a point where sanctions hurt more economically,” said another diplomat. “It’s understandable that some countries are pushing back a bit.”
The proposed timing of the oil phase-out was not the only concern addressed by EU countries on Wednesday.
Greece, Cyprus and Malta have raised concerns about the Commission’s proposal to prohibit EU-flagged or EU-controlled ships from transporting Russian oil to third countries, diplomats said.
The three southern countries fear that without an international agreement, the measure will hurt the EU more than Russia, arguing there’s a real risk that the business prohibited for EU ships would simply be picked up by others, like China, Turkey or Panama.
While this will clearly still be a point of contention in the coming meetings, diplomats don’t expect it to derail the EU’s sixth sanctions package.
The same goes for the concerns of some of the Nordic countries and the Netherlands about the proposed banning of three more state-owned Russian broadcasters, in a move designed to crack down on Kremlin propaganda after the invasion of Ukraine. They have some concerns over the need to protect freedom of speech, diplomats said.
During their private discussions on Wednesday, ambassadors asked for more time to go through the texts, as they’d only received the proposal very late on Tuesday night.
The European Commission would like to have the new sanctions in place by Europe Day, next Monday, some of the diplomats said.
Despite the concerns above, several diplomats said they’re optimistic the package would be agreed upon by EU countries by the end of the week. “None of the problems raised is too big to find a solution”, one EU diplomat said. Another said that while there will be some proposals going back and forth, they’ll “get there in the end.”
Hanne Cokelaere contributed reporting.
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