How Hungary torpedoed the EU's sanctions crackdown on Russia

5 May 2022

8:59 PM

5 May 2022

8:59 PM

‘Hungary’s stance on oil and gas sanctions on Russia remains unchanged,’ Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltán Kovacs said on Monday. ‘We do not support them.’ Cue panic in Brussels as European Union ministers discussed a potential embargo on Russian oil imports, plans for which were presented to the European Parliament on Wednesday morning.

Claims swirled that Hungary might be allowed to continue buying Russian oil for a year longer than other member states to stop it from vetoing the bloc’s new sanctions package, but Kovacs quickly torpedoed this idea too. Hungary does not ‘see any plans or guarantees on how a transition could be managed based on the current proposals, and how Hungary’s energy security would be guaranteed,’ he said, adding that the EU’s proposal is ‘against Hungarian interests.’

No one should be surprised by Hungary’s difficult stance on cutting out Russian energy. While Hungary isn’t the only country causing problems — Slovakia is also being offered a partial exemption from the oil ban and Germany was long sceptical of the proposal — Budapest’s opposition to banning Russian energy is vociferous. An adamantine rejection of oil and gas sanctions, described to me as a ‘red line’ by Hungarian government officials as soon as Russia’s invasion began, means even partial acquiescence to the EU’s ban would be a significant concession.

Reluctance to engage in the next round of sanctions has led to renewed accusations that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán is ‘Putin’s Puppet’ in Europe. After Hungary reiterated its opposition to the oil embargo, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council extraordinarily suggested that Hungary was warned in advance about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that Hungary ‘expected to be able to occupy some of our territory.’ The claim led to raised eyebrows even among the Ukrainian diplomatic community, but it’s in keeping with a deterioration in Hungarian-Ukrainian relations that bleeds over at times into outright hostility.

Hungary insists it is opposed to cutting out Russian energy because doing so is physically impossible. Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said ‘there are no alternative delivery routes which would make it possible for us to get rid of Russian oil and gas… This is not for fun, we haven’t chosen this situation.’

His claim that Hungary can’t be held responsible for its energy dependency should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, Orbán asked for increased Russian gas supplies as recently as February; and last September Hungary’s largest energy company signed a fifteen-year agreement to keep Russian gas pumping to Hungary through Serbia and Austria.

While Hungary is catastrophically dependent on supplies from Moscow, so are other countries in central Europe which now appear determined to wean themselves off Russian energy. The Czech Republic, for example, gets around 86 per cent of its gas supply from Russia (some estimates put the figure higher), leading the head of that country’s national heating association to suggest that turning off the taps on Russian gas would mean ‘returning to the Middle Ages.’

With similarly dependent states keen to cut down on Russian supplies, Orbán’s opposition to energy sanctions appears to be driven by principle rather than practicality. His pledge that Hungarians would not pay the price of war in Ukraine won him a landslide election victory in April, and he intends to hold true to that promise. This is a markedly different attitude to other countries in central Europe, where sacrifices both great and small for Ukraine are being positively encouraged. To take just one example: at the end of April, it emerged that a municipality near Prague is giving preference to Ukrainian children over Czechs for places in primary schools.

Such sacrifices are facilitated by a sense of affinity not just with Ukraine, but with wider concepts of Europe and the West in the struggle against Russia. In response to Russia’s recent move to cut off gas supplies to Poland, Czech leader Petr Fiala described ‘European solidarity’ as key to surviving the looming energy crisis. After meeting president Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in March, Fiala told Ukrainians that ‘Europe stands with you.’

If sacrifices for Ukraine have their basis in a sense of European solidarity, it’s no surprise that Hungary is the odd one out. Budapest has been at loggerheads with Brussels for years over its socially conservative policies and alleged democratic backsliding. With the EU choosing last week — surely the most inopportune moment conceivable — to trigger its rule-of-law mechanism for withholding budget funds from Hungary, the country’s sense of ideological kinship with the bloc is being further eroded.

Critics of Hungary argue that ‘in wartime, the test of belonging to the community of democracies is simple.’ This may be true, but Hungarians will ask how they can be expected to feel a sense of belonging to a European community which has long given the impression that it doesn’t want them.

Hungary is used to swimming against the tide of mainstream opinion, and as with all controversies over the country’s political and cultural isolationism, there’s a chicken-and-egg element to the dispute over Russian energy. Pro-EU voices suggest condemnation wouldn’t be needed if only Hungary would fall into line every now and then, but European condemnation and coercion have played a major role in driving Hungary out of the Western fold. After years of refusal, it’s a lack of affinity with the EU and the West, rather than a fondness for the Kremlin, that’s responsible for Hungary throwing a spanner into the works of energy sanctions.

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