by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 31
May 2022
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13:14

Viktor Orbán defeats the EU — again

The bloc has caved into his demands by carving Hungary out of the oil embargo
by William Nattrass
Don Orbán. Credit: Getty

After almost a month of wrangling, the EU finally announced a long-awaited ban on Russian oil late last night. European Council President Charles Michel said the ban would immediately affect 75% of oil imports from Russia, “cutting a large source of financing for its war machine.” 

Viewed in the cold light of day, though, the embargo falls short. In truth, the deal, portrayed as a compromise between Hungary and the rest of the bloc over the former’s demand that its oil supplies be protected, has little in the way of “compromise” about it. To get Hungary onside, Brussels has caved to Viktor Orbán’s demands, effectively granting Hungary a total exemption for an indefinite length of time. 

During fraught negotiations yesterday, Orbán pinned the blame for an acutely embarrassing situation firmly on the European Commission. He claimed that although the Commission agreed not to announce energy sanctions without first getting consent from member states, Ursula von der Leyen’s tabling of a complete ban on Russian oil at the start of May came “out of the blue.” 

The proposal also caused consternation among other landlocked central European countries which cannot easily replace Russian oil with alternative seaborne supplies. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all rely on oil delivered by pipeline through Ukraine, and governments in Prague and Bratislava were also keen to secure more time to phase out Russian oil.  

Preoccupied with projecting unity, the EU chose to exempt all oil delivered by pipeline to Europe rather than carve out specific exemptions for this group of landlocked states. The solution allowed muted trumpeting from the bloc’s diplomatic chief Josep Borrell that “our unity is our strength,” but exempting all pipeline oil only makes the sanctions appear half-baked. 

In some ways, it’s hard to argue with Orbán’s assessment that the Commission is to blame for the embarrassing situation. Hungary’s firm opposition to energy sanctions has been plain for all to see since day one of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Commission’s decision to announce an oil ban without first sounding out a basic consensus appears to have been a pre-emptive strike intended to pressure Russia-dependent countries into compliance. 

The EU then continued to overestimate its leverage. The refrain has been common that although Orbán is a tough negotiator “he always comes around in the end,” and that “Hungary shouldn’t overplay its hand,” in negotiations. 

Such assessments were woefully misguided as Orbán knew that he stood to gain little from compromising. Hungary’s standing among traditional allies such as Poland is already shot over Ukraine, while the Commission has taken rule-of-law proceedings against Hungary too far to make a diplomatic olive branch a potential factor in negotiations. 

The decision to simply give in to Hungarian demands isn’t a good look for the EU, and it’s an unmitigated victory for Orbán, who posted a gloating message on Facebook from Brussels telling Hungarians that they can finally “sleep in peace” with energy security ensured. The strongman will also find his hero status enhanced among many rural Czechs and Slovaks who see the war in Ukraine as an internal Slavic dispute in which the West has no business getting involved. 

Brussels will heave a sigh of relief to see this torrid saga come to an end, but it has exposed how far the EU’s initial unity on Ukraine has splintered. Increasingly hobbled by member states’ different interpretations of the war, the bloc may now be hesitant about taking further steps to starve Putin of funds.

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Rod McLaughlin
Rod McLaughlin
26 days ago

The more I hear about Orbán’s Hungary, the more I like it

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
26 days ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

That’s very concerning.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago

Why?
He only ‘fights’ his own corner.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
26 days ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

I’m no fan of the EU and voted to leave it, but I can understand their frustration with Orban. He constantly has his hand out expecting EU funds to prop up Hungarys economy, yet he doesn’t seem willing to accept any of the obligations that come with being part of the bloc.
Ultimately his only job is to look after Hungarys interests so I don’t blame him for acting the way he does, however the rest of Europe must wonder why they bother funding his country if he goes against everything the EU does.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
26 days ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

