France's Macron joins push for EU oil embargo on Russia

French president lobbies Hungarian leader Viktor Orban to support sixth package of sanctions

Emmanuel Macron will hope to get an EU oil embargo over the line in talks with Hungary's Viktor Orban. Bloomberg
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French President Emmanuel Macron threw his weight behind the push for a European oil ban on Russia on Tuesday, as vigorous opposition from Hungary threatens to scupper an embargo demanded by Ukraine.

Mr Macron’s intervention, in a call with Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, came after a surprise visit to Budapest by top European Union official Ursula von der Leyen failed to break the stalemate - with Hungary maintaining it cannot support the EU’s latest round of sanctions.

The proposed sixth sanctions package would ban imports of Russian oil via by the end of the year. But Hungary, which relies heavily on those shipments, has said a ban would amount to “an atomic bomb for Hungary’s economy”.

Although Hungary is not the only country wary of the economic fallout, Mr Orban is the most outspoken critic of an embargo and has long been on a collision course with Brussels over his adherence to EU values.

Mr Macron tried his luck with Mr Orban, seen as the EU’s most Russia-friendly leader, in a phone call between the two men on Tuesday dedicated to European energy security.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, an ally of Mr Macron, said France was willing to consider special treatment for certain countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria concerned about the impact of an oil ban.

He said such exemptions could either take the form of a grace period to impose the new rules, such as some countries have requested, or of guarantees that alternative energy supplies will be found for those nations.

But Hungary says it would need five years to shift its power grid away from Russian oil, longer than others such as Slovakia have asked for, and questioned whether this would be needed as the war in Ukraine might be over by then.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto reiterated after the Orban-von der Leyen meeting late on Monday that the sanctions package did not "provide a solution for Hungary's concerns", a government spokesman said.

Supporters of an embargo, including Poland and Lithuania, say it is needed to cut off funding for Russia’s assault on Ukraine and to stop the Kremlin using its energy pipelines to blackmail its European neighbours.

“We are in the process of looking for solutions,” said Mr Beaune, who predicted on French television that a deal could be done this week. France holds the rotating presidency of the European Council.

EU sanctions require unanimity among the bloc’s 27 members, meaning Hungary has an effective veto. It did not oppose a ban on Russian coal in the fifth round of sanctions but is unwilling to move on oil or gas.

Germany and Austria have also raised concerns about economic chaos at a time when oil prices are already high, but have both come around to supporting an embargo after reporting progress in diversifying their energy mix.

Britain and the US have separately moved to shut off Russian energy imports. But experts have raised concerns that such embargos might become more difficult to sustain if rising prices hit home among consumers next winter.

Europe is trying to head off concerns about the 2022/23 cold season by ensuring minimum levels of storage in gas tanks before then, but Germany says an oil embargo would still have an impact on consumers.

“How long can we keep up this level of enthusiastic unity? It will require a lot of effort,” said Pauline Neville-Jones, a former British minister and intelligence official, when asked by The National at a London defence conference.

“When we get into the autumn, and it starts getting cold, and everybody has a domestic crisis as well … the [UK] government’s got to work hard at keeping people, in a sense, inspired by the good cause.”

Updated: May 10, 2022, 11:18 AM