I don’t think you want to live in Hungary. I know people there (my partner often works with Hungarian customers) – lawyers and other professional people, who say they’d rather work as waiters and waitresses in Austria than carry on as well-paid lawyers in HU. It seems oppressive.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
26 days ago

This whole sorry negotiation procedure was utterly moronic. The EU shot itself in the foot in 3 different ways:

  1. By having to go on haggling for so long, it made any talk of unity seem absolutely laughable, even if they did come to an “agreement” in the end. “Unity” is just a buzzword thrown around with no connection to reality, and the more the Brussels lot repeated it, the more absurd it became. The EU has shown that it is completely, woefully unfit for the fast-moving world of 21st century geopolitics.
  2. It allowed Orbán to set the tone and the agenda and the narrative here. Any tough talk on the rule of law which happens after this will have a total lack of credibility as the precedent set is to let Orbán have his way in a very public fashion.
  3. The effect of this embargo, or partial embargo, or damp squib, or whatever else you want to call it, is limited. Sure, Russia is going to see its oil revenue fall – but Turkey and India and other countries not quite so bothered about the conflict are going to rush right into the vacuum and buy up the “spare” oil (perhaps for a cheaper price). Russia will still be flush with fossil-fuels cash and will carry on regardless.

The EU did not think this through at all. It should have just dropped the whole issue as soon as it became apparent that there would be a scrap over it. What we saw was a decadent and unseemly wrangle which was all about internal tensions and faultlines and not really about the key issue, Ukraine.

Peter B
Peter B
26 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Katharine, why are you surprised ?
It’s the EU. It’s always about the internal stuff and never about the real external problems.

Last edited 26 days ago by Peter B
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
25 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I don’t know. Maybe – somewhere in my gnarled old soul, there is still a bit of hope left that the EU I used to so fervently believe in is actually the force for the good in the world (incl. that which is outside the EU) it parps on about being. I’m constantly setting myself up for disappointment.

0 0
0 0
25 days ago

All this mess and so many innocent death for what? Because no-one wants peace and just gets along with the brainwash narrative to destroy Russia instead. EU is already a US vassal and give me one single example when NATO (most like US) was defensive and just ignoring Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan etc.
Or let me put it differently, how the world will react if Russia will manage to install munition in South America, Mexico, Cuba etc.?
The answer is peace and fair international agreements between all countries and not spending more on munitions but the contrary.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
24 days ago
Reply to  0 0

‘No-one wants peace’. The Ukrainians do (a nation which is of course currently providing 100% of the ‘innocent deaths’) – as I would wager the vast majority of Europeans and North Americans, and even probably Russian citizens. The only people who most certainly do not are Putin and his clique, as they have shown for 20 rather bloody years in power.
You really must be naive in the extreme if you believe that somehow the United States and the Europeans are the main cause of this unprovoked invasion, and that they could do something to stop the killing by doing some action (that you do not specify) other than helping the Ukrainians to resist. I’m pleased to live in a democratic and liberal nation that was helped by American lend-lease and other assistance in our darkest hour – without which the UK would have very likely become a Nazi puppet state – as of course would the whole of Europe.
Blaming the US for everything wrong in the world is laughably misguided and absurd – for all its faults it has stood in practical opposition to totalitarians in Nazi German (which killed millions), the Soviet Union (tens of millions) and China (even more tens of millions dead).
That is the big picture that seems to have passed you by.
The EU is not a US vassal and many European states are ambivalent to it, to say the least, in particular Germany and France. The US has paid the bills for decades for the pacifist delusions and sneering condescension of some Europeans towards their country. Our autocratic adversaries, the Russians and Chinese, hold this weakness and pusillanimity in total contempt.

Pueblo Southwest
Pueblo Southwest
23 days ago

Orban in quite aware of the Western response (or lack thereof) to the Soviet invasion in 1956 and has no desire for a repeat performance. Difficult to hold that against him.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
26 days ago

What happened to Linda Hutchinson’s erudite comment